Since 2003, soldiers departing and arriving at Fort Hood in Texas have encountered a woman named Elizabeth Laird waiting to give them a big hug.
Known simply as the "Hug Lady," Laird became involved with greeting soldiers after volunteering with the Salvation Army at Fort Hood. What initially started off as a simple handshake grew into something more after one soldier went in for a hug.
“I don’t know when I started hugging, but one soldier hugged me and there was another soldier there, so I had to hug him and it kind of just snowballed,” she told the Killeen Daily Herald in 2009. In the years that followed, Laird made it a part of her daily schedule to be there for every flight in and out of Fort Hood Airport to greet or say goodbye to military personnel. Over that time, it's estimated that she's given more than 500,000 hugs.
"I hugged all the soldiers," she said. "I promised them that. I told them as they left, I'd be here to hug them again when they came back."
Laird, 83, was admitted to the hospital earlier this month after her 10-year battle with breast cancer took a turn for the worst. Once word spread that the beloved Hug Lady had fallen ill, scores of soldiers from around the nation rallied to offer her support, encouragement, and yes — many, many hugs.
"When they enter the room, they give me a hug and then we talk about anything from their family to what it was like overseas or if they got a civilian job upon returning," Laird told "Today" from her hospital bed in Texas. "Sometimes the line is so long that we have to turn people away."
A GoFundMe campaign setup to assist Laird with expenses related to her care and future assisted living has since raised more than $93,000 — an amazing show of support above and beyond the initial $10,000 goal.
According to her son, she was released from the hospital on Nov. 20 and will soon start physical therapy to help her get back on her feet.
"All of her friends (this means all of you) have shown her so much love and given so many prayers that I believe she will get better with rehabilitation," Rick Dewees wrote. "She is in Copperas Cove Nursing and Rehabilitation and can have visitors. And again thank you all for your love of the Hug Lady."