Military bids farewell to the ‘Flag Mama’

Marines write condolence messages on a photograph of Laura Froehlich at Riverside National Cemetery. Her warm smiles and hugs were welcomed by troops returning from battle and those heading to the war zone.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

RIVERSIDE — For more than a decade, Laura Froehlich, an irrepressible civic dynamo known as the “Flag Mama,” made it her duty to greet military personnel departing for Iraq and Afghanistan or returning from those war zones.

By her own estimate, she was there for several thousand flights at nearby March Air Reserve Base, standing on the tarmac dispensing hugs, handshakes and words of affection and appreciation. She organized a reception area called Hangar 385 stocked with snacks, books, a pool table and large-screen televisions.

Her goal was simple: Never again would U.S. troops be subjected to the public indifference shown to veterans of the Vietnam War like her father, a career soldier.

On Friday, it was an opportunity for the troops to repay her devotion.

Several hundred Marines, airmen, sailors and soldiers were among 2,000-plus attendees at a memorial service for Froehlich at the Riverside National Cemetery. She died Aug. 1 at age 63 after a brief hospitalization.

“Simply put, all the Marines loved Laura,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, told the gathering at the cemetery’s amphitheater.

“Laura was the last smiling face that many saw as they boarded a plane headed for the unknown,” Waldhauser said.

During the mobilization preceding the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Froehlich parked her mobile home at the base so she would not miss any flights, sometimes two dozen in a 24-hour period.

Although there are other volunteers assisting in the Hangar 385 effort, only Froehlich was allowed by the Air Force to be on the tarmac. Departing flights were the most difficult, she often said.

“The hardest part is saying good-bye,” Froehlich told The Times in 2009. “You want them all to return, but you know that sometimes they don’t.”

Returning flights were more joyful, particularly when it was known that the group returning from Iraq or Afghanistan had not suffered any combat casualties.

“I’m that comfortable person when they get to the bottom of the stairs,” Froehlich told an interviewer for a documentary several years ago that was shown at the memorial.

Marine Sgt. Faustino Cortez remembered Froehlich from his return from Afghanistan in 2011. “I walked down the stairs and she ran up to me and gave me a hug,” Cortez said after the memorial. “I knew I was finally home.”

Marine Sgt. Carlos Salinas had a similar experience when he returned from Iraq in 2008. He knew his family from Texas would not be at Camp Pendleton when his unit arrived after the bus ride from the March base.

“But there was Laura when the plane landed,” Salinas said. “It felt great to have someone that you knew cared about you, who loved you.”

Her husband and other family members and a wide circle of friends knew that, day or night, weekdays or holidays, a flight at March Air Reserve Base was Froehlich’s top priority, even if, for security reasons, she had only a few minutes’ notice of an arrival or departure. Any time Froehlich accepted a social invitation, she provided a caveat “only if there isn’t a flight.”

An Air Force veteran, Froehlich was involved in myriad civic committees in Moreno Valley as an organizer, a recruiter of volunteers, a member of the Chamber of Commerce. From her years organizing the Fourth of July parade, she earned the nickname “Flag Mama,” which she adored.

Many of the civilians and retired military at the memorial dressed in Froehlich’s favorite colors; red, white and blue. And, at the family’s request, many brought donations for the Hangar 385 effort — particularly jars of peanut butter and jelly for the sandwiches that are a trademark.

One of Froehlich’s last thoughts was of the troops. She had recently returned from a family vacation and expressed satisfaction that she had missed only one flight.