I arrived at 11:55 a.m. But according to military time, I was late. Exhausted children were already napping. Wives with new hairdos fidgeted.
Any moment now, the troops were coming home from Afghanistan.
I was privileged to attend the 37th Field Artillery Homecoming Ceremony at the invitation of my former neighbor. It was one of the most profound experiences ever.
I grew up in a military family. My dad served two decades in the Army. The work of pulling up roots every three years was painfully familiar.
But I had never attended a redeployment ceremony. When my dad returned from serving in Vietnam, the plane landed at an empty McChord airfield. Contentious public opinion about the war meant there was a sense of secrecy, maybe even shame, for returning veterans.
So I was a newbie at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord celebration. Behind me was a woman whose husband was finishing his fifth deployment. To the left, a sergeant’s extended family took up several bleacher rows. A wife in a red polka-dotted dress sashayed through the crowd.
The gym was a battalion of strollers. A supply depot of sippy cups, stuffed toys and snacks was being deployed by moms to keep chubby faces content. (Many would be seeing dad for the first time.)
The military spouses had rallied. They prepared handmade T-shirts, signs and banners. Our Hero. Welcome Home. Thanks For Serving. We Love You.
Then it was time: the buses arrived.
It’s hard to describe how beautiful and moving that moment was. The gym grew quiet. All eyes watched the entrance. Someone opened the doors. Sunlight streamed in. The first of the troops appeared.
It felt glorious, like a wedding.
Wave after wave of camouflage poured into the gym. There was cheering, applause, tears, camera flashes, flags, star balloons, pink tutus twirling.
A perimeter of honor surrounded the dusty green formation. “The Star Spangled Banner” echoed. There was a mercifully short speech. The chaplain prayed holy, kind words. Then, dismissal.
A love riot broke out. Wobbly high heels stumbled across the gym. Soldiers strained, seeking faces. Fathers’ arms filled with children. Grandparents snapped photos. Buddies shook hands.
There were huge hugs. Hugs the size of mountain ranges. Weeping. Kisses sweet enough to erase months of sand and dust.
Leaving the gym, soldiers were gripped on all sides: hand, arm, sleeve, hip, jacket. No way were spouses and kids letting go, not for one minute.
Every day won’t be like this, full of lavish appreciation. There’ll not always be a child with a neon flashing arrow sign saying, I’m right here, Daddy.
In 2013, we’ll welcome home more troops. Some will struggle to reintegrate into families. Readjusting to life outside war zones will take time. Physical and inner injuries can weigh heavily.
Author and veteran Ken Powers understands the post-deployment pain and numbness. He describes it as a percentage of attention and inner life that soldiers dedicate “to dealing with the residue of your experience.”
Silt gets rinsed off Stryker vehicles, but the residue of war is not so easy to brush off.
Soldiers and their families need the support of our community this year. With little things: baby-sitting, gift cards, other acts of service. With big things: by fully funding medical care, treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide-prevention programs.
Troops don’t want pity. We must fulfill what is owed them for serving despite deployment’s danger and damage. We cannot discard our service men and women like deflated balloons after a ceremony.
The veterans of the Vietnam War experienced further harm through suicide, homelessness and drug abuse. Modern America has learned: At least we get the ceremony and fanfare right.
But the glitter banners are up only for a day. We need something more lasting than a handshake and praise. Our soldiers have no sign saying, I’m right here, America.
We hold your sleeves, veterans. We are attached to you, soldiers, and we are not letting go.
You are not forgotten. Well done, and welcome home.Maria Gudaitis grew up in a military family who settled here after being stationed at Fort Lewis. She is one of six reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Reach her through her blog at mariagudaitis.com, where she writes about food, poetry, faith and art.