Today’s piece is going to be a little different from our typically historical pieces. Just like World War II, the Korean War, and Desert Storm, one day Operation Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan), will become a part of the history books. Right now though, it’s living history. When the history books are written about this war much is going to be left out. Tactics, strategies, statistics will make the cut. The heartaches, the worry, the sorrows, and the joy though, won’t show up in those pages. This past week, my brother returned from a thirteen month deployment in southern Afghanistan. I was there to welcome him home along with other members of my family. It’s an event wrought with emotion, which probably ninety-five percent of the public has never experienced and never will. While my story had its moments of worry and sorrow it does end on a happy note. I’d like to share my experience of a soldier’s homecoming with you.
As the days draw closer to my brother’s return home, my anxiety grows. All anyone can think is, “Please let him remain safe.” Prayers are said overtime. Those last few weeks are the worst. He’s so close, yet so far from returning home. His return date is iffy at best. It changes, due to the nature of war, transportation and weather. Yes, bad weather has delayed many a soldier’s return home. My brother is stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which is where he’ll return home to. This means my family must fly down there to welcome him.
With just days remaining until his return, we finally purchase tickets. The latest news has him scheduled to arrive at 2:15 AM on Thursday. Unlike commercial flights, time means nothing. A soldier’s plane can land at 3 AM just as easily as it can at 3 PM.
After a flight down to Raleigh-Durham on Wednesday morning, we rent a car and drive the hour and a half to Fayetteville. It’s 3 PM by the time we arrive. We check into the hotel and then head over to my brother’s apartment, where his wife has decorated the place with streamers of red, white, and blue. Every thirty minutes or so, we are calling the “hotline number” to check on the status of his arrival time. By six that evening, it’s already been changed from 2:15 AM to 3:35 AM. After a late dinner out, we all decide to head back to the hotel for a couple hours of sleep. We check the hotline one more time and learn that his flight is now scheduled to arrive at 5:25 AM. We all plan to meet at 3:30 AM at my brother’s apartment and head over to Pope Air force base from there.
I can’t stop the tears. They come and go. I am happy, but the emotion of it all still makes me cry. I can’t help but think of the soldiers that aren’t on that plane—the ones that sacrificed it all for us. They make me cry too as I think about their widows and the children who will grow up without a father. My brother is a part of 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment in E Company. There are three from my brother’s company that didn’t make it home. There are many more from other units. All in all, the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment has suffered too many casualties this deployment.
We arrive at the hanger at 4 AM. Welcome home banners in hand, we traipse across a field from the parking area and enter the hanger to find about fifty or so people already there and more arriving every minute. Kids, still in their pajamas, run around or sleep in strollers. School has already started, and you can bet there are going to be a lot of absent students tomorrow. It seems like almost everyone has dressed up for this welcome. Even at 4 AM, hair and makeup have been done, sundresses donned, and fancy flip-flops complete the ensemble.
Excitement hums through the air. We claim a spot on the benches, spread out our banners and wait. Too excited to read the book I have brought with me, I scan the vast array of homemade banners. More tears come to my eyes as I see a three or four month old baby who has yet to meet his father. More and more people enter the hanger. Country music plays over speakers, and the Army band is getting ready to start playing some music. Toby Keith’s American Soldier comes on and the waterworks starts again. It’s a good thing I’ve brought a whole pack of tissues, because my brother hasn’t even arrived yet and I’ve already gone through four.
Around 4:30 AM a soldier announces over the loud speaker that the plane is now schedule to arrive at 5 AM—thirty minutes early! A cheer erupts throughout the hanger, and excitement grows. There is an area roped off outside where we can go to watch the plane touch down and the soldiers disembark. I head out there to wait, glad it’s August and warm out. The minutes tick by. I look at my watch every sixty seconds, swearing at least ten minutes should have gone by. Eventually, the plane comes into sight. As its lights grow nearer and nearer I become a fountain again. Others around me cry too. As the plane lands, an older lady thanks the Lord for her son’s safe return home and I can’t help but mimic the thought. I know God’s been working overtime for my brother—for all the soldiers.
After another twenty-five minutes of waiting for the soldiers to debark and get into formation, they finally start their march in from the airfield strip to the hanger. We rush back to our spots and cheer with everyone else as the soldiers enter. Speeches are given. The Chaplain says a quick prayer. The national anthem is played, then the Army theme song. Then, finally, the soldiers are released for a scant fifteen minutes to greet their families before they must return to formation.
Hugs and tears and smiles are shared as we welcome my brother home. He’s safe. He’s finally safe. Pictures are taken, questions asked, and more hugs go around. Then, all too soon, our fifteen minutes are up. My brother leaves. He must turn in weapons and be debriefed. By this time it is 6 AM and the sun is starting to come up. We head toward the barracks to wait for my brother. We have at least two to three hours ahead of us. All I want to do is go in and grab him and tell everyone he’s going home now and he’ll see you on Monday. Eventually, around 11 AM, he’s finally free to go. Finally, he’s ours until Monday morning. He’s finally home, safe and sound.
“It isn’t everyday we are blessed to witness the homecoming of Heroes. Thank you.”
~ Wives of the FRG for E Company