I’ve traveled a fair amount, but never before was there a live band playing at my homecoming. It took four days to return from Iraq. We waited twelve hours in a cold, damp hoop house for a plane out of COB Speicher. A severe thunderstorm, followed by dense fog thwarted our departure. I had no idea that dense fog could form over a desert. Julie and I were caught in a downpour and found ourselves jumping to avoid lightening at one point. I thought, good grief, I made it this far, this long, and now I am going to get hit by lightening.
After our first flight was canceled, a dispatcher notified us that an unscheduled flight would be landing in a few hours. We were welcome to take it to Kuwait, but we needed to be okay with flying with HR. HR? My face probably went blank as I was growing weary of military abbreviations. Someone whispered “human remains” by way of explanation. We were tired, eager to return home. If we missed another flight, we would miss our flight out of Kuwait. We agreed.
After breakfast, the sun came out and we saw muddy Iraq for one last time on our way back to the airfield. Water pooled and the thick syrupy mud stuck to our boots with every step. We climbed into the back of gray Air Force C-something and strapped ourselves into the benches in the open hull. An unmarked white truck backed up to the plane and two metal coffins were unloaded and strapped in next to our pallet of duffles. One carrying a U.S. service member bore the American flag. The other was plain.
It was a rough flight. There was turbulence, and they tend to fly high as long as possible and then make sudden, steep landings to minimize the chances of attack. We landed at one airfield, disembarked, and stood in formation while the caskets were unloaded. We then took a short, even more turbulent flight to the military base in Kuwait. Julie’s complexion turned pallid as she struggled with motion sickness during our combat ascents and landings.
In Kuwait we met up with Red Cross co-workers from the Balad and Baghdad stations. It was a warm reunion with hugs and pictures. We had our first non-DFAC meal in four and a half months at McDonald’s. McDonald’s never tasted so good. At 0100 hours we rose to catch the end of midnight chow before flagging down a four-wheeler to take our bags to the customs staging area. We waited there for four hours until the 0500 formation for a briefing. A Major standing next to me in formation kept asking me why we were processing so early when our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave Kuwait until 1700 hours. I told him I had only been around the military for five months and suggested that he would probably know better. He laughed, saying he’d never understand. He was a civil engineer in the reserves.
Navy customs personnel asked us to dump our three carefully packed duffles out on the counter so they could look through everything. I embarrassed myself by thrusting a Subway cookie at the inspector when I approached his station. We had been told during the briefing that if we had any prohibited items like fruit, tobacco, or any food not in its original packing, pornography, or explosives, we could just hand it to the inspector and no harm done. So I thrust the only prohibited item I had at him as I approached the counter, a cookie. “What’s this?” he asked. Maybe he thought I was trying to bribe him. When I explained, he told me I could keep my cookie.
About three hundred servicemen and women and various civilians waited in lock-down status within a fenced in area containing some benches and two tents. The air conditioning in the two tents was blasting at some temperature that felt like below zero to me. Outside, it was over 90 degrees and the sun was direct. I was getting sunburned, so I tried to take cover inside one of the tents where rows of chairs had been set up in front of large screen televisions that projected movie after movie. Exhausted, so I flattened empty cardboard water bottle boxes and tried to nap on them. The concrete was like ice and the cardboard provided a buffer. Nicole caught a photo of me trying to sleep. I resemble a homeless person, although I was in the care of the U.S. Navy.
Eventually we boarded buses and were taken after dark to our plane, which landed in Leipzig, McGregor Air Force Base in New Jersey, and then finally Ft. Benning, GA. There is where an Army band played as we debarked from the plane. As a chaplain and another officer greeted us, the reality that we were home, back in the United States, sunk in. I wanted to cry. I had made it. The dog tags that hung around my neck had not been needed. Now I wanted to see my family.
With amazing efficiency, the cadre at Ft Benning handled our equipment turn-in, and the following morning they gave us plane tickets home. Of course, there was a long shuttle ride to Atlanta, more delays due to bad in weather in Chicago, but eventually, at 11:30 pm (My life was no longer counted in military time) my daughter Kristina met me in tears at the Rochester, Minnesota airport. There was no sweeter moment.
