Saturday, May 16, 2009

Leave, Part 1: Two Homecomings

I am back from Leave and catching up on events from the last three weeks.

On April 25th I began the trip home for my scheduled Leave (read vacation) from Iraq. The day began with an hour plus long convoy from my base to Baghdad International Airport, or BIAP. BIAP sits in the heart of Victory Base, a sprawling complex that’s larger than a small city. I was manifested on a flight that would be leaving 15 hours after my arrival. To pass the time I read all of A Thousand Splendid Suns from cover to cover and thinking about reuniting with Lisa, Sam and TJ.

Meanwhile, sometime during the same day, to the north of Baghdad, a young sergeant was shot by a sniper near the city of Kirkuk. And while the medics and doctors tried to save him, he died here in Iraq. His body was prepared to go home to his family.

Somewhere during the day I sent Lisa emails updating her of my progress, or lack thereof, and expressed my excitement to be coming home. There was a lot to look forward to.

Somewhere in Texas, the young sergeant’s family received two men in uniform at the door. Their message was that he too was coming home. There was no excitement and nothing to look foward to.

The military can make anything last interminably longer than it should and in the early, early hours of Sunday, I (and about sixty others) began the process of boarding the C-130 that would bring us to Kuwait to go home. We boarded the plane and were told that our mission was being diverted to Kirkuk.

At 0330 in the morning, the young sergeant’s flagged draped coffin met us at the Kirkuk airfield. Our plane shut down, and we exited the aircraft to join a full color guard, twenty-one gun salute, several hundred fellow Soldiers to pay respects as the coffin was loaded. Standing there in the dark and quiet I found myself selfishly thinking of my reunion with my family, and less of the dead Soldiers reunion with his. And while I appreciate ceremony, this one felt a little surreal as sixty of us all had plans to be enjoying ourselves within the next 48 hours and yet we were flying with a very real and tangible reminder of the war for part of the way.

We flew to Kuwait City International Airport where another ceremony was held. This time the sergeant’s body was taken off of the C-130 for transport to another plane that would take it to Dover, Delaware. We all re-boarded our plane for the Kuwait airbase that processes people to go on Leave. Later on Sunday night our flight flew from Kuwait to Germany and then on to Atlanta where we all split up to our homes east of the Mississippi.

Somewhere on Monday, the Soldier’s family met a color guard at an airport near where he’d be buried with full honors. Their long grieving processes had only begun.

On Monday, I stepped off my plane in Syracuse to the arms of my wife. We wrapped up in each other and embraced. It felt so good to be home.

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