When Danny returned to the States in March 2004 after a year-long tour in Baghdad, I had very little notice. We were engaged but not married, and this means I didn’t receive any updates about his unit’s deployment or return. Danny had managed a call from Kuwait and then another from Europe on their way home.
Thankfully, the drive from Killeen to Houston is only about two-and-a-half hours. By mid-morning the day of their return — and after a harrowing moment when, briefly unable to locate documentation for my car insurance, I was told that I couldn’t enter Fort Hood — I was sitting on cold metal bleachers with hundreds of people: wives, husbands, children, mothers, and fathers, all waiting for a Greyhound bus that would finally bring their particular soldier home. The night before, I had bought a white linen skirt — a mistake, because it was so freakin’ cold out there, waiting, facing an empty parade ground for hours and hours. Danny told me later that his particular unit had arrived quite early in the afternoon but were informed that they would have to wait on the bus until at least two more plane-fuls of soldiers touched down. The reason for this? They wanted their homecoming to look “more dramatic.”
[Sidebar: As anyone who has seen a military promo before the movies knows, the last thing the Army needs is more delusions of romantic drama. According to the stylized propaganda you sit through before your feature film, the Army is all about running solo through deserts (why is that appealing?), and rescuing children from hunger and disease (a noble but ultimately infrequent occurrence for most servicemen and women), fighting with those giant Q-tips that American Gladiators slug it out with (they actually do that!), and slaying dragons! Oh, wait. That last one is the Marines. In any case, Danny hates these commercials and yells at the screen when they play.]
The buses finally pull up to the parade field. By now, it’s almost dark, and I would kill for some sweatpants. The decked-out military horses nervously paw the ground while someone who is, probably, a big-shot decides to talk for fifteen minutes. I had scanned about half of the soldiers, looking for Danny’s glasses, when I was rattled by the bark of “DISMISSED!”
And then — chaos. Someone did not think this through. There are hundreds of soldiers on the field. Families overrun the soldiers’ tight formation as if they’d just won the Super Bowl. I have no idea how to find Danny, and I begin to panic, convinced that he is standing right in front of me but that I don’t recognize him. Because seriously. Everyone is wearing the same thing. I am about to cry, and not in that Hallmark-moment type way, when I see him through the crowd and violins start playing. I am about to cry because I am convinced, within these brief five minutes, that I am a terrible person because I can’t find the one person I’m supposed to be able to find. I become increasingly certain that everyone is going to pair off and stride happily to their sedans and station wagons until Danny and I are the only ones left. And then it would be awkward and terrible.
Of course, I am not the only person having this problem. Eventually, frustrated family members commandeer the microphone. “Bobby! Bobby Hammond! We’re up here by the snack bar!” Danny borrowed a friend’s cell phone and called me. I was standing about four feet away, doing that almost-crying thing and panicking.
That day is a really strange memory. When I think of those hours on the bleachers, I remember anticipation and excitement but also a little fear. He could be sent back again. I could be sitting on the bleachers a year and a half from now. Or worse. I could get a phone call, mid-way through his second tour, before I even made it to the bleachers. Something could go wrong. And I felt a little anxiety. I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are invisible to many civilians in a way that World War II or Vietnam were not. I didn’t know what a returning soldier meant. I hadn’t met one yet, not one returning from Baghdad. And even though, at that point, Danny and I had been together for almost eight years, I didn’t know what it meant to be the person meeting him. What do you say? Was there some memo I missed, telling me what to do?
Today was Danny’s last official day in the Army. Unless our country reinstates the draft, they can’t call him up and send him away anymore. (They probably couldn’t have sent him overseas, anyway, but that’s another story.) The past year or so, it definitely has felt like Danny has been living a civilian life, but still. Today feels good. I am promised from here on out that I won’t have another year of wondering, when I don’t get that morning email, if something has happened. I won’t have to carry my cell phone when I run, won’t have to put it within earshot while I shower, because I’ll be able to call him back instead of listening to that reassuring but depressing message. “Hope to catch you next time. I’m safe.”
And when he walks in the door tonight, I’ll be wearing sweatpants. In our apartment. I’ll hand him a “You’re out of the Army!” cupcake, and I’ll know just what to say.