I wrote part two almost three months ago; I fully intended this entry to come hot on the heels of the other two. In reality, it’s been the hardest of my “return from Iraq” entries to write (as evidenced by my procrastination). Unlike all of my other deployment stories, this one doesn’t really have a neat wrap-up; it doesn’t have an end that writes itself. The end of this part of the story is open – it’s the rest of my life stretching before me like a fog-blanketed country road just before sun-up.
Our first stop on the flight home was Frankfurt, Germany. That was a beautiful enough sight for some – it was about two in the morning, with a humid chill in the air; the smokers gathered outside and I joined them, standing with them in a cluster, talking and rubbing our boots into the green grass next to the building. After an hour or two, we re-embarked for the stretch that would take us back to American soil.
The flight was uneventful and I slept through most of it; JoKur and I had the whole center isle to ourselves so I stretched out across the seats and he laid down on the floor. It was much more comfortable than you might imagine, especially considering I hadn’t really been horizontal for over 36 hours. And honestly, to put things in perspective, an 8-hour plane ride from Germany to New Jersey is really only two-thirds of the time that I would spend cooped up in the back of my radio truck every day. After a year of sitting in my aluminum-magnesium cave, the aluminum tube of the 767 seemed mercifully roomy.
There were, of course, raucous cheers and celebration when the wheels touched the asphalt at McGuire AFB, New Jersey. We left the plane and headed for the terminal; the local time was 0500. I was a little delirious but excited, knowing I was mere hours from our final stop. There was still one more line to stand in, though; the Air Force guys had to check us in for our last flight. I was the second in line, but my now-infamous “invisible man” aura ensured that their computer system was totally borked and they had no record of myself (or anyone else in B Company) and had to undergo some sort of torturous database modification to check us through.
Unfortunately, my invisible man aura had worn off somehow when it came time to pick people for the baggage detail. Being short probably had something to do with it too, since the cargo hold of the 737 was comparatively tiny. It also stank of fish.
It was a short flight from New Jersey to Volk Field, Wisconsin. The whole Midwest seemed covered in fog that only slowly burned off as the sun rose behind us. From the plane, I wrote:
The closer I get to home, the more my feelings for Mrs. Melobi grow – almost as if my feelings are tied to a place, this land. High blue skies, thin wisps of icy cirrus clouds – sights never seen in the bone-dry atmosphere of the desert – they take my breath away with their beauty, recollecting other beautiful days – cold and clear, my breath coming in small vaporous puffs, looking up into the azure vastness.
Having been away for so long, I feel a strange community with the citizens of America – maybe the knowledge that our nation was born from tyranny, and steeled in civil war, yet chose life over death and civilization over anarchy. Was it PT Barnum who said something like “no one ever went poor underestimating the intelligence of the American public”? And yet we’re so prosperous, hardworking, successful as a nation.
The moxie and grit shown by the US military is indeed exemplary, but I think it’s only a reflection of our nation as a whole – after all, we are citizens before we are soldiers. It’s just that the spirit of American toughness lies dormant in most – waiting for what, I don’t know.
It’s hard to describe the feeling I had, stepping off that 737 on a warm fall morning in Wisconsin, green trees and grass as far as the eye could see, those same old desert boots on my feet, the brass of the Minnesota and Wisconsin National Guard lined up to greet us, broad smiles on their faces. The weather, the scene, everything – it couldn’t have been more perfect. No fanfare, no crowds or salutes or madness; just us, clad in tan, under the high blue sky.
The following three days were the most incredible whirlwind of paperwork and Army cattle-herding I can imagine; a demobilization process that usually took a week was crammed into about two and a half days. There was booze galore (The Pontiff and Bear had to give it away the morning we left, since there was still so much left over), anger, and laughter (“THERE IS NO DUNKING THE MASK”). In all honesty, the demob process is a story unto itself, but I’ll leave that for another time since telling it would ruin the mood.
Finally it was time for the last bus ride. JoKur, having managed to evade all harm and injury during eighteen months of deployment, sustained a nasty bee sting right – his first ever – on his ear as we were waiting to board the bus. This prompted much hilarity, as his ear swelled up to twice its normal size and caused speculation as to whether his wife would reject him as damaged goods upon arrival.
As we neared Hastings, a few state troopers fell in behind our buses, all lights flashing. Then, there were troopers clearing intersections for us, and they continued to increase in number as we neared the city. On the last stretch of road, troopers and police stood by their cruisers, hands on their hearts or saluting. We were all greatly moved – every one of us was staring out the windows in rapt attention at the honor they were bestowing upon us. Bear – in emotion usually reserved for Extreme Home Makeover – was threatening tears, but I was mostly too bewildered to get choked up.
The main street leading towards the armory was crowded with people, waving flags, banners, and signs. Cars stopped and honked, flashed their lights; some people even got out of their cars to wave or just watch us pass. Hastings is by no means a large city, but it seemed as if every resident was waiting for us there. As JoKur quipped, “did we become the Beatles while we were in Iraq?”
Then we were at the armory, finally, where throngs of family members screamed and waved. The buses pulled to a stop, and we dismounted into the darkness and into the waiting arms of loved ones.