VALPARAISO — As the 32-year-old stepped out of the airport terminal and into the sunshine, he started his beach vacation like so many other travelers to Northwest Florida.
But, for this man, the sidewalks were lined with men holding American flags and standing at attention.
“That was pretty emotional,” said retired Army Specialist Michael Stephens of the greeting he received at Northwest Florida Regional Airport on Tuesday afternoon.
Stephens and his wife Da’Linda, 39, flew in from Houston on their way to Panama City for the Warrior Beach Retreat, a getaway for wounded service members and their spouses.
Da’Linda said the welcome brought tears to her eyes.
The couple has been looking forward to the retreat as a chance to spend some quality time with each other and for Michael to get to talk with other wounded warriors who understand what he is going through.
“He feels more comfortable around them,” Da’Linda said. “He doesn’t really talk to other veterans at home. He’ll feel safer here, like nobody is judging him. That’s a huge thing.”
Michael served in the Army from 2007 until 2011.
In 2010, while working as a route clearer in Afghanistan, his convoy ran over a 250-pound improvised bomb and it exploded.
The blast tore through his knee. He has 47 scars along his leg from the shrapnel that embedded there. He also suffered a traumatic injury to his brain and post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which he continues to wrestle with today.
“I have a lot of anxiety,” Michael said. “You know, the normal stuff.”
For Michael, and so many other service members who suffered similar injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, that “normal” means difficulty remembering facts and high levels of anxiety, especially in crowds or around loud noises.
Fluorescent lights are also a trigger — the couple drives over 20 miles to a Wal-Mart with skylights so he can get out and enjoy some shopping.
The medicine helps, but his condition is still a challenge, Da’Linda said.
This week, though, is a chance to ease that, to get away from all the pressures of home life and bond with some other families who can relate, she said.
With Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field nearby, military homecomings are a regular sight at Northwest Florida Regional Airport.
But, Tuesday’s arrival was a special one.
Airport Police Chief Andrew Johnson came out with the rest of his force to greet Michael.
“We support our military like most Americans,” Johnson said. “We wanted to do everything we could to show our appreciation for what he’s done for us.”