There were over 150 of us leaving on the chartered flight from my undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. It took 40 hours to get home…and I’m home!
The way the redeployment process goes is you report to an assembly location four hours before your flight is scheduled to depart. As folks report it is almost festive….everyone there is going home. Your Commander and other leaders are there to say good-bye and wish folks well. Our squadron had a big group, those scheduled to redeploy at that time and a group of us who stayed on a few extra weeks to help the new rotation get off to a positive start. Once report time is reached, all unauthorized people have to leave, you are in locked-down and roll-call is conducted to ensure the names on the manifest match those present and accounted for. Well, my name wasn’t called (along with 3 other “extenders” from my squadron and several others). So, instead of staying in the locked-down location, hanging out, getting released to get food, etc., myself and all the others “not on the manifest” out-processed (paperwork and stamps clearing you from the base) and quickly jumped in the bus that brought us out to the flight line and our plane. We were the baggage detail! For those of you who have never deployed, this is like a “self-help” project….all the bags are collected the night before departure, loaded by those redeploying into a container truck and then brought out to the flight line with airplane. Our job…unload the container, get the bags on the conveyor belt, and load them in the cargo hold of the chartered Boeing 767.
It was a classic day, hot and luckily with a bit of a breeze. There we were, out in the middle of a desert on a ramp to the runway, with our uniform blouses laying over our “72 hour” carry on bags (pillows, etc) resting on the side of the ramp. We were dressed-down to our T-shirts and ready for work. None of us complained…we were going home and, in a way, grateful not to be sitting and waiting for our flight. For me, this was perfect! I volunteered to be here and I’m redeploying just like the rest of those who wear the uniform and don’t have that choice. A lot of bags…with a lot of weight…in the desert sun with respite under the shade of the wing. It took well over an hour and a half to load up the bags. While we worked (and sweat), we watched fighter jets take off, and you could look back at the hangers on MOTown and see the business of getting ready for missions. It was just perfect…this was how to end it. (The bag-detail got the first seats on the plane…we spread out and waited for everyone else to arrive.)
So my strategy to long travel and significant changes in time zones is don’t sleep before and during travel (learned when we lived in Guam). I didn’t go to bed until after 1am the night before (waking up at 5:30am), finishing last minute items to help my replacement hit the ground sprinting. I did my “vertigo thing” as my Commander called it (since I’m a Virgo and everything needs order), making sure everything was e-filed, finalizing documents with helpful links, notes and explanations, and double e-filing. Turnover with your replacement is like having to transfer tons of cargo from your sailboat to theirs in a raging storm and with a hard-fast deadline that you’ve got to fall-out of the race. For my replacement, he’s in that storm, revisiting the tied down cargo full of info and stuff to keep sailing the boat…and he can’t capsize; it’s all about the mission.
For me, I sailed out of the storm into calm waters, looking back over my shoulder at the clouds but with my eye on the horizon…home…my family…yes, home.
A “layover” in Germany gave a bit of time with my team of folks before we scattered in different directions. Our landing in BWI was after midnight. I got to see a reunion of one of our SNCOs who lives in the area. Her daughter jumping up and down when she got sight of her…the embraces, the joy; it’s what coming home is all about. The beauty of my “here and now” survival mode was taking in all of it…every step of the way…from throwing bags, to using my time on the plane to transition, to watching this large group of our Airman warriors collect their bags at baggage claim, to letting go of where and what I left (not the who!) and travel to where I was heading….home.
We scattered….those from my squadron and folks you worked with in the desert. There were hugs, hand shakes and things said like “it’s a small Air Force….I’ll see you again” or “it was great to know you” and, of course, “good luck.” I checked into a hotel to take a long, hot shower and catch (literally) a few hours of sleep; woke up, did a short abs workout, got in my uniform, and repacked my bags to lighten the load of my carry-on. It didn’t need 72 hours of clothing and supplies anymore…I had one more flight and I was home.
As I sat waiting at the gate I watched the busy travelers darting here and there. I was like watching a movie…I wasn’t quite in it but I knew the flight up to Boston was my portal back to my life. My headphones played songs that flooded me with memories and love for Mac and our times as a family together. Occasionally, tears would swell in my eyes. No words can describe the feelings I had as I watched folks moving about, or taking to a colleague they were traveling with, or working on their computer. They had no idea what was going on with and in me. Even though I sat there in my uniform, I was invisible.
Boarded….got my seat…felt the take-off. The turbulence of the flight cancelled cabin service and I thought…perfect! This is the tension between the world I left and reentering my world. The touch-down, screech of the tires on the runway, taxi and slow roll to the gate was my last transition. When the doors open and I deplane, I’m home.
While landing and taxiing, I played the Billy Joel song “Your My Home” and the lyrics repeated in my mind as everyone wrestled for their carry-ons and the isle to exit (still invisible).
When you touch my weary head
And you tell me everything will be all right
You say, “Use my body for your bed
And my love will keep you warm throughout the night”
Well I’ll never be a stranger and I’ll never be alone
Whenever we’re together, that’s my home
I know my heart rate was up as I waited in the isle and it rose as I finally started to depart the plane. When I could see the gate door to the terminal, there was Mac! Good thing no one was in the way cause he would have knocked them over to get to me; I would have done the same.
No words can describe the feeling of that embrace….nope, no words.
Then there was Morgan who enveloped me with his size and hug…and then Caitlin. And that’s when I realized that the Hanscom folks were there at the gate. I lost my breath…. No words can describe the feelings, seeing my colleagues and friends who greeted to welcomed me home.
Balloons…flowers….hugs…greetings. A walk to baggage claim, “see you Monday” and out to the car with Mac, Morgan and Caitlin. I’m home.
We pulled into the driveway and I waited near the car for Jack to come out and see me. He hesitantly approached, rolled on his back for a belly rub, still seeming unsure. And then he stood up, stuck his nose right into the top of my boot and pant leg and the recognition was obvious; body tail wag…hip check against my leg for a side rub…attempts to “jump up”. I’m home.
The three of us spent a lovely day together. I think I was like a little kid trying to share experiences and stories. It took me probably an hour to get out of my uniform. Mac said “get changed and get comfortable.” I remember thinking, but I am comfortable. When got changed, took off my uniform I realized that I needed to do that. Be in the “here and now”…be home!
I’ve been home now for 4-1/2 days, easing back, laying low with Mac and seeing and feeling things that are home: dog hair (everywhere!); Mac’s home cooked meals; walks with the dog; my bed (oh so comfortable) and with my guy….and Billy Joel keeps singing in my head.
If I travel all my life
And I never get to stop and settle down
Long as I have you by my side
There’s a roof above and good walls all around
You’re my castle, you’re my cabin and my instant pleasure dome
I need you in my house ’cause you’re my home.
You’re my home.