It’s almost here.
We know we’re not supposed to think about it or talk about it. The countdown.
Perhaps there are those who don’t want others to think they’re soft or aren’t pining away for their family and loved ones at home. Some don’t say anything about the time remaining because it psychologically makes time pass slower. Others avoid the topic for realization that dates scheduled for return aren’t set in stone; avoid getting your hopes up in order to prevent disappointment if schedules get “bumped.”
I wrote “Everyday Feels a Little More Like Goodbye” before I mobilized and deployed with 2-124 Infantry Battalion of the Florida Army National Guard in the summer of 2015. It summarized my thoughts and feelings as we prepared to leave our homes and families.
I started writing this new post right before we returned home during the summer of 2016. I set it on the shelf with plans to finish it shortly after returning home. However, I’ve spent the last 12 months making up for my time away from Katherine, Gabe, my family, extended “family” and friends. So, now I’m finishing.
We unceremoniously boarded the plane during a humid evening in Djibouti City bound for Fort Bliss, Texas. The only parade that led us to our plane was the convoy of passenger vans that shuttled us across the airfield. It felt more like NASCAR than an escort as drivers jockeyed for position, weaving in and out of each other and avoiding collisions enroute. Some of us wondered if we’d made it through 9 months “in country” only to perish in this final half mile. Prayers were said. Others called out to mysterious gods with creative language. Fortunately, we made it to the awaiting plane, unscathed.
We hopped across cities in Europe and the U.S. to finally land in El Paso, Texas. The cool, dry air that greeted us was a stark difference from the 90% humidity and 110° heat of Djibouti (and it hadn’t even gotten hot yet). We were happy to be on home soil even if it wasn’t Florida.
After two weeks of decompression and post-deployment requirements at Bliss, we were chartered home by air to rejoin our families at a welcome home ceremony.
I scanned the crowd which packed our armory as I walked through the armory doors. I locked onto Gabe’s face within seconds, which was easy since he was hoisted up on his granddad’s shoulders. I saw Katherine’s beautiful smile next. A lump filled my throat. Tom and Alice, Katherine’s parents were nestled alongside. Our dear friends, Nate and Liz were there too with their children, Sophie and Nolan.
I was concerned. Gabe had just turned 4yrs old a few short months before my return. Since he was 3yrs old for most of my time away, I was concerned as to whether he would recognize me or my voice. We FaceTime’d multiple times during the deployment, but I’d known Soldiers whose children had trouble remembering them once they returned.
As we marched in, I waved to Gabe and mouthed to him from a distance, “It’s me. Dad.” He smiled a big smile and nodded “yes.” It was all I could do to hold the tears back.
I looked at Katherine and saw love and relief in her eyes. We were together again. This was the second deployment through which we have persevered. Her internal fortitude and resilience are a bulwark of our marriage. She faced many tough days alone, yet she relayed tenderness and love across the time zones that separated us. She is my true love.
After a few ceremonial remarks and an official “welcome home” from a representative from State Headquarters, we were released to our families. I turned and kneeled to invite Gabe to me. He cautiously walked a few steps, then lunged at me and wrapped his arms around my neck and squeezed long and hard. Oxygen didn’t matter in that moment. His hug was the breath I needed.
I stood to embrace Katherine. Gabe wouldn’t let go, so we all hugged and kissed in a big Sellon huddle.
I was home. Home isn’t geography. It’s family.