Five years ago, I came home from war.
It was the end of the longest unnatural separation from my family: 11 months and 18 days. I counted myself lucky; when we deployed to Iraq, the Rumor of the Day had it that we were in for an 18-month tour.
Fate and the whim of military brass decreed otherwise and by the middle of December, I was flying back across the ocean to Georgia. Holding my wife and daughter in my arms on that Fort Stewart parade field was the best early Christmas gift I could have asked for.
This is what I wrote in my journal that day.
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December 18, 2005: We are grimy, stubble-faced, eyes bloodshot, heads clogged with airplane oxygen, yet we are as happy as we’ve not been since Christmas decades ago when the trees of our childhood were glittered and half-hidden behind towers of gifts. We are going home. In our minds, our wives are decked in tinsel and bows.
In the brain fog at the end of this tortuous flight, some of us think of our wives, others make their plans with food and booze—how they will abuse both to gluttonous degrees. Two sergeants sitting on the plane in front of me discuss their strategies.
“First thing I’m gonna do when we land is kiss my wife, then I’m gonna get me some McDonalds. And real Diet Coke—none of that imitation, hajji-shit, ‘Coke Light’ they had in the chow halls.”
“No, I wanna be clear-headed when she and I....you know....”
“Me, I think I’ll toss back a couple of Bacardis and make sure the wife does the same. Enhances the experience, you know.”
We land at Hunter Army Airfield. We stand, pushing and nudging and shuffling toward the open plane door. I stop at the top of the metal staircase and take a photo. Hello, America!
The soldiers walk single-file across the tarmac to a table where they turn in their weapons before walking inside a building. They’re greeted by two happy Georgia good ole boys holding huge American flags and shaking every hand that passes by. They’re the same patriots who were there eleven months ago to see us off. “Welcome back, soldier!”
“Good to be home, sir. Thanks.”
We go inside, stand in more lines to hand in our deployment checklists and sign a prepared counseling statement saying we will not drive a car for the next 24 hours, punishable under UCMJ law. The Army has learned its lesson well: no matter what they're told, soldiers will drink, so get it in writing that you warned them not to drive. Even if our lips never touch alcohol, we're not to get behind the wheel. We've made it through the year without getting shot by snipers or blown to bits by bombs. Better safe than sorry at this point.
We board another set of buses and start rolling through Hunter, skirting the business district of Savannah. We have a police escort blazing a path for us with lights and sirens. They block the intersections and allow us to roar past, heading down the highway toward Fort Stewart.
We’re quiet for most of the ride, all of us wondering if our loved ones have gotten the word to be at the parade field; and, if they have, how quickly we’ll be able to pick them out of a crowd.
Someone in the back of the bus sprays his neck with cologne and the smell rolls forward. We cough, then start laughing. “Dude’s getting ready for the ladies.” Then a female spritzes herself with gardenia perfume and we laugh even more.
We’re through the gate of Fort Stewart and we whoop as we pass the gate guard saluting us. Tears form in the corners of our eyes as we drive past the grandstands where there’s a sizeable crowd holding hand-painted signs and balloons and yelling and cheering and waving arms and jumping up and down. I cannot see Jean, but I can feel her there.
The buses park on the other side of the field behind a windbreak of pine trees. We form up, a twenty-man front, and begin marching across the field, shoulder to shoulder. As we break through the pine trees, the crowd roars. You'd think we were the Green Bay Packers entering the stadium. Our hearts pound, our eyes blur. It’s cold—around 45 degrees—but we don’t feel a thing. We've left those extra 50 degrees behind us in Iraq for good.
We stop thirty feet from the grandstand, standing at strict attention as the post’s deputy commander says a few short sentences. We sing the 3rd Infantry Division song—I’m just a dog-face soldier with a rifle on my shoulder/I eat raw meat for breakfast every day—then the Army song—First to fight for the right to defend the nation’s might/and the Army goes rolling along. The commander turns to the formation and yells, “Dismissed!”
We roar and both sides—families and soldiers—rush at each other like two armies engaging in combat, hand-to-hand, lip-to-lip, kicking and screaming.
I see my boss, Lieutenant Colonel Kent, standing in front of me. I walk up to him, salute and, without a trace of irony, report, “Mission accomplished, sir.”
He returns the salute, smiles, and says, “Well done. Now go get your wife—she’s right over there.” He points to my left. I turn.
Jean and Kylie are running toward me. Both my wife and daughter are making a sound like air escaping a balloon. When I see their faces, it's like that feeling you get when you pull up to your house after a long, exhausting road trip. I release a loud, completely undignified (but happy) groan.
There is a large woman standing between us, waiting to hug her son. As I pass, I lightly shove her out of the way. I could care less if I’m rude or not because she is the last barrier between me and the other half of my heart.
Then, we are in each other’s arms and, in the space of one breath-crushing instant, the entire year is squeezed out of me. I was never in Iraq. I was never at war. I have always been right here where I belong.