Homeward bound


Julia Gibbs is an Army wife stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala. Last year, while living in Germany, she flew to the States to visit family with her two small children. On the last leg of their journey, they had an unexpected companion, and Julia wrote a story about their experience. She generously allowed me to share it here in Spouse Calls. Julia writes:

After a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, hours of standing in line holding my 2½ -year-old on my right hip while holding the hand of my four-year-old; after an 11-hour fun-filled trip of spilled drinks, Disney movies, crayons, lost sippy cups, pull-up nightmares, plane-toilet drama, and tears of joy, we finally landed in Atlanta. We all took a deep breath of relief when we made our connecting flight to Pensacola, Fla.

We got on the plane and started to get settled.  At this point of the trip, I have stopped making eye contact with any other humans in my vicinity besides the ones who came from my loins. It’s close to 2 a.m. for us – in Germany time – and we looked and smelled like road kill. We unloaded the DVD player, the blankies, the toys, the kitchen sink – you get the picture – and try to love each other through one more flight. After the flight attendant explained the emergency exits, while I daydream about us all sliding down the big yellow slide that comes out of the side of the plane, the pilot came on the speakers with a special announcement. 

“We are honored to be riding with a soldier on his final journey home to Pensacola from Afghanistan.”

My four-year old, Mattox, immediately piped up, “Afghanistan?  That is where my daddy lived!  He was there a loooonnnggg time!” I reassured her that yes, it is the same place, and we talked about the amazing memory of the day Jeremy came to us after his final journey home from Afghanistan. There is nothing like that moment.  The moment you have dreamed about, prayed for, played out in your mind a million different times over an entire year of separation, that moment when you are at last together again.

I remember well making signs to hold up for him to read. Mattox was about 3½ years old and she drew a family portrait for Daddy. We looked like hotdogs with worms growing out of our heads, but it was priceless because it showed us holding hands with Jeremy. We hadn’t held those hands in so long. Just the drawing made me tear up.

We waited in this hot gym. We waited and waited for him to come marching in. “They” tell you to come at a certain time, but “they” are never sure what time that C17 will actually come rolling down the tarmac. But then it happens. People start to stir, excitement rolls through the air and people start to straighten their clothes and their hair. They are coming! Our boys are home! 

Jeremy came in first, calling the soldiers to attention and standing with pride and exhaustion ten feet in front of me. The soldiers try so hard to keep their faces still and stoic, but they can hear their babies calling, “Dadddddyyyy!” and you see their resolve break. Some have tears coming down their cheeks. Some are smiling. Some are biting the insides of their cheeks. Some are staring at their newborn babies whom they have yet to hold. Then the colonel says they are released and the sea of people engulfs the heroes.  

That memory played through my head while we flew across the sky to Pensacola.  It was a short flight, only 45 minutes and then the landing gear was coming down. As we landed, the pilot made one more announcement. The plane came to a stop and he said, “Please allow us to let Sgt. ______ off the plane first.  His family has waited for their soldier to come home.  Please remain seated until he is safely off the plane.” 

And then. No. One. Moved.  No soldier stood up. No man in green came forward. The kids were looking back and forth to see the guy dressed like daddy. But no one moved.

Sitting by the window during this flight, I noticed a commotion by the side of the plane. That’s when I saw him. The brown box with an American flag draped over it, slowly exiting the plane first. A woman came from the shadows of a nearby building and draped her body across the casket. I saw her lie on that flag and embrace her soldier, and my heart stopped. The soldiers stood around the casket at attention as she lay with her soldier. No one asked her to hurry up or to move; no one ushered her to the side or spoke to her. The soldiers stood beside her, at attention, waiting and watching over her. 

“Mommy, where’s the soldier? Where is he?” A little voice snapped me back from the deep grief and pain striking my heart. I looked at her, my four-year-old little girl, and pointed out the window while tears streamed down my face and pain held onto my heart. She looked and saw the brown box, the American flag, the back of a woman broken over the casket, a woman dressed in black. “Is that how Daddy came home?  Did he come home in a box?” No words. Just a broken moment that stood still between her little face of pure curiosity and me.

“No, Daddy gave a year of his life, he worked hard and sacrificed much, but this soldier gave it all.  He sacrificed everything for our freedom. So now we can thank him, we can be quiet and think about how much he gave for us, for all of us.” 

Slowly I gathered our bags, I hugged my children tight and took one more glance out the window to a sister I will never meet. A woman who has slept alone and cried alone, who has fed her children meal after meal praying for her soldier to come home soon, who has lost herself to that song on the radio that reminds her of him, who has sat at the red light praying for his safety even when it turns green, who has dreamt of him coming home, and lived for the calendar to pass by.

A woman who knows my life as a military wife, who has waited anxiously by the phone for the calls to hear his voice, and the dreaded message she hoped to never receive.  I will not forget her, dressed in black, lying on her soldier, crying onto the American flag and I hope my daughter will not either. She is a part of us; she is a part of this life that we live. We, the wives, husbands, and children that make up this military life, we are one. We are the families of soldiers. We are the strong, the proud and the brave, serving from home until our soldiers come home to us at night.

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