The journey to America
We stayed in Kuwait for a day and a half and then flew to Shannon, Ireland, for an hour layover. The Irish were surprisingly supportive. Quite a few greeted me as I shaved in their airport lavatory. “Lad, are you going home?” Yes. “I see there, laddie. I just want to tell you I think you all are doing a fine job. I don’t care what those bloody liberal media say.” Well, thank you sir. I continued shaving… a seven-hour flight produces some nasty whiskers.
And then we flew to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. My first words spoken in America were “holy shit it is cold!” Although I anticipated cold weather, I forgot what 20 degrees felt like. We then loaded up on a bus heading to Fort Dix where we received a briefing.
“Listen and listen carefully. What do you hear?” said the first sergeant leading a series of redeployment briefings inside an old chapel at Dix. Nothing. “Exactly. There are no mortars. No snipers. No IEDs. Just America, and we will get you home.” This group’s sole job is to take redeploying soldiers in transit and make sure they make it to the civilian airports and their flights on time. After 10 different people spoke about stuff I can’t remember because I was so sleepy, we then slept at this old, run-down church for about four hours and then re-packed all our gear in a different bus and headed toward the Philadelphia airport. We shared the bus with an ate-up unit. They failed to pack their bags in the typical military fashion – tight with no loose strings – and we had to help them repack their crap. One army, one team.
We stored our weapons in shotgun cases and placed them with our check-in baggage. We had to lock and clear the M-16s in front of a guard. And man did we get some strange looks. One family pointed at me and quietly said, “look, he’s got a gun.” I wanted to correct them… no this is not my gun; this is my weapon… but they wouldn’t understand. After checking in about 1,200 pounds of gear, we were on our way to gate E-6, which I found ironic because I’m an E-6. Anyway, the line was long and we were running late.
There’s only one major airline that still searches soldiers on orders and that’s Northwest. Guess what airline we flew? That’s right, Northwest and every one of us had to take off our boots, our dog tags, our wallets, our belts and a few had to be individually searched with the same wand we used on suspected terrorists. This didn’t set well with one of my captains… “You know my soldiers and I just want to get home. We’ve been in Iraq for a year.” “Are you gettin’ an attitude with me?” said the very mean lady who probably was dumped by a soldier and still holds a grudge. “Listen here, we’ve been in Iraq FOR A YEAR.” “I think you are threatening me,” said the mean lady. Personally, I didn’t care. Hell, make me take all my clothes off and do toe touches… I’m going home, baby.
We were late, but the airline was nice enough to delay the flight just for us. When I boarded the plane, I detected some scowls and nasty whispers from the First Class folks. No doubt, we were the reason they would be an hour late for their business meeting and tennis lessons. Then, like crossing into another world, my feet touched coach, where the construction workers, middle managers and school teachers sat. I didn’t pass a single person without hearing “Thank you.”
The flight lasted 2.5 hours and I spent most of it talking about Iraq to the guy sitting next to me. I was amazed at how uninformed he was, but it wasn’t his fault; he just read the death and destruction headlines. I really felt like I was regurgitating past stories I’d written, but he hung on to every word. We then landed in Minneapolis, our last stop until La Crosse, Wis., the closest airport to our demobilization site – Fort McCoy.
Our original La Crosse flight was canceled. No big deal; it gave me a chance to eat and to stare at the businesswomen talking on cell phones. My first meal in the States was a ham and egg cheese McMuffin, hash browns, chocolate-chip cookie and two cups of coffee. I couldn’t get a bite in without somebody coming by and saying “thank you so much. Welcome home.” Got to love those Midwesterners; they love the military. Somebody bought me a Gatorade, too, which I planned to drink on the final leg of this long, exhausting journey.
After scarfing down the best damn meal I’ve had in a year, I enjoyed the scenery for the rest of the 2-hour layover. I don’t think there’s a place that truly defines America better than an airport. I saw all types of people from the blue collar guys in flannel shirts and paint-stained pants; to the college girls with tight shirts, low-cut pants and tattoo on the small of their back; to the 20 something business wannabes, talking stocks on their cell phones; to the old, distinguished professionals whose shoes make a unique click-clack sound when they walk. It was strange seeing Americans, but in a good way. I don’t think I saw one Arabic or Kurdish guy the whole day, which was also strange.
The plane ride to La Crosse was so short that the flight attendants never came by to give us pretzels or pick up our trash, which meant I put the empty Gatorade bottle in my pocket because it’s just rude to leave trash behind on a plane. When we landed, the flight attendants announced that Northwestern appreciated our service. As we walked down the terminal, a band played the “Star Spangled Banner” and a row of generals and sergeant majors and a bunch of suit people were there to greet us. Families were there. The media was there too. And I had this dang, big Gatorade bottle in my pants. As I was shaking hands, the only thing I could think of was I’ve got to throw this thing away. It makes my butt look big and I’ll be on the news tonight.
I had a nice surprise waiting for me in the crowd. A couple friends drove up from Milwaukee and gave me the biggest hugs I’ve received in a year. They bought my lunch at Panera Bread and dropped me off at Fort McCoy, where I’ll spend the next couple days receiving briefings about how to reenter society and to make sure I don’t have any strange diseases.
I used to hate this place. The barracks were made in WWII and the heat never works. It’s always cold here. And the MPs like giving tickets. But now, as I look at this snow-covered post called Fort McCoy, I realize it’s more like my home than a duty station. After all, home is where the heart is and my heart will always be in America, all 50 states.