Santa (a.k.a. Fulton County Judge Jackson Bedford) escorts a member of the U.S. Armed Forces through Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.
ATLANTA -- For American troops, the war in Afghanistan is winding down and there is no better barometer than Christmas Day at the USO at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Normally, the USO is a centerpiece of frantic activity as military personnel deploy for the war zones. But this Christmas Day provided a shocking contrast.
Over the last nine years on Christmas Day, more than 400 troops crowded a festive USO lounge before most of them lined the balcony outside the USO, next crossing the Hartsfield-Jackson Atrium with children and families in tow, hearing resounding cheers and shouts of thanks.
It's happened every year since 2003. But now, a dramatic change: no troops are marching across the Atrium this Christmas and none are deploying to Afghanistan.
In the Terminal, an empty military check-in counter, an empty balcony over the Atrium and a near empty USO -- sure signs the war is winding down.
But it has not deterred a corps of volunteers from laying out a full course Christmas banquet for any military personnel stopping by.
"We have the chefs here. We have gifts for the troops and for military children we have gifts. It's a wonderful atmosphere. We are here for the military and always will be," said Mary Lou Austin, President of the USO at Harstfield-Jackson.
Someone else who will always be there is Santa.
He's Judge Jackson Bedford of the Fulton County Superior Court.
"I was deployed over a Thanksgiving and a Christmas. I was flying from a Carrier off the coast of North Vietnam and so I know how it feels to be away from home." Bedford said.
Its a feeling shared by Army Private Peter Ryan as he transits to another base, facing deployment to Afghanistan.
"You think about family back home celebrating Christmas and they are worried about you, and just as much as you are worried about them and what they are doing," Ryan said.
"I am thinking about my mom more than anything. My mom wants me home, so its hard not being home with her, " Ryan added.
Troop deployments are expected to pick up in January as the steady rotation of military personnel will continue in and out of Afghanistan through 2014.