U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Joshua Brubaker got a big surprise when he landed at Meadows Field Airport on Sunday: hundreds of people welcoming him home and thanking him for his military service.
Brubaker, 25, is home in Bakersfield for a month-long holiday break from his recovery at Walter Reed military hospital in Maryland where he's undergoing physical therapy. He lost both legs following a roadside bomb explosion last June while serving combat duty in Afghanistan.
Two hours before Brubaker arrived, hundreds of people already had crowded into the airport's main lobby and many more lined the entrance outside. More kept arriving, filling the lobby to the point that befuddled passengers on other flights had to snake through the crowd to their gates or the exit. Brubaker's flight was delayed, but after a long wait, cheers could be heard from the other side of the security checkpoint as people waiting for their own flights stood and applauded him.
"I wasn't expecting all of Bakersfield to be here," Brubaker told reporters once he'd made it outside the terminal after getting mobbed by well-wishers. "It's breathtaking. I'm at a loss for words."
Brubaker said he was completely surprised by the crowd and only learned of it when another passenger told him as he deboarded that there were about 1,000 people waiting to welcome him.
"This is overwhelming," said Jake Brubaker, one of Joshua's three brothers. "It's a really good thing to see the community show up and show support. It's awesome timing (for Brubaker's visit home). It's the best Christmas present ever for us."
Several people said Sunday's welcome was the largest by far of those they'd seen at Meadows Field Airport for a returning serviceman. Many had heard about it through announcements in the newspaper and on TV.
Ben Patten, founder the Armed Forces Support Riders, organized a Facebook campaign to gather as many people as possible at the airport for Brubaker's arrival.
The group also gathered almost 200 riders, Patten said. Armed Forces Support Riders escort service members partway out of Bakersfield when they leave for training, and they did this for Brubaker as well, in 2010, Patten said.
Patten, an Army veteran and the father of two men who've served in the military, said all service members are giving their best.
"It's not just the wounded ones. These kids are making a sacrifice, no matter where they end up," including by being separated from their families during the holidays. More than 300 people responded to the Facebook campaign, Patten said.
"These people are tremendous ... this whole community" for their support, he said.
Many people at Meadows Field said they didn't know Brubaker personally but felt it important to welcome him home nonetheless.
Amalia Gonzalez brought her daughter and a few friends, members of Brownie Troop 310, which Gonzalez leads.
"We're really trying to show our troop about the freedoms that they have here and what the servicemen do for us," she said. "We're trying to teach them not to take their freedoms for granted."
"What he's done for us is huge compared to what little we can do for him" by welcoming Brubaker home, Gonzalez said.
Talking with 8-year-old girls about the reasons behind going to war is difficult, Gonzalez said, but the idea gets across.
"He's really special because he's been fighting for our country," said Gonzalez's daughter, Brooke, 8. "Girls sometimes can't go to school in other countries, and we can here because we're a free country."
Nancy and Nathan Carver, their son Ruben and two neighbor kids waited patiently on horseback along the airport entrance road for Brubaker to pass by. Nathan said they know Brubaker from their time riding horseback in cowboy mounted shooting competitions. They brought their horses to remind Brubaker of his cowboy roots, Nathan said, smiling.
"(We're here) to show our support and honor Josh and the sacrifices he's made for our country," Nancy said. "He's paid a really high price, and we just wanted to welcome him home today."
After getting into a black limo outside, Brubaker sat in the back seat and patiently answered questions from reporters. He'll return to Walter Reed in a month for a few more surgeries and to be fitted with prosthetic legs. But his first plans were to play with his dog and pet his horse, a quarter horse named Peppy.
"I knew that the county and city cared for their vets, but this is just overwhelming," Brubaker said. "It's a very, very good feeling. I'm glad to be back home."