I had seen many public service announcements on the military television stations about adjusting to civilian life. And it is pretty much like they said it would be, but it is still hard to prepare for feelings like this. There is so much relief to being home especially to see my daughter, mother, siblings, in-laws, and my seven wiggling, giggling nieces and nephews, who all gathered a few days after I returned. I was so relieved that everyone was okay, that unlike the 1,100 emergencies messages I had passed in Iraq, none of my family or friends had died or been diagnosed with stage four cancer or incapacitating depression. It’s selfish, I know, but I was deeply grateful. My dogs met me, wagging their tails to the point I thought they’d fly off. They slept next to me that first night. I can’t begin to describe the soft, perfect feeling of sleeping in my own bed again.
There are also adjustments. I admired my daughter for all of the things she handled while I was gone. There are little things that can wait and she let wait. I remember overhearing the conversations of servicemen trying to tell their spouses how to add oil to the car or how to unclog a drain. I wondered what sort of burden they felt trying to run all of the details of their home from Iraq. My daughter handled important situations (the toilet needed to be replaced in my absence and this is something that can not wait in a one bathroom house), and she left the little things. So when I came home I saw that the front lid on our mailbox had fallen off and that neither the washer, nor the dryer were working properly. She made do. But I inherited an immediate to-do list as I looked around our place.
There are also bigger issues that are best left until everyone is together. Kris bravely decided not to tell me that my favorite dog (You aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I do) might have a kidney disease, which may shorten his life span. I am glad she chose not to tell me about his condition while I was in Iraq. Hearing the news at home, I could see him, hug him, and go talk directly with the vet myself. This news would have upset me more while I was in Iraq. But none-the-less, coming home means dealing with everything from the missing door on the mailbox to the ailing companion.
There is also so much hometown news to absorb. You come home expecting everything to be the same, and mostly it is, but restaurants and videos stores have closed. Apartment buildings have been demolished. Family and friends talk about events that happened in the last five months that you don’t know about. And then it started snowing. It has snowed, sleeted, and rained a lot since I came home. These are not the sunny, warm, dry skies of Iraq.
I know from emailing with colleagues like Julie and Nicole, we are all adjusting to a more chaotic world than our days of rather rigid routine. There we got up and did basically the same thing – deliver emergency messages from families to their serviceman or woman – every day. We turned our laundry into someone else to do. Someone cooked for us and maintained the vehicle we drove. We were focused on one mission. Here it seems like there are about a hundred things happening at once. I miss my uniform (I never thought I’d say that!). It was simple, no decisions everyday. Nicole is still wearing her boots. They are comfortable and familiar to us for now.
But don’t worry. I’m glad I am home and I don’t think I’ll leave again soon.
I read an article about a young Marine from this area in the local paper a few days ago. He said he wouldn’t trade the experience of being deployed in Iraq for a million dollars, but he wouldn’t go back again for a million dollars either.
A close friend of mine had the good sense to take me to a poetry reading shortly after I returned. We heard Mary Oliver read some of her most poignant poems about the natural world we inhabit. Her poems are like prayers, and they made me even more grateful than I already was just to be here. Jodeen typed up one of Mary’s poems and gave it to me in a frame:
“There is something about the snow-laden sky . . . that brings to the heart elation . . . Whenever I get home – somebody loves me there . . . Wherever else I live . . . in this world . . . which is falling apart now, which is white and wild . . . Don’t worry, sooner or later I’ll be home . . . I’ll stand in the doorway, stamping my boots and slapping my hands, my shoulders, covered with stars.”
Thank you to everyone who waited for me to get home, who nurtured and sustained me while I was in Iraq – personally by emailing me or sending me coffee or treats or seed catalogues – or professionally by being one of the thousands of Red Cross staff and volunteers who take in and verify all of the emergency messages that I relayed while I was on COB Speicher. And also to those of you who read this blog. Thank you. And thank you to the band that played when my feet first felt the tarmac in my home country.