I heard a few days ago that almost 300 soldiers returned to Ft. Campbell from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
It made the news, but it wasn’t a huge story, per se.
I realized a lot of us have become so used to the frequent comings and goings of our troops, that we may sometimes forget just how much these comings and goings mean to the troops and their families.
Whenever I hear of soldiers coming home, my eyes automatically well with tears. Even when I’m not consciously thinking of it, I feel the same way I felt when I was 11 years old and my dad was coming home.
My dad was a KC-135 refueling tanker pilot with the Tennessee Air National Guard when I was growing up. He worked his day job as an engineer, but two nights out of each month he’d go straight from work to the airbase for a flight. One weekend out of each month, he’d leave work Friday and go to the base for an “alert” tour for the weekend.
Military life was always secondary to civilian life.
In December 1990, though, military life moved to the forefront.
Days before Christmas, my dad told us his unit had been activated. He was to leave for Saudi Arabia within a week for Operation Desert Shield.
He left the day after Christmas.
Most of the next few months are still a blur to me, but some moments are burned in my memory.
Like the night of Jan. 17, 1991.
That night, my mom, my older brother and I gathered around the television in our living room. The CNN anchor stood in front of a runway in Riyadh as KC-135 refueling tankers took off, their lights flashing against an almost black sky.
It was the first day of the official war.
I wondered if my dad was flying one of those planes.
Operation Desert Storm was ultimately a relatively brief war, particularly compared to what we’ve seen in recent years.
But it felt like eternity.
As the war came to a close, we knew he’d be coming home soon, but we didn’t know when. Most of the wives of the men in the unit formed a phone tree, so they called each other whenever there were updates on possible return dates, but nothing could ever be confirmed.
Eventually, groups started returning but the military didn’t release the names of which airmen would be with which group.
So each time a group was scheduled to arrive, my mom would pack my brother and I into the car and we would make the 45-minute trek to the base.
We watched the men, clad in their green flight suits, as they stepped from the transport bus and we hunted for my dad’s tall figure.
Twice we did this, only to return home without my dad.
When the third group returned, we were told this would be the largest group returning, so it was a pretty sure bet he’d be onboard.
So again we packed up the car and made the trek to the base.
Yellow ribbons and American flags seemed to adorn every spare inch in the vast building. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” blared on repeat over the loudspeaker, and as the allotted return time approached, the din of conversation reached a crescendo.
People constantly milled toward the door of the hangar, heads swiveling this way and that looking for the speck of a returning airplane.
A reporter for the local radio station started talking to my mom, and when he learned my dad was one of the pilots, he stayed glued to our sides.
When the plane finally arrived and the men made their way through Customs, I watched as the bus pulled up to the red carpet rolled out to the doorway.
One by one, the men stepped onto that red carpet.
And then he was there.
I don’t remember much after that. But to this day, I still feel the relief.
I’ve gone much longer spans of time separated from my dad in the time since then. Even now, we live nearly 200 miles apart.
But when you know your loved one is in a war zone, that undercurrent of fear never strays far. Every day you don’t hear from him or her, you wonder if you ever will again.
That type of fear marks you for life.
I still can’t listen to “God Bless the U.S.A.” or look at a yellow ribbon.
So let’s not ever get so used to the comings and goings of our soldiers that we forget just how huge that news is.
Because for each soldier deployed, there are dozens of other lives forever changed.