Home is Wherever I'm With You
Let me describe that one word for you. For the civilian, it means you reunite with high school or college classmates and commiserate about your scholarly days. For military families, it is a word that encompasses more ... so much more.
It's the end of another time apart.
It's the quieting of fear ... for now.
It's the touch of someone you love, their physical presence completely overwhelming your senses.
It's the feelings of absolute happiness, indescribable relief, and heartrending triumph.
Homecoming is a little piece of heaven for the military.
This particular homecoming was for 3-319th Airborne Artillery Regiment stationed out of Fort Bragg, NC. The unit (and post) holds a personal history for me: my husband, Jonathan, was assigned to them for a while. Jonathan didn't deploy with the unit, but his former Lieutenant, Tyler Mercer, did. Lt. Mercer spent six months in Afghanistan away from his wife, Amber, and their son, Maddox. Amber asked me to be present to capture the homecoming, particularly because the last time Tyler had seen his son in person, Maddox was only a few weeks old. Now, he was almost seven months old.
Homecoming was set for March 14, 2018, 4:30 pm, after a lot of changes in schedule. We (Amber, Maddox, my mom, Jan, and myself) arrived an hour before Tyler's expected landing at Green Ramp, the large hanger where almost all the homecomings happen on Fort Bragg. There was a massive jump exercise currently in progress, so parking was reduced to a field about a five minute walk from the hanger. The wind was gusting and it was 45 degrees, unseasonably cold for North Carolina. Dodging the mud puddles made the trek even more miserable, as the fields were churned into bilge pits from hundreds of vehicles.
Indoors, the hanger was packed with people. 300 paratroopers coming home meant at least 500 guests. The 82nd Airborne Band was playing versions of "I'm Proud To Be An American", almost completely drowned out by the hubbub of the surrounding bodies. Families just wanting their soldiers to be home. The press was there, photographers were pacing about, and children were scrambling on the built-in wooden bleachers to let out pent-up energy.
There's this kind of tension at every homecoming, where people are so ready after months and months of waiting to hold their soldier, it's written all over their faces. As army families, we are so used to plans changing that I think homecoming holds the greatest stress: what if the plane gets delayed? What if we don't get to see our soldier today? What if we came all this way only to have to leave and wait some more? That stress is exacerbated by lack of communication about a landing time, unloading time, and basically everything else that's going on during those long minutes. It's almost physically painful and feels like an eternity.
I was so impressed by Amber's complete poise throughout the hour and a half we waiting to see her man. She just sat and rocked Maddox, talked with friends or pacing quietly back and forth across the concrete floor. She was so patient. As a service member herself, I'm sure she is well accustomed to the Army system, but it didn't make the minutes go by any quicker.
Finally, over a half hour after we heard the roar of the plane landing, someone announced that the soldiers were about the enter the hanger. There was a scramble to stand on the bleachers, the crowd growing restless as necks strained towards to closed hanger doors to catch sight of their soldiers walking up from the flight line. An expectant hush settled over the room, hundreds of bodies holding their breath and waiting, waiting, waiting yet again.
Then, the doors of the hanger were flung open and a deafening roar swept through the building. People were cheering and shouting, jumping up and down and waving their flags and welcome home signs. The band was completely drowned out as 3-319th entered the building, marching in formation. Family pushed against the ropes at the front of the hanger, divided from their loved ones by a flimsy strand of fence.
There were so many people in front of us we couldn't see the soldier marching inside without standing on the bleachers. There was little chance of finding Tyler in the slew of identical uniforms and the crowd of 300 tired but smiling faces, but Amber was looking nonetheless, her eyes brimming with tears. It was that moment that everything became so real: her man was there, just yards away. Maddox stared at all the commotion with a mixture of confusion and fascination.
Surely the long wait was over.
The band played the national anthem while tears flowed openly, and the commander stood to give a speech. I don't remember his exact words, but I do remember it was mercifully one sentence long and basically consisted of:
"I'm the only thing standing between you and your families. Paratroopers, DISMISSED!"
And with that, there was a wave of yelling, shrieking, cheering people hugging and kissing, paratroopers running to their families. Children racing into the arms of their fathers and mothers. There was a lot of crying, smeared mascara, and runny noses. The band was playing, but you didn't really hear it at all. People were shouting the names of their paratroopers, the crowd flexed like living thing, boiling with the sea of hundreds of bodies embracing.
The key to finding your soldier at a big homecoming is staying in one place and letting them find you, because they find you a lot easier than you can sort through all the uniformed bodies. Because this was such a huge homecoming, Amber was about six or more rows deep in the crowd, and after waiting nearly five minutes after the ranks dismissed, she still hadn't found Tyler in the massive crowd.
She finally started to walk towards the front of the hanger. It was just too much to keep standing and holding back. She was scanning the crowd, left and right, forward, over her shoulder ...
And then, the very minute she started walking forward, she was suddenly turning back around and running the way she came because there he was.
The long wait was over. The Mercer family was together again, whole, and so happy.
As I stood back, capturing it all, the back of my camera was wet with tears. Those feelings, the ones of holding your best friend, your husband, the father of your child, are indescribable. It's like a flood of complete joy that's bittersweet from the missed memories and separation. It's all the stress and worry of your loved one being in a war zone, far from the safety of home, melting away. There's a breathless, heart pounding excitement that makes you want to laugh uncontrollably while teetering on the very brink of tears.
But it's also this sense of completeness. You are no longer alone. You are simply together, and that is utterly, absolutely enough.