Thursday, February 14, 2008

"Fall Out."

On the morning of December 13, 2007, an Airbuss A330 chartered by the U.S. Government touches down at Ramstein Air Force Base, near Kaiserslautern, Germany. Its undercarriage strikes the rain-slick runway with a wet slap and a screech, and as the plane shudders under the buffet of reversed thrust, 160 soldiers cheer and whoop, or merely sigh with relief.

I am among that group.

We're greeted on the tarmac by an array of officers from across Europe. Though giddy, our spirits are muddled--the weather is cold and wet, and few of us have slept on the plane. We're shepherded by bus to a USO reception station, where our IDs are swiped. We're offered weak coffee and sandwiches. Throngs of us flee to the nearest exit, desperately craving our first cigarette in over 7 hours.

A long wait, and some of us try to contact our families. Time passes, and finally we form into files, meeting with a truck from our company, where members of the unit's rear detachment collect weapons. Suddenly naked without our M-16s and 249s, we once more board the German charter buses, and so we begin the final leg of our long journey home.

You've never seen such fury voiced at the quirks of traffic on the autobahn. Our progress north is hampered by snarl after snarl of stau. What should have been a two-hour journey quickly turns into one of three-and-a-half. After an interminable wait, we finally arrive at our duty station, a Kaserne in the Hessen region, just before 11 am.

We do a loop around the Kaserne. Brightly colored banners hang from the gates, homemade offerings welcoming us home. At the parade grounds, a throng of family members shout and cheer, waving flags. Our German bus driver honks, and soldiers press their faces to glass. Frantic utterances: "There she is!" "Anybody see my wife?!" A year and more's worth of suppressed joy, simmering beneath the surface of this moment.

We're shepherded off of the buses, weary and anxious, where we receive a short briefing from an E-7 on the rear detachment. Rear Det members, meanwhile, the broken and the uninitiated, begin offloading our bags. We form up, and following another brief by our First Sergeant, are given a crisp "Right face!" I feel my back arch, my chin tilt upward. Even after 15 months of agony and loneliness, I can't suppress the wave of pride I feel in this moment. We begin marching around, toward the gymnasium, and all I can think is: I'm alive. I made it. I'm alive.

We're all alive. After 15 months of duty in Iraq, and an estimated 150 missions outside the wire for our unit, no soldier has died. Been injured, certainly, mostly in failures of workplace safety. But nobody has died. This is truly a miracle.

We march around the block, and finally toward the entrance toward the gymnasium. I smile as raindrops fall from the low-hanging alder branches, splashing my neck and the brim of my patrol cap. The door yawns before us, a dark mouth blaring bad country music. I don't even care. Two years ago, as a new soldier, I stood sharply at attention as my fellows returned to this place. Now, I reflect with quiet pride, it is my turn to join them.

I have taken the journey. I have passed this test, this pilgrimage, this hajj. Now it is my turn to claim this honor.

Our eyes adjust to the neon lights of the gym, beige boots thudding in time across basketball hardwood. A din of feminine shouts and cheers heralds us. Though none of our heads move, I know that a hundred other pairs of eyes are searching the crowds with mine. There is a moment of fear, of anxiety, and then at the far right, in the bottom right, I see face: Sgt. Thompson, my longtime friend from the legal office, in full uniform. Then, next to him, a tall woman with chestnut hair. She looks resplendent in a short black dress, my favorite necklace offset the creamy fairness of her ample decollete.

Smoky green eyes greet mine. A silent smile, and adoring lips mouth the words, "I love you." My jaw clenches, my eyes flare, suppressing the grin. This is what I've wanted for 15 months, and now I have her.

Anne.

First Sergeant's voice: "Left, FACE!"

A hundred and sixty pairs of boots execute.

"Stand at, (Stand AT), EASE!"

We comply. Silence, and then a burly man, a Full-Bird out of Heidelberg, takes a moment to address us. His remarks are thankfully brief, and he turns us back to our commander with a bulldog "Hooah!" Then, as tensions threaten to boil over, Captain Haskewicz, a tall man of youthful features, gives us a brief reminder to be safe and spend time with our families. Then our First Sergeant resumes command, and gives us the order: Reintegration, tomorrow morning, zero-six-thirty. "Good work, guys," he tells us gruffly. Then, finally:

"Company, atten-TION!"

A hundred and sixty pairs of boots snap together.

"Fall out."

The invisible grid connecting us vanishes. Soldiers scatter, and family members pour from the bleachers. I no longer remember the steps between me and her. I only remember the sudden warmth of skin on skin, the pressure of her body against mine, the smell of her hair. My mind is lost in the darkness of our frantic kissing, and in this moment a dam breaks. A wall of anger and bitterness collapses, and for the first time in longer than I can remember, I feel not tears, not laughter, only peace. I feel like I'm reopening a well-thumbed book, returning to find the folded corner of the page.

I'm home. I'm safe.

Spc. Freeman...fall out.

13 Comments:

Blogger iamcoyote said...

Hooray! Hooray! I'm so glad you and Anne are back together, thank goodness in one piece. Are you done? Do yo get to go home now? Hugs to you both!

2:55 PM  
Blogger The Earth Bound Misfit said...

Welcome back! I've been checking your blog and, as the months have passed since you wrote about the Ziggurat of Ur, I had started to fear the worst.

Are you near your EAOS?

3:13 PM  
Blogger admiyo said...

Dammnit son, you actually brought tears to my eyes.


Well done.

3:39 PM  
Blogger ~:*:*:Pixie:*:*:~ said...

Outstanding Milo & Anne!!!! Milo, thank you for the head's up - you're safe... and together.

WELCOME HOME!!!!!

4:46 PM  
Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post - From the Front: 02/18/2008 - News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

5:21 PM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

So very glad you're home safe, and together.

2:39 AM  
Blogger Clare Turpen said...

Ha! I remember Rammstein. When I was stationed at Wiesbaden we used to go out to the PX there to get Johnny Walker Blue. Iraq sucked, I'm glad to be home (I was there in 2003-2004). Good luck to you... watch out for those sand storms.

3:44 AM  
Blogger Jenny said...

Welcome home. Thank you. As always, I look forward to more of your words.

5:45 AM  
Blogger soul pumpkin said...

Milo...you've brought a tear (or three) to the eyes of this crusty old road dog...bless you...

6:17 AM  
Blogger Pookie Sixx said...

Welcome home Milo!!! I'm so happy that you and your fellow soldiers made it home safe!

5:15 PM  
Blogger Seven of Six said...

Milo,

Yes, "Lurch" has died. I'm having trouble sleeping... another brother in arms gone, another great blogger... He was touring the west and stopped in for a visit in 2006. Met my wife, boy, friends and even my parents, we had a large Mexican feast in his honor. That's what we do in AZ in May, Bar-B-Que some marinated chicken and beef for tacos, all the trimmings, some Corona or Dos Equis all poolside. He loved it. Easy going, smiling the whole time. He talked lovingly of his late wife. That's how I'll remember him...

This is the post that alerted me to his passing... they took it down in respect for the family. I'm going to write my post up when I know more.

Ranger and Lisa had a tribute at their site.

The Group News Blog.

When you have time, I'd like to hear if you got anymore grief for having a blog, pressure from your CO, etc.

Glad your safe... stay safe... love that wife. Love is truly what this world needs more of... and it will get you through some dark hours. It has me.

7:09 PM  
Blogger The Hackademician said...

It's about bloody time.

Glad you are safe.

-nous

10:03 PM  
Blogger Lindsay said...

Welcome back. Wonderful writing as usual.

7:48 PM  

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