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Here we are, at the moment for which we’ve been waiting for months or even a year: the homecoming and reintegration! This is definitely the most joyful part, but at the same time it is also the most delicate and, dare I say, can be a painful part of the whole process.
During the last couple months and especially during the last few weeks, a range of emotions will be felt by the one left at home: anxiety, excitement, impatience, Super Woman Syndrome (aka I have to get everything done that I didn’t accomplish during the deployment NOW), and that butterfly-in-your-stomach feeling that you got before going on your first date. Ever since The Warrior left for Afghanistan, I began imagining the homecoming, and as the last couple weeks crept by, I was SO ready for the deployment to be over. Nine days before he returned I wrote this in my journal:
Holy crap!! I am in to-do overdrive. I have several work lists and personal lists, I’ve gotta wash my car, I need to figure out where I’m staying, etc. etc. etc.!! I am driving myself crazy with excitement, nervousness, and impatience. :)
The key with homecoming is to expect the unexpected. The Warrior’s unit had an active Facebook page, which the commander’s wife frequently updated. There was also a page on the division website that posted official information. My iPhone was already another appendage but as their return drew near, it was truly an addiction. The unit came home in waves, and as soon as The Warrior found out, he told me what his flight’s code name would be. I had Twitter updates from the division sent to me as text messages, I bookmarked the division website on my Internet browser at work (and refreshed it countless times a day), and I constantly checked the Facebook page on my phone. It was agony waiting for his flight code name to be posted!
It was exciting to see all the other spouses who were so excited about their soldiers coming home, but caution must be exercised in this area. When a ceremony was “set,” the code name and time was posted on the Facebook page (as well as the division website). We all felt over-eager for this information, but some spouses and parents would comment, “My husband is on that flight!” or “I will be there to welcome my son home!” Bad, bad, bad idea. You never know who is watching, and giving away names on manifests can be dangerous.
Also, the first date/time that is posted for a homecoming ceremony is most certainly not the final one. The time changed about three times but to me it felt like 100. The Warrior kept me posted on how he thought the timeline would play out, but even he was just making an educated guess. Four days before his arrival I wrote:
So I am eagerly waiting to get that text from the [division] Twitter page about the flight name and ceremony time!! Man I feel like I have so much to do the next three days. Plus I don’t know if I’ll drive down on Wednesday night or just go there Thursday AM. I need enough time to get a pass to enter Ft. XX, which usually takes awhile. And to buy the balloons [at this point I thought I’d bring balloons so he could find me easier] and make sure I’m at XX Field at least an hour early. I don’t know if I should bring something to read, or if I will strike up conversations with other families there or what!! There are storms predicted for Thursday in XX, but it’s still only Monday, so that could change. I pray it does!!
At this point, we thought he was arriving Thursday afternoon or early evening. When he arrived at the
showering debriefing location, The Warrior got online and we were able to message back and forth on Facebook about the tentative plan. My journaling after this was mostly me figuring out how long it would take to fly from one point to another and wracking my brain to figure out an ETA. But it was all in vain.
On Tuesday, we found out the ceremony got bumped to 11pm on Thursday night. During all this, I kept my boss abreast of what was happening. Thankfully I had vacation time to use and he was very flexible and understanding of the circumstances. So instead of taking the entire Thursday off, I decided to work a half-day and then drive to Ft. XX with plenty of time to spare. However, on Wednesday evening I found out that the ceremony had been changed yet again, to 10am on Friday. I wanted to pull my hair out!! So I decided to work a full day and drive down Thursday evening. (The changes happened because of an aircraft malfunction, I found out later.)
This is just an example of what can happen and this situation is definitely not unique. Plan in pencil! Another thing is to expect things to go wrong right before he gets back. It was like Murphy was out to get me! On Wednesday I took the train to work, and so on my way home I swiped my debit card to purchase my return ticket. The machine told me it wasn’t working and I figured there was something wrong with the machine. I used cash to pay and didn’t think anything of it. Later in the evening, after teaching my two violin students, I stopped at the gas station to fill up before my trek the next day. The pump declined it. I went to the lady in the booth and had her run the card, and still it was declined. I called my bank and found out that my account was frozen because there might have been fraudulent activity! (Nothing was withdrawn, thankfully.) So the next day I had to visit my bank and get a temporary debit card.
On Thursday morning before work, I stopped at a different gas station. (The bank told me I could use that debit card using the PIN, just not as credit.) It worked fine, but as the gas was pumping, I just happened to look down at my back right tire and there was a nail sticking out of it!! There I was, about to make a three hour drive later that day to see my fiancé who was coming back from the war, and a nail had the audacity to stick itself in my tire! There was a National Tire and Battery right next to the gas station, so with a big sigh I finished filling up and took my car there. The guy at the front desk came out to inspect the tire, and he plucked that nail right out! I could hardly believe it. It had not punctured the tire, miraculously. He even sprayed the tire with water to prove to me there was no hole. Whew, disaster averted!
