15 July 2011

Scenes from a Homecoming Ceremony

Approximately 2,800 soldiers of the Iowa National Guard's 2-34th Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) are somewhere between Afghanistan and the Hawkeye State. They're "demobilizing" from active duty—going through final medical and administrative checks—at Fort McCoy, Wis. Coincidentally, members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1-34th BCT are currently mobilizing for Iraq at the same base. And there's also another brigade-sized element of Iowa soldiers conducting their annual two-weeks of active-duty for training.

That's a lot of Red Bull and Hawkeye patches in one place. Rumor is that Fort McCoy is so crowded that there's only one shower head for every 100 soldiers.

The Red Bull's return from active-duty is less like a stampede, and more like a cattle drive. Units are traveling to Iowa in company-sized elements--not more than about 100 soldiers at a time. Some 30 ceremonies are anticipated between mid-July and the first of August. Because of the unpredictability of transportation, Iowa National Guard officials are able to announce homecoming ceremonies with only about 48 hours notice.

The Headquarters and Headquarters Company (H.H.C.), 2-34th BCT is located in Boone, Iowa. The homecoming ceremony is held at Boone High School, home of the Toreadors. A "Toreador" is a Spanish word for most English-speakers would call a "Matador." Either way, it means "killer of bulls."


People start arriving as early as an hour ahead of the scheduled early afternoon event. There's ample time to catch up with friends and spouses of friends. We talk about the deployment, and about the next one, and about how there's not going to be a next one for some soldiers. That is, not if the spouses have anything to say about it. Old citizen-soldiers just fade away, particularly when they lose the support of their households.

Some of the spouses get all dolled up, and get the kids all kitted out. Some families show up as full platoons, and are even dressed in uniforms of their own designs. One pack arrives in pink camouflage T-shirts with "Welcome Home Dave" printed in big black letters. Another wears navy blue T-shirts, with the family name written in athletic-team script across the front in camouflage pattern. Below the family name it reads: "Afghanistan."

One of the brigade Commo Dogs has been posting to Facebook since earlier in the morning: "Alrighty people, bags are loaded and we are on the bus about to leave. I haven't had butterflies like this for a LONG time! I can feel my heart skipping beats and I love, love, LOVE it! Next stop, Boone, IA!"

Later, at the "distant end" here in Boone, one of the spouses occasionally calls out by mile marker the location of the incoming charter bus. Her husband is texting her updates from the road.

There are delays. There are always delays. Some of the families, having been to this kind of rodeo before, have brought along books and other distractions. The gymnasium is not air-conditioned, and the coolish and overcast morning quickly breaks into a more familiar blaze of corn-growing sun. It's Iowa in July. (It's hot, but it's a wet heat.) The warmth creeps in through the open doors of the school.

The Family Readiness Group (F.R.G.) is giving red, white, and blue balloons to the kids. The kids run circles around the empty basketball court. Later on, it hits me: Every ballon floating over the crowd represents a little kid, waiting for a Red Bull mom or dad, aunt or uncle, sister or brother.

The bus finally arrives. Behind the bleachers, there's a lot of last-minute discussion about how the troops should march in. The Patriot Guard Riders (P.G.R.), motorcycle enthusiasts who volunteer their time and gas at every military send-off, funeral, and homecoming, carry in the colors. The Iowa chapter of the Mackenzie Highlanders pipes in the troops. The Red Bull soldiers are still wearing their only-in-Afghanistan MultCam uniforms. Some are wearing the desert boots, some are wearing the black-soled mountain ones.

The public affairs officer introduces the dignitaries—representatives of various military and elected offices. Nobody says anything too memorable, but that's doesn't mean it's not necessary or important. It's a ceremony. It's predictable, like church or the Cubs. It's something you do to mark the end of one time, and the beginning of another. It's a mile marker. Homecoming is a journey, not a destination.

After about 20 minutes, the company commander tells his unit to fall out of formation.

What happens next is sort of like the end of a championship basketball game. Some families rush down from the bleachers, while others break out big banners with their soldier's name. Somehow, people find each other in the scrum.

As with other ceremonies, if you're not part of the immediate family, there's a certain etiquette to be followed. Smile and be brief. Give buddy-hugs and hearty handshakes as appropriate. Say "welcome home." If possible, do not step between the bride and groom. If you're lucky, there may be time for a few quick introductions: "Honey, this is the guy who writes that blog." Or "Honey, this is the guy who saved my life." Or "Honey, this is the guy I've been sleeping with for the past 9 months."

You know what I mean.

Soldiers make their ways out to the curbside baggage drop, and each pick up one Jolly Green Giant-sized duffel bag. They'll get the rest of their stuff at their next regular drill. That won't be for a couple of months. Citizen-soldiers are technically still on federal active-duty as they burn their accrued military leave. And federal law states National Guard soldiers have a certain amount of time before they have to report back to their civilian employers, in order that their civilian job still be protected. In the meantime, there will be some mandatory "Yellow Ribbon" events, which are about everything from veterans benefits to family reintegration skills.

One buddy pulls me into his family scrum for a few minutes. His son announces in a voice loud and proud, "The house is clean, Daddy!" His wife laughs and admits, "My strategy was to wait to clean everything until the last minute: the truck, the car, the house. It worked. These last days went by quick—but I'm exhausted."

Within a few blurry and humid minutes, the gymnasium, the baggage-drop, the parking lot are all empty. Hitting the roads for their homes around the state, the troops have seeminlgy infiltrated into the Iowa soil like so many summer cicadae. It is suddenly a lazy and quiet summer day in Boone, Iowa, pop. 12,000.

Welcome home.

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