18 JAN 2008 Enough, already!
Since, I've been home two days, I guess I better wrap up business and finish telling you how I got here!
I left you last as we were boarding the Omni Air International DC-10 in Kuwait for our next leg of the journey for Aviano, Italy. We couldn't leave directly because there was an ATA plane ahead of us that had to load a handful of passengers and takeoff before we could use the runway. Perhaps a couple of princes headed for Cancun? With the temperature in Kuwait at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, I didn't blame them.
After the stellar service we had received thus far, I braced myself for more beatings. For once, I was wrong. The previous crew, a collection of orcs and mountain trolls culled from Mordor's most dastardly, had been replaced by a bunch of fresh-faced and smiling young flight attendants from Atlanta and Las Vegas. They politely helped us to our seats and asked if we needed anything. When they had to move a few passengers to balance the airplane, they first explained why they had to do it. The first thing the head attendant said when she came over the loudspeaker was a thank you for our service. We lifted off and I breathed a sigh of relief that I was finally leaving the perineum of the world.
The landing in Aviano was exciting and happy. Many of our number were ending their journey there, and they looked out the windows with glee, spotting their waiting family members gathered outside the hangar in a mild drizzle. As we descended from the skies, the ground rushing up at us was green and mountainous, immediately giving the feeling that we were getting back to where we belonged. Not to leave out military protocol, there was the usual muddle of operations. The pilot announced that the ground crew were running around and he couldn't figure out what they wanted, but that he would get us off the plane as soon as they settled down. They had us circle once and park in the exact same position and then they seemed satisfied. We walked down the stairway and it was such a beautiful sight to see troops reunited with their families. One woman picked out her husband waiting with their two daughters and a bouquet of flowers. The husband looked like he was more tired than we were, and was probably the happiest guy on base.
We were led into one of the F-16 hangers. On one side the troops from Aviano reunited with their loved ones and hugged and kissed until everyone had tears in their eyes. You couldn't help but have a wide smile stretch across your face to see children ecstatic to have their parents back again. Those of us travelling further gathered in the central region of the hangar. The Department of Defense school on base had organized to bring us snacks and drinks. There were tasty cookies and brownies for everyone. I had a bunch of delicious Clementines. After the length of our journey, I felt like a sailor seeing fresh fruit for the first time in weeks and tore into it eager to prevent my wounds from reopening from scurvy. If we turned in our ID cards to the guard, we could sneak back to the bathrooms. I chose to use the DV (distinguished visitor) bathroom. I'm sure that the communal bathroom would have been fine, but I figured that for at least one day DV could stand for deployed visitor.
Our plane was quickly refueled and we boarded to make the jump to Shannon, Ireland. Since we had dropped off nearly half of our number in Aviano, we finally had enough room to breathe. Some were lucky enough to even snag a full row of three seats and lay down for a nice nap. We were served a hot meal and conversations turned to the first meal or date we were planning for our return home. Shannon has become the traditional place to get your last alcohol before entering the war or the first drink on the way out. As we landed, the flight attendant announced that we had a quick turn and burn before flying across the Atlantic, but that the general on board supported consumption of one beer for those who were interested. This may not have been his intended message, but I figured that if he supported one beer, he would be really psyched about two!
I practically sprinted through the terminal, following my beer nose (it always knows.) We reached the bar, I pulled out some wrinkled Euros, and a smiling Irish woman pulled me a perfect pint of Guinness. That was quickly gone so I headed back for a second. Our colonel drifted away so that he would have plausible deniability. Troops breezed through the duty free shop to pick up chocolates, whiskey, and perfume. Sounded like a romantic homecoming formula to me! Soon we were called back to the gate. I knocked back my remaining dose of liquid bread and boarded the plane with a warm glow in my tummy.
The trip across the Atlantic was comfortable and passed easily. We cheered as the lights of Baltimore approached beneath us. As my connection back to Texas left the next morning, I repeated another deployment tradition by staying my first night on US soil with my in-laws who lived close by. As late as the hour was and a tired as I felt, we still spent time laughing and talking as I told them stories and showed them pictures of the harrowing trip back. The next morning, I met up with a few troops who were taking the same flight back as me. We grabbed a quick breakfast in the airport lounge, and I nearly missed my flight over eggs and a bloody Mary. Well I had to start the morning right! That would have been a hard one to explain to M. Fortunately they held the plane for me and another troop who straggled in at the last minute. We laughed the whole flight home about how much better it was to be travelling with an airline that actually had some incentive to treat the passengers in a way to make them come back again.
When we landed, I was brimming with anticipation and it seemed like the passengers ahead of me would never get off the plane. My feet couldn't move fast enough as I walked down the Jetway and into the airport terminal. I saw her from far away. Even with hundreds of people moving to and fro, I couldn't see anyone but her. As soon as M. saw me, she jumped up and down and ran to the security gate. As I cleared through the checkpoint, she grabbed me and squeezed me around the chest so tightly I thought my ribs would break. I dropped my ruck and parka and hugged her back, burying my face in her hair, smelling her neck. I closed my eyes and felt her breath on my chest. We kissed and all the distance and sadness just melted away. Everything was right again.