I could hardly concentrate the whole day, got my temporary debit card from the bank, and left work around 5:00. I got to my hotel and checked in, but there was an issue with my temp card, and my old one was already canceled! It took at least 30 minutes to get everything squared away. I dumped my stuff in the room, went out to get my visitor’s pass, got dinner, and then came back to eat and (try to) chill out. I got a shower and was getting settled in bed when the front desk called me: there was something wrong with my transaction! The ladies there were very nice and we got it all sorted out…but by this time I just wanted The Warrior back before something really wrong happened!!
The skies were gray and a little rain was sprinkling on Friday morning, but NOTHING could dampen my spirits that day. The adrenaline in the air was almost overwhelming, and my heart ached to see those white buses pull up to the field, full of soldiers…with one of them being mine. It was no longer a dream – I was about to see him in a few minutes, and it wouldn’t be over Skype! “Move that bus! Move that bus!” we all shouted as they piled out and got in formation, and then everyone started screaming and yelling as the buses pulled away and the soldiers marched towards us. I was frantically taking video, photos, and waving my little American flag, all while trying to pick out The Warrior in the sea of faces. There he was, on the right side in the second row. He had on his super-serious look, but as the colonel gave his speech, his signature impish grin crept onto his face. When the colonel yelled, “Charge!” I was one of the first people out of the bleachers since I was on the first row. The Warrior had previously told me to meet him at the music tent, but I was making a beeline for him. He was walking and facing away from me, so I shouted his name in the commotion and he quickly turned around. He hugged me and I tightly wrapped my arms around his neck. He was there…he was in my arms. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh, but I was smiling. I could hardly form words, but I think I managed a “I’m so glad you’re back.” (Yeah, real romantic…) He kissed me and his patrol cap hit my forehead and I imagined it looked awkward…but it was awesome. It was like another first kiss. He was BACK.
Thus started his reintegration. Everyone always imagines homecoming will be total bliss, but deep inside we know that is not completely true. There will be times of complete joy where it feels like nothing can go wrong…but then there are other periods where things are strained and you realize the war has changed your soldier. Some are affected in bigger ways than others, and I can say that things went fairly smooth for us compared to some stories I’ve read. But still, you have to watch out for triggers. Depending on what your soldier has experienced, loud noises might bother him at first, he might want to avoid large crowds, and more than likely he will want to sleep a lot the first few days. Don’t be surprised if he has some emotional or angry outbursts. Be aware of things that might set him off, like hearing anti-war sentiments on TV. He was just in the s*** and that is the last thing he wants to hear, even if it’s not directed at him. If he has an angry outburst, understand that it is not you, the wife/fiancée/girlfriend/parent. As long as he’s not being a threat to anyone, let him express his emotions and the moment will pass. Don’t judge and don’t make a comment about what just happened. Just let things be.
He will probably be more uptight when you’re driving, too. He might give simple instructions that are obvious like, “Watch out, that car is stopping,” or “Turn right” when you know exactly where you’re going. He might even say these things more forcefully than necessary. Again, just let him say these things and don’t pick on him. Right now is when the spouse has to be totally selfless and not take comments personally.
Before he returns, make sure to read good books on reintegration and post-war problems, like combat stress, PTSD, and TBI. The ones I read were On Combat by LTC Dave Grossman, After the War Zone by Dr. Matthew Friedman and Dr. Laurie Slone, and Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior, by COL Charles W. Hoge, M.D. I felt educated and prepared to deal with whatever problems might have arisen, but thankfully there was nothing serious. However, until I determined that things would be okay, I was vigilant and took mental notes on his behavior. *Edit* Even now, it’s important to not become complacent (as with anything in life). Issues can still arise six months or more after returning from deployment; it varies from person to person.
There is no possible way for us, who held down the homefront, to understand what our soldiers went through. But what we can and must do is listen to what they have to tell us and to remember that their stories will not come out all at once. The Warrior would bring up deployment incidents at random times, and every time he did I focused 100% on what he was saying. Your soldier should also make an effort to hear your side of the story, and when The Warrior praised and thanked me, I felt like a million bucks. He will never forget what he saw and experienced in Afghanistan, and he will be forever shaped by that, but he is still mine, he is still my hero, and he is still the guy that I am going to grow old with. It is great to be together again. I am so thankful for you, Warrior. :)
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Thank you to my readers who have faithfully followed this series. Please give feedback in the comment section and let me know if there are any particular subjects you would like me to write about! :)