The war was over and the waiting began. We were not sure when we were coming home but we knew that we could have a long wait due to the fact that we had few Officers and none of them had direct control of us. In the world of retrograde, our group of Marines were expecting to get hind teat.
It was these thoughts that occupied my head when I was walking out of the tent about two weeks after the end of the war when I ran into Sgt Maxey. He stopped me and looked me in the eye when he simply stated “We are going home.”
A dozen things rushed through my mind at that moment. First, disbelief. After so long away from home, the reality of returning was hard to latch onto. While Shane was not one to joke about this taboo concept, I could not decide if I should let myself believe what he had just said. I had purposely tucked away the excitement of going home because I was too weak to handle the pain of waiting. So I did not expect it any time soon and tried to trick myself into thinking that it was “business as usual.”
I did not want to show weakness but my eyes watered a little when he made the statement. It was impossible that he was kidding and he would not have said it unless he was sure. Shane had promised our wives that he would bring us all home alive and he was living up to that promise. I had never felt so much appreciation for anyone in my life as I had for Shane at that moment.
There was still a lot to do but as you can imagine, the work did not seem as such when you are getting set to return home. We packed all our belongings, which had grown during out 7.5 month stay, and threw away things that mere days before were considered prized possessions. Within a couple of days, we had everything packed but was still unsure exactly how we were going to get home.
We came over on the USNS Curtiss, the bucket of bolts we had all wished would get scudded before we had to board her again. When the word came that we were flying home, cheers arose and we were amazed that someone up the line had coordinated our ride home so quickly.
I shall never forget the day that we sat in our tent for the last time, leaning against our packs and getting the word to tear down the canvas. That tent went down in about 30 seconds and the ground that we had spent so many bored and terrified moments lay bare before us. No one in our group would ever want to spend another minute there but there was but a minute feeling of nostalgia as we left our desert home. We sat in King Abdul Aziz for more than 24 hours after we took the hooch down, waiting for a bus to take us to the airport in Dahran.
There is never such thing as going home too fast and we were not surprised when our sudden departure slowed to a standstill. They took us to the airport and the long process of waiting began. When we got to Dahran, we had to sit in an unbelievably long line consisting of unit after unit with our seabags and other gear to get into customs. We would sit or lean on our bags for about 20-30 minutes, sometimes an hour. Then the line would move 40 or 50 feet, and we would sit back down again. At some point, we were on this gravel for quite a while with stones as big as a fist. Someone, maybe it was Mike Mabe or someone else was trying to play cards on his seabag, had to keep moving the game every time we advanced. We were in that line, then filtering through customs, and then waiting for a plane for more than 36 hours. Night turned to day and vice versa until we all lost track of time. We had dreamed and discussed about home for so long that there was not much to talk about. We all knew all our stories of what we were going to do once we hit the states. The result was a bored silence trying to contain the excitement of watching the end unfold.
After days of waiting, we started to think that we were the step children everyone forgot about. We were trying to slide into slots that were not designated to us but the overall situation felt as though no one really knew who was slated for what and the biggest rank won whatever head-butting was required to fill the slot. We had no heavy hitters so it felt like we were never going to get home.
The call finally came after waiting in a large hanger for what seemed like forever. We picked up our gear but there was nothing to distinguish this movement from the dozen others we had already been through so we just dutifully shuffled to the door.
But this was different. As I walked through the door that led outside, I was blinded by the morning sun we had not seen for a couple of days. The vastness of the TARMAC opened up as I stepped through the door and there it was. Sitting a few hundred yards away was a sight I shall never lose even if I go blind. Sitting there was a big fat Continental 767 with a ladder leading up to its tiny door. What was more amazing was just above this door was painted the largest yellow ribbon I have ever seen with my tear-blurred eyes. The Freedom Bird awaited.
Sitting on the flight was a surreal experience. Here I was in the luxury of a commercial airliner, in the softest seat I had sat in in half a dozen months, in full camouflaged utilities and a rifle. The entire bird was packed with smelly, excited Marines bound for home. The trip would take dozens of hours but we were really going home.
Everything that happened rated applause. The door was shut to the plane, applause. The stewardess came into the cabin, applause. She showed us how to fasten our seatbelts, even more applause. We were just plain giddy with excitement.
So it was no surprise when the captain came over the loud speaker that his initial words were drowned out by, you guessed it, loud applause. He then told us the following story.
