I was the only male in a packed van heading to Sparta, Wis., for the family reunion of the soldiers of the 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. This would be the first time many of us had seen our parents, children, girlfriends and spouses in a year. We were all excited, but for the girls, it meant leaving the uniform behind and wearing makeup and perfume and ear rings. The van smelled like one of those ads in Cosmo. A few soldiers left Fort McCoy early with their families. We were the last to take the 15 minute drive.
The roads were white with snow and the glare from headlights illuminated the trees on the roadsides. The scenery was truly beautiful. That is until the traffic stopped. We saw ambulance lights from a distance. There had apparently been a horrible traffic accident a few miles up ahead. My heart fell to the pit of my stomach. The only thing I could think about: one of our soldiers, more accustomed to jumping curbs and avoiding bombs than the slick roads, was in the accident. We had come too far to lose a life on an American road. The van, which had been filled with typical female “boy” chatter, went silent. We all thought the same thing. And then the flashing lights became closer and closer.
This was the only time I’ve ever gawked at an accident. The fireman pulled out the Jaws of Life and moved toward the car. I believe it was a cavalier and it apparently went off the road, collapsing the passenger side. We all looked and saw an unfamiliar face and shattered glass. Finally, we all exhaled, but at that moment, I realized for as long as I live that I will never look at an accident or fire or drowning as just another death. Each human life is precious, even if I don’t know the person. Every person is somebody’s brother, son or daughter, and in a strange way, I feel forever obligated to pay my respects and or to preserve a hurting soul or life.
We passed the accident and eventually parked in the VFW lot. I saw my Nissan Altima – with leather seats and a sunroof – amidst the many non-military vehicles, which meant my folks were there too. As we opened the double glass doors, I saw my mother. Her back was turned and she wore her favorite suit. Dad wore a tie (he never wears ties).
My mom cried when I put my arms around her. My dad was speechless. I forgot the tissues, and a few tears filled my eyes. The feeling was incredible. Never before have I felt the way I did last night. Since I’ve been back in the states, I really haven’t had time to enjoy my surroundings and feel like I’m home. Last night was different. It hit me. I’m home for good.
All the families were sitting at tables. Some drank, others just stared into their loved one’s eyes, holding their arms, thanking God they were there, together. My commander, who has been away from his family for nearly two years on separate deployments, spoke about the hardships we faced, about how we overcame the difficulties together and how we are a very special group of people. He won my mom’s heart. “That colonel is something else. I really like him.” After a short, but touching, speech, we lined up at the salad bar. It was one of the weird buffets where you didn’t know which way to go. It took five minutes for everybody to circle the salads in a counterclockwise motion, but nobody really cared about the food. The moment was about seeing the ones you loved, the ones you said goodbye to a year ago not knowing if you’d ever see them again.
After the dinner, my commander spoke again and then our first sergeant, a former U.S. Army Ranger who looks like he eats nails for breakfast and drinks concrete shakes for lunch. He got choked up. “Never in my career have I been more proud of a group of soldiers.” I couldn’t believe my ears; Top was getting emotional. Then again, it didn’t surprise me… we’d all changed the past year. “Never before did I think I’d be giving female soldiers loaded weapons and placing them in guard towers. Never before did I think I’d put the faith in very young, untested, NCOs and see them flourish. What your children accomplished is truly amazing.”
Shortly afterward, my parents and I left the VFW and bowled a few rounds. Dad knocked down more pins than me in the first game and mom smoked us both in the second. She’s the type of bowler who lobs the ball like she’s pitching softball and you wonder how she ever hits a pin, but she kicked my butt… always does. After the final game and near my curfew, I embraced the two people who gave me life and said a short good bye. We went our separate ways, but this time, I knew I’d see them again.
I drove my Altima for the first time. As I pulled up to my barracks, I daydreamed of the future… a new apartment on the lake, plasma T.V., running on my favorite trail. And then, the car would no longer move forward. I was stuck. The six or seven inches of snow swallowed my front tires and I was going nowhere. Back in the day, I’d have cursed Wisconsin weather. But not this time.
I was just happy it was snow and not a bomb.