Saturday, November 3, 2007

Welcome Home

The 10th Mountain Division out of Ft. Drum, NY is heading home – and carrying heavy baggage. 52 of their own died fighting in Iraq, and they left two behind, still missing after being abducted last May, their fates unknown. “That was pretty catastrophic for them,” said Major General Michael Oates, 10th Mountain Division commander.

The 10th Mountain Division had their tours extended from 12 to 15 months 10 months in to what was for many a second or third deployment. They were ten months in, and counting down the days until they shipped out for home when the word came down that all Army personnel in Iraq would be extended to 15 months.

Several returning soldiers dropped down to kiss the ground when they returned home, and what they looked forward to enjoying at home differed. Specialist A.J. Mettao employed the word “surreal” to describe his feelings. “I can’t even explain it. The air is so different. You’re not breathing sand. I’m looking forward to living life and just partying.” Another returning soldier, Chief Warrant Officer Harold Bickel wanted nothing more than to see his wife, but he also wants to “go hunting in the woods” and to celebrate New Years Eve in Las Vegas. Asked what she most looks forward to PFC Maria Basulto had an answer ready: “getting out of the Army.” She is certainly no fan of the extended tours that made the Surge™ shell-game possible. “The hardest part was finding out at 10 months that we had to stay. That was messed up.”

When I was growing up, Viet Nam was the looming specter, and everyone I knew had someone who had either just returned, was in-country or had orders to go. Every family had a way of marking time – some simply circled a date on a calendar. In our house it was a safety-pin chain. 365 safety pins would be affixed to the living room drapes, and every night after dinner, we took one off and put it in a cigar box. At one point, when three family members were deployed simultaneously, there were three chains hanging from the drapes. At first, the chains coiled on the floor. But every day, they got shorter. Then one day it no longer touched the floor, and eventually the youngest kid could no longer reach it. The final pin was always removed by the person we were marking time for when they walked in the door. I can not imagine what I would have felt if that chain I lived and died by had been lengthened from 60 to 150. My cousin Gary died in March of 1967 with 97 days left on his tour. 97 safety pins are still, 40 years later, in my aunt Lorraine’s jewelry box. She asked my Mom to send “Gary’s lifeline” to her at the funeral. I can still see my mother, standing on the step-stool and crying as she removed that string of safety pins and, with a shaking hand, drop them into a manila envelope addressed to my Aunt Lorraine when we returned home after the funeral.

That was when it became real. We had been to the funeral, we had viewed his body. Aunt Lorraine had stoically received the tri-corner flag as his casket was lowered into the Kansas earth. We had hugged and cried and clung to one another. But that intact chain of safety pins…watching my mother do something so simple and ordinary and mundane as remove a safety-pin from a curtain was the cathartic moment that opened the floodgates of grief in my tiny little four-year-old heart. My favorite cousin was gone, and he was never coming back.

Families develop coping strategies to get through it. Non-military people don’t realize it, but families serve, too. Everyone always has a vision of what the long-awaited reunion will be like. Some are apprehensive, some are idyllic, some are wistful and prosaic, while others are simply overwhelming. Many soldiers return to meet for the first time children born while they were deployed. Families assembled in the gymnasium at Ft. Drum yesterday were no exception. One young mom whose husband had yet to meet his daughter said her top priority was giving her husband the time and space to get to know his 9-month-old daughter. Another Army wife, who has done this before, and whose children are a bit older, was not circumspect at all. Rather, she was matter-of-fact...”I just know that I’m not taking out the trash ever again. I have a full trash can right now because I knew he was coming home. I didn’t empty the bathroom trash, the bedroom trash – nothing. It’s all waiting for him.”

Relief, humor, grief, apprehension – emotions run the gamut when G.I.’s return home. But there is always somber reflection, too. One Specialist, returning from his second tour was matter-of-fact. “The first time I went over, I was excited and wanted to do my job and make a difference. But that was before I saw how war really works. The only way to stay sane is to shut down emotionally.” He went on to say that he had lost good friends on both tours and that he finds himself “desensitized” and worries about the effect it will have on his three-year-old marriage, and his wife’s complaints that he is “distant” even when they are in the same room. “I’m out in ’09. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t like the person I’ve become.”