MARK’S ARTICLE – June 26, 2009 “A Welcome Home”
I’ve never gone anywhere long enough to be missed all that much. Don’t know how long I’d hafta go to merit a “Welcome Home” banner. Probably longer than most people. Longer than a week or two with the brothers. Apparently.
My nephew CJ has been welcomed home four times that I know of. I participated in the last welcoming. It was at Fort Hood near Killeen. Second thought, I think Fort Hood is Killeen. It’s a city of soldiers.
CJ is a Mayo, my sister Susan’s grandson. Susan’s side of the family lives in Washington State. Of course, CJ’s been living in Afghanistan the last several months and stationed at Fort Hood when he’s not in the Middle East. He’s been in the army for six years and spent five of ‘em in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Four tours. Hasn’t been a great deal of turn around time for him.
I got the e-mail from CJ just three days before they decided to ship him home. He mentioned in his e-mail that he’d be back at Ft. Hood on Friday, just in case anybody would be able to show up.
CJ with Aunt Kay and Unca Mark
Of course, we’ll show up. We’re Hayters. We show up… except when we can’t. Turns out, Jill was the only one other than Kay and me who could show. I didn’t intend to take Kay along, ‘cause she has a broken foot. I would’ve told you about it sooner, but she didn’t want me to. She’s the suffer-in-silence type.
Beg pardon? Oh, she stepped off a curb at World Market. She walked like the curb wasn’t there. It wasn’t painted a bright enough red. For a split second she was walking in air. I couldn’t do a thing but watch. She must’ve fallen for five or six minutes. My reaction time is like way down.
Regardless of the spill, Kay’s doctor gave her a green light for the Ft. Hood trip if she stayed off her foot. I borrowed a wheel chair from church, ‘cause I can’t carry as much as I used to. Even the times I managed to drag Kay into the store, she said I lost too much stuff out of her purse. Can’t make the girl happy.
So, it was the three of us on a trip to Ft. Hood. We didn’t have much trouble finding the Iron Horse Gym on base. The guard at the gate gave good directions. Of course, he had to check our photo I.D.s. And, though he came across as nice, I had the feeling he would and could snap my neck in a second if I gave him any trouble. I was just hoping Jill wouldn’t try one of her stupid stunts. “Sir? My brother just said you were a sissy boy.” That’s the kind of stuff my Jill pulls.
CJ’s plane was supposed to land at 5:40 p.m. but he didn’t show till 10:15. That gave us over four hours in a gym with those torturous rollout bleachers. The good news was that the place was kept cool and there were a bunch of kids there to entertain. Little kiddos running all over the place, laughing and falling down.
A soldier set up a DJ booth and played music for everyone. Played it really loud. Even played the Macarena song. Watching those little kids pat their shoulders and wiggle around was a hoot.
After about two hours of this, we were approached by a couple of great looking girls. I figured they were lost, ‘cause they approached me with a smile. Turns out they were CJ’s sisters. First time I ever met ‘em. Heather had flown in from Washington and Ashley actually lives in Killeen. Her husband is serving in Iraq.
We had a great gabfest. Heather made it known that she did not want CJ to see her till the last minute. He was expecting Ashley, but didn’t know that Heather had flown in.
I can’t say enough about how nice everyone in the gym was. The USO was there, providing drinks and snacks. I thought they were taking donations, but they wouldn’t accept anything. Said it was what they do.
Eventually, the music stopped and the DJ announced that buses from the landing field were arriving. You would not believe the screams. I’ve been in a lot of school gyms during big games and never heard a scream that piercing.
Finally, the DJ put on something patriotic, and the soldiers began running in. They came straight through the doorway and then made a right angle turn at the gym floor. They formed several perfect lines. There were about 200 soldiers. You could not hear yourself think. Not sure that’s possible anyway.
Finally, the general got everyone quiet. Generals can do stuff like that. The National Anthem was then played. I don’t believe the Anthem ever moved me more. After the “…home of the braaave.” The General said a prayer, thanking God for the return of these men and women, while asking for a blessing on the families of those whose loved ones didn’t make it back. It was a most sobering moment.
After the prayer, he released the soldiers. That’s when bedlam broke out. People were running all over the place trying to team up their husbands, wives, sons, daughters... nephews. It didn’t take CJ long to find us. I must say, he hugged his sister, Heather, longer than he hugged me. I was too big to mention it. It was the best “Welcome back” I had ever seen.
Heather gives CJ a big ol' welcome home hug.
After all the hugging and kissing and crying stuff, CJ spun Aunt Kay’s wheelchair around and wheeled her out of the gym. I thought it a sweet moment. Made Kay feel good.
While outside, we got to meet CJ’s friend Larry Robles from Nicaragua. Larry didn't have family there, so we took him with us to Denny's, the only eating place in Killeen we could find open after midnight.
Kay and Mark with CJ's friend, Larry Robles.I imagine the guys had dreamed of steaks and shrimp and corn on the cob being their first meal back, but they ended up with nachos and steak fingers. They seemed to take it much better than I would have.
It was a long day… and night. Before leaving, we made sure CJ would be able to come down to Conroe for the Fourth. He said he wouldn’t miss it. He asked if there would be fireworks. He said he would just need a little warning. “It takes awhile to get over loud noises, Uncle Mark.”
Five years being shot at. I can only imagine. But, he’s safe at home now. And, he’s had a welcome fitting a soldier. So much more deserving than, say, a guy who goes off for a week of hiking with the brothers. That won’t get you much. I’m here to tell you.