“When all this started, I took many military personnel over to Saudi Arabia. In fact, I took over 100 planeloads of you over. But I am proud to say that this is the first flight I have had the honor to make bringing any of you home. It means a lot to me and I want you to know we are proud of your accomplishments. Now let’s get you home.”
The pilot also made a point that the crews on the jets bringing guys home were all volunteer because they could not legally make someone staff a flight into a hostile area.
With that, the sound produced by our group was nothing less than deafening.
I sat next to a Sergeant who could not stop fidgeting. Whether it was the hours of smoking he was denied or the excitement, this guy would not sit still. I was about to yell when suddenly he went to sleep. But the second he woke up, he was on the move again. Only the fact that I was going home saved me from strangling him.
The stewardesses on the flight rated special attention. They would walk around and talk to the guys and everyone would clamor for their attention. Guys were giving away their dog tags to them and there was one particularly attractive brunette who had a whole chain of them hanging from her neck by the end of the flight.
We stopped in England where we were allowed to disembark but they had walled off a portion of the area so that we were isolated from the rest of the airport. Just to get out and stretch the legs was a pleasure and Rob and I bought a couple of trinkets from the venders that were brought just for us. Of course Rob bought more than what would normally be expected due to the fact that both ladies working the counter were short; a fact that has always sent Rob reeling.
There is something special about touching U.S. soil when you have been away. Multiply this by the fact that patriotism was at incredible levels and we were the returning heroes and you can almost guess the emotions going through our souls. Such was the mood when we landed in Bangor, Maine; a city I will forever hold in high regard for what was about to happen.
Shuffling down the causway, it was good to be home, defined as America. All other airports we had come through always had ladders wheeled up to the airplane and it was something we never noticed before but in America, they have the causeways that connect to the plane. It just seem more “civilized” and the way it should be.
Coming down in line, we entered the body of the building which was a thin hallway with a bend toward the end. The result was a finite view of your path ending in a turn you could not see around. As I was waiting my turn, I looked to my left and saw a set of stairs and a bank of phones below. It did not take but a microsecond to decide to break from the crowd and shoot down those stairs.
Within minutes, I called my wife and spoke the words I had dreamed about for months. “Baby, I’m on American soil.” Talking with her for 30 minutes, I then called my mother, brother, father, and a few other family members. We had a two hour layover and I had just used an hour when I thought I might be missed and thought it best if I rejoin my undoubtedly bored counterparts.
I climbed the stairs a happy man. I was in the USA and I had just talked to the people I love. I figured I would be going into an airport waiting area and sit bored until our plane was ready. I was off target, to say the least.
At the top of the stairs, I turned left and noticed something I had not seen before. Lined up along the walls were elderly men with the tell tell hats loaded down with pins and patches. The VFW had come out to see us and shook my hand as I walked by. “Welcome home, son.” I cannot tell you who this meant more to: them or me. I saw the pride in their eyes and the unmistakable earnestness in which they welcomed me home. I was humbled by their presence.
As I neared the turn, I heard some commotion. Still riding the high of the heartfelt welcome I had just received from those whose legacy I held in my hands as a Marine, I walked into sheer pandemonium.
I turned the corner and stepped into the waiting area as the world before me exploded. What I had not known is the entire town had turned out for the sole purpose of welcoming us home. When I stepped in, the music blared (“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springstein), confetti flew, and the applause was nothing short of a roar. Police were lined up on either side, holding back throngs of people holding signs and waving frantically. “Welcome home, Hero.” “Good job, Desert Warrior.” “We missed you.” And most meaningful was an older man in a faded camouflaged boony cover with a sign that read “Vietnam Vets honor Desert Storm victors.”
I was shocked into dumbfounded silence. I stood there in my oversized desert cammies (I had lost 50 pounds and they were big to begin with) just plain awestruck, not knowing what to do. I must have looked like a little kid not knowing whether to continue or turn and run until one of the VFW vets came up behind me and whispered in my ear. “Go ahead, son. You have earned it and they have been waiting to show you what you have done for this country.” That broke the spell and I walked forward feeling like a cross between a rock star and the President. My fellow marines had walked into this an hour prior and had reviled in the attention. But I was alone and in the spotlight. From what I was told, they reacted exactly the same the first time. It did not matter that I was alone, the welcome was the same.
It ends up that all these people were taking turns coming to the airport, 24 hours a day to welcome all the flights back. The kind of people that would do that are simply indescribable. They took their time to come out and shower us with gratitude and attention and I will never forget their efforts.