Members of the Army's 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment returned home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., this summer after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. During its deployment, the battalion suffered some of the highest casualties of the war. NPR’s Tom Bowman and Graham Smith reported on the death of two soldiers in a roadside bomb attack last fall.
Commentator Georgie Hanlin is a writer and a teacher in Tacoma, Wash. She is married to Capt. Max Hanlin, a company commander with the Battalion. He has been deployed six times, to both Iraq and Afghanistan. They were reunited in July.
I stood in the packed gymnasium, in a crowd of anxious spouses, children and relatives. There were "Welcome Home" banners on the walls, flags on the strollers and "We Missed You" signs ready to be waved the second the soldiers walked into the room. Little girls in red, white and blue tutus were running around with youngsters who had American flags painted on their cheeks, all of them eagerly awaiting their soldiers’ return.
I was still overcome by the relief I felt when I knew my husband had left combat. Now, on a large screen, I saw his plane land and the soldiers descend. Some looked tired, others wore enormous smiles. I wondered how I would find my husband among the almost 300 uniforms returning that night. Once they were officially welcomed home by the post's general, they broke out of formation and charged the crowd. I watched many other happy reunions en route to my own. During a year separated by war, this moment was what had kept many of us going -- both soldiers and spouses. My husband looked younger, perhaps because he was thinner. I laughed to myself, because I feel like I aged 20 years while he was away.
Whenever my husband returns from overseas, at the beginning, it’s like we’re on an awkward first date. We’ll start talking to each other at the exact same time. We try to catch up on a year’s worth of happenings that the rushed phone calls never quite covered. Then, after a little while, all feels normal again.
This time, I reintroduced our son to his father. The last time my husband held him, he was just a baby. Now he’s a toddler who refers to himself as a "big boy," and my husband marvels at how much he has grown. It’s both sweet and heartbreaking at the same time.
After four years as an Army wife during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, I haven’t found that it gets easier. There’s always worry because of the danger and loneliness from the separation, along with many other complex emotions. That evening at the gym, I was told there were Gold Star families in the crowd -- families who had lost their soldiers in combat. I wondered, if my husband had been killed, would I have been brave enough to greet the soldiers with whom he was supposed to return?
A soldier’s spouse never loses sight of life’s fragility. Even after the deployments end, you look at things differently. The complexities of war are part of you now. That can be excruciatingly difficult sometimes. But it also gives you perspective. And strength.