When I look back over 2010, probably one of the favorite and most emotional events of the year was Austin's return from Iraq in April 2010. His year-long deployment with the Army was something our family had never experienced, as we don't have any former military men in our immediate family.
His departure had been delayed for 4 months, and the anxiety of him leaving and being away from his new bride for a year was mounting. The day we told him goodbye was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced, because not only was our family being emotionally and physically separated, but we watched as 300 more families were experiencing the same thing that day.
Austin's new wife, Brittany moved in with us for eight months (which was a wonderful blessing for all of us), and we were able to talked to him fairly often on the phone. We sent care packages each week. The year moved quickly for us here at home, but I think it was probably the longest year Austin has ever experienced. Some days we could really hear the homesickness in his voice. Austin flew home for his two-week break on Dec 5th, eight months into his deployment, so we were thrilled for him to be home during the Christmas season. He returned back to Iraq a few days before Christmas, and his spirits remained good as he began the countdown to his return home date.
As April approached, we kept our schedules as free as possible as the Army does not give out definite dates when troops will be arriving home. When we finally got a fairly firm date, we headed towards Killeen to wait. . We began our vigil at 9 pm and the buses with the troops aboard finally arrived about midnight on April 10th..
It was a sight to see.
Surrounding that lit-up parade ground were hundreds of family members holding welcome home signs, flags and flashlights. It was a carnival atmosphere. . .The anticipation was growing as the announcer declared that the soldiers were almost there. My favorite memory was of a pair of 18-month old twin girls in a double stroller near us who were fussy and tired as midnight approached. When the buses arrived carrying the soldiers, their mom leaned over to them and whispered to them "Daddy is here now". . .They straightened up in that stroller, stopped crying and they reminded me of hunting dogs "on point", leaning forward in their seats as they strained to see him in the sea of soldiers marching towards us. It was amazing to me to see that even at 18 months old, those little girls understood the meaning of the phrase "Daddy's home."
We saw young soldier dads being handed their own new babies that they had never seen before. We saw teenage children almost tackle their dads and moms as they ran full force across the parade ground to hug them. We saw young girlfriends and wives dressed up in glittery dresses and heels who were passionately kissing their soldier boyfriends and husbands. They didn't care who was watching. We watched as parents greeted their sons and daughters with both patriotic pride and thankfulness that the deployment was over. And we also saw soldiers standing there alone, with no one to welcome them home, as their families were too far away to come for the ceremony. My heart ached for them.
I still can't think about that night without getting a bit teary. . .Never before have I realized the huge sacrifices that our military troops undertake by leaving their families numerous times during their careers to defend our country and to carry out orders given by our government leaders.Since that night, I have often said that every elected government official need to attend one of those gut-wrenching send-offs and joyful homecomings to fully understand the effects those deployments have on military families. And I also have become fully aware of the need for those of us here at home in the US to support and care for the military families who are left behind. Life is more difficult for them than most of us can imagine.
Below is my favorite picture from that night. It was the moment that Austin and Brittany were reunited. That picture symbolized that the long year was over, that they could move forward as a young married couple again, and that Austin was home safe and sound. Again, let us never forget the emotional and physical "cost" of our freedoms.