About an hour later I was caffeinated & dressed, & looking as semi-decent as one can manage to look at 4:30 in the morning. I felt kind of hungover, even though the strongest drink I'd had the previous evening was decaffeinated coffee! Clearly terror & a lack of sleep do funny things to your brain.
Around 05:00 I gathered the bits & pieces that I'd need for the morning & wandered outside to see if I could recognize the rental car again. It was already hot & muggy, & before I'd even managed to switch on the a/c, I was wondering why I'd just bothered even trying to make my hair look like it belonged on my head. I decided denial was the best approach & refused to check out the newly frizzed look in the mirror. If all else failed, there was always the Sox cap on the passenger seat….
After locating the base address on my GPS, I was soon on my way. The traffic was surprisingly heavy for so early in the morning, but I guess it was around the time that life on a military base started happening for the day, so I probably shouldn't have been too surprised. Thankfully I managed to get on base without any problems though, & in retrospect the early homecoming was a blessing - I’ve since seen the queues of visitor traffic trying to get access a bit later in the day, & it’s not pretty. So driving through at 05:30 was a dream in comparison. A quick stop at the visitor center & I was all set with base access for the day.
I followed the printed directions that I'd brought along with me, & at 05:45 I was at Fort Benning’s Lawson Air Field, ready for M’s homecoming ceremony. This marked not only his return from a 12 month deployment in Iraq, but also the first time we’d ever met in person. Yikes. Was I insane? I felt sure that I'd be institutionalized on the spot if anyone caught wind of my story. This is the stuff that only the crazies are made of.
In between listening to the voices in my head, I had occasional moments of clarity. Everything was going to be great. I still had 5 minutes before the scheduled start, & there was no way it was going to be on time. I'd wander around the hall, relax a bit, & enjoy people-watching while all the families waited excitedly. Just as I parked & emerged from the car, I heard my phone peep. It was a text message from M. "Here we come". Sh*t!! I wasn't even in the building. Luckily I was only a few meters from the door & I scurried in. Thankfully the only soldiers around were the ones playing "security", trying to stop the screaming families from barging through the main doors at the back.
I found a spot along the front line & could still hear my heart beating, even over the combined noise of the Army band & the excited people. One thing that M & I had discussed previously was finding each other on the day. Potentially it could’ve been mayhem at the air field - with hundreds of excited families running around trying to find their loved ones. So speaking on the phone could have been problematic. We decided that if it was noisy, we could use text messages to locate each other. And M decided that if ultimately it meant we had to wait to be the last 2 people standing, then so-be-it!
All this was going through my mind again as the band changed its tune & someone official yelled something. I can't remember a word of what he shouted, but I knew it meant they were on their way out. Soon I was wishing I'd brought ear plugs, but thankfully I was quickly distracted by the sight of a few hundred soldiers marching around a corner. As soon as they turned, I saw him immediately. He was right there in the front row, & when they stopped for their Commander’s speech, he was literally just a few people to my right. Perfect.
The only word I remember hearing the Commander saying was: "Dismissed!". He reached this verdict very quickly (a wise move - I think there would’ve been a stampede of families to deal with otherwise) & the secured area was opened up to the families. It was bedlam for a little while, with folk running everywhere, so I had to keep my eye on M to make sure I didn't lose him. I called his name but he couldn't hear me (naturally), & I just managed to get to him as he was obviously deciding to go walkabout to look for me. I think we were both just so pleased (or relieved) to finally see each other in person. And I know I was quite overwhelmed by the whole thing - no matter how much we’d talked, and how close we’d become by phone, meeting in the flesh for the first time is a whole, new ball game.
Nevertheless it was a very special moment, one that I will never forget. M hugged me & kissed me & we just stood there smiling for a while. He shared with me that he’d had a travel companion with him on the flight home - “Cheeky” is a small finger puppet monkey that I sent him in a care package at one point while he was deployed. And he’d spent the entire flight in his pocket! M has a fun sense of humor, & is very cheeky sometimes, so when we wrote I often commented that he was a “Cheeky Monkey” in response to some of his comments. That kind of became his nickname quite quickly. It was cute that he'd even kept the little fella, let alone thought to carry him on the plane with him! This silliness was interrupted when we both suddenly became aware that we weren't alone as we chatted. Apparently someone from the Family Readiness Group was taking photos of us (we still haven't managed to locate them though!).
Once we'd shaken them off, M also presented me with some fabulous European chocolate that he’d picked up for me (or “us”, as I later discovered ;-) in Germany. He’d bought wine too, but ended up having to return it before flying out, courtesy of Army regulations. They'd been told in advance that they were not allowed to drink alcohol en-route, but no mention of not being able to buy any to take home. Seemingly they were supposed to interpret that bit. But my absolute favorite gift from him was a beautiful stone, shaped into a heart. I carry it with me all the time, & will treasure it forever, along with the memory of our first meeting in person.
Welcome home 1-10 Field Artillery, 3rd Infantry Division!