650 days after leaving, I am finally home. Not the home I left, of course, but home none the less.
I've been out of touch with the internet for a while, so I'll try to recap the last 3 weeks.
We first had to leave Al Asad, which meant selling anything you couldn't pack, and living out of a rucksack for a while. After 8 months, even an 8x17 box begins to feel like home, so it really does feel like leaving.
We flew into Kuwait for temporary housing until we had a flight ready to take us home. Kuwait was a small touch of freedom, with a McDonalds and permission to wear PT gear most everywhere. We still carried weapons and ammo, but Kuwait is not Iraq, and we started to relax.
From Kuwait City, we took a civilian flight to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Though most people will roll their eyes at airline food, I scarfed it down as though it were a 4 course meal at a 5 star hotel. Even though we travelled in uniform, I wondered how a flight attendant must think twice about seeing pistols, rifles, and light machine guns being carried on board. In this day and age when a fingernail clippers or a bottle of soda is a security risk, we carried a company's worth of small arms.
Stepping off the plane in Wisconsin was a remarkable experience. The sight of huge swaths of green grass took my breath away. Equally remarkable was the sky. The sky in Iraq, especially during the summer time, is almost always cloudless, but I never realized what a pale shade of blue it was. The bright blue of the sky, together with the intense green of the grass, made me feel that I had been living the past 15 months in a black and white movie, and was suddenly seeing color for the first time. We were greeted by several generals and high ranking soldiers, and a contingent of local officials, but to tell you the truth I can't recall a single one. It felt as if I were dreaming, and I didn't want to wake up.
The next 8 days at Fort McCoy saw us through a wide range of emotions. In addition to processing returning soldiers, McCoy also trains soldiers headed overseas. So we saw the grim yet determined faces of men and women who were just beginning their tours. We also heard their field exercises in the distance, and there was not a man who didn't flinch the first time we heard outgoing mortars and small arms fire (blank ammo, but it still sounds real). We experienced our first taste of beer in many months, which caused some rowdy drunkenness, but also a lot of tension release, like a diver decompressing from the crushing pressure of the deep sea. We said goodbye to some of our soldiers that had joined us from other states or units. And we marveled at the concept of getting up in the night to use a bathroom located in the same building.
This morning, we woke up at 5am, though I'm not sure how many of us actually slept at all. The familiar routines of cleaning the barracks and packing our gear flew by as if I was in a daze. Once on the bus, we found entertainment in the billboards and towns we passed. The high price of gas seemed all the more strange for a group who haven't paid for a gallon of gas in two years. A few times I wondered if our bus would tip over when someone called out an attractive young woman, and everyone rushed to one side of the bus to see. The car fanatics clucked over new models of cars out since we left, and we recreated Pavlov's experiment with salivating dogs as we passed our favorite fast food places.
After a bit of a snafu, our two buses were joined by escorts from the State Patrol, and a couple of dozen motorcycles from the Patriot Riders and the American Legion. As we crossed every county line in Minnesota, we picked up a new escort from the local sheriff. Just outside of Owatonna, our procession turned into a parade with hundreds of motorcycles leading us, and thousands of people lining our route. Our luxury coach bus included tinted windows, so I'm not sure if the folks we passed saw us waving back, or how many of us had to turn away as we were overcome with emotion.
When we finally arrived at the Owatonna Armory, we had to wait a few minutes as the crowd of hundreds made way for our buses. Despite our extended absence, we are still soldiers and we still had to do what soldiers do-stand in formation. After a wonderfully brief blessing from the chaplain, and the equally short remarks by our commander, we heard the word we were waiting for-
In the chaos of the huge crowd it took me a few minutes to find my family. I had to call my wife on her cell phone before we could find each other. Most of the next few minutes are a blur in my mind even now, but hugging my kids and kissing my wife are memories that will stay with me until I am old and gray. The sacrifices and hardships of the last two years seemed at once a small price when an older gentleman in a VFW uniform, WWII or Korea Vet by his age, shook my hand with a tear in his eye and thanked me for keeping his family safe. I've never been more proud to wear the uniform.
More to follow on the grand entry into my new home-that is a post in itself. And I will add some pictures when I find where I packed my camera.
But Scott at Powerline has a word from the uncle of SSG Paul Dellwo, a man I found to be a good friend and great mentor these last two years, about our homecoming.