Other ways home
As I sat out in the hot Baghdad air, waiting for my flight out of that country I reflected on the journey behind me and the journey ahead of me. This is where I started last August- where I stepped off the C-130 after having thrown up everything in me. There I sat again dressed in my armor plated vest and kevlar helmet, watching the bats flutter around the barriers. Our little group had already waited 3 hours for this flight from the time we arrived at the terminal. Now under the camouflaged tent we were instructed to wait an additional 20 minutes while they loaded the “HR”. With the Black Hawks sputtering behinds us, I only barely caught the conversation and put my body back in waiting mode wondering what “HR” was. I thought of how long this “getting home" business was going to take; First a long trip to Kuwait, then a long bus ride, a long wait in the Kuwait Airport, a flight to Europe somewhere, a long wait in another terminal, a VERY long flight to the US; Then several days of out processing and then finally a wait in another airport somewhere and a flight to Salt Lake. “Wouldn’t it be great” I mused, “if some rich person came a long right now while I’m sitting here in the Baghdad International Airport, and they with their crew swept me and my stuff up, popped a sleeping pill in me and put me on a nice soft fluffy bed in a private plane. We’d speed our way across the ocean to the out processing, then (while I slept) they would do all my paperwork, turn in all my gear and speed me along to Utah where I would be transported to a helicopter and dropped off at my front door just as I woke up”. “Yes,” I thought, “That would be the best way home”.
After 20 minutes the administrator came and told us it would be yet another 20 minutes while they loaded the “HR”. “What is HR?” I thought. Then my mind turned to the day I’d just experienced in Headquarters Human Resources, dragging my stuff around with paper work to all the different departments getting signatures to clear my exit. That was a long, tedious, hot, tiring, process. Perhaps “HR” is a pallet full of paper work.
Finally we boarded the plane, not through the back like we usually do but through the side door. As we approached the door the administrator asked “Does anyone have a problem flying with Human Remains?”
There in the back of the cargo plane was a long rectangular box with an American flag draped over it. It was an arresting sight. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. As I buckled my seat belt my first thoughts turned to the gruesome idea of what might be in there. I have seen horrific sites here in Iraq. War makes a mess of a human body. I’ve seen pictures from soldiers that were too horrible to keep on my computer and days after downloading them, I deleted them. But my mind didn’t stay on those thoughts long. I quickly turned to the scene happening somewhere in the United States- a mother, a father, a wife, perhaps children, nieces, nephews, Aunts, and Uncles, neighbors- being told that their loved one was returning home that week. The sorrow, the pain, the loss, the pit in the throat that moves to the stomach. I thought of the soldier-now a spirit- perhaps accompanying his body, sitting there on the plane with us.
The plane was very warm and all of us were sweating. The linguist next to me (also headed home) was very frustrated because our flight was not going to make it in time to connect to his commercial flight from Kuwait and he would have to rebook it. He was obviously frustrated and at times threw his arms up in despair.
We would first have to land at the Kuwait international airport to drop of “our precious cargo” as the Air Force air man called it. And then we would head to the camp. They loaded our pallet behind the coffin and closed the hatch. I watched as the Airman carefully secured the “HR” with straps, careful not to disturb the flag on top. It was a bright new flag. The red and white stripes were clean and clear and the contrast of the white stars against the Navy blue square was stark. It was secured with a rope around the bottom.
“On behalf of a grateful Nation…..” my mind turned to a scene in the near future. Again a mother, a wife, a father or brother would receive that flag, folded neatly in a triangle.
We lurched into the air for my last C-130 trip. I looked at the soldier across from me. He was sweating and hot and miserable. Then I noticed his wedding ring. He might be headed home on R&R to see his wife. I’ll bet she’ll be happy to see him. I’ll bet he’s tired from the grind over here. I’ll bet he’s happy to be going home. I reflected on my own selfish desire to fly home as quickly and efficiently as possible and then I looked at that bright flag draped on our precious cargo and my heart was very heavy. I suppose that there are other ways of getting home.
The dropping off ceremony was simple and profound. It was about 24:00 in the morning and we were all very tired. The plane came to a complete stop and all the engines were turned off. An Air force crew on the ground flanked the back of the cargo ship after our luggage pallet was taken off. Then six soldiers boarded the plane from the small door in the front where we had entered, and they walked down the isles where were we all seated. The artificial lights from the plane made the flag all the more bright. The six men stood at attention on either side of the coffin and as instructions were given, all together they reached down, picked up the flag draped box, turned on que, and marched with the coffin, down the ramp and placed it in a cargo truck waiting behind the plane. All of us passengers stood in respect. And I wept.
Dear God, I thought. This mortal experience is so perfect for what it is. This test is so real, so poignant sometimes. I prayed for the soldier’s family. That somehow, they would know they would see their loved one again- that it was not in vain, that it is all part of a plan.
As we lurched into the air and the sweat poured down my face, I felt nauseous and tired and miserable. But I felt. I was a live. I would see my family in just a few days. I would hold a baby again, kiss a man again, drive in the cool breeze, sit in church, go shopping, go to school. I would live on.
I knew I wouldn’t die over here. I don’t think the Lord would have let me off that easy. He’s going to stretch out my mortal experience until I’ve learned every little bit of what is needed, and knowing this stubborn heart of mine, that might be until I’m very, very old. But I didn’t really appreciate my gifts until then.
As tired as I was, the experience changed my perspective and my anxiousness turned to gratitude and a feeling of excitement and love for life. I will take this long tedious journey home and I’ll sit in airports and watch people, read signs in the terminal over and over again, try and sleep in uncomfortable places and positions and be just fine. I’ll be just fine.
Coming home mom, I’m coming home.
As a parting thought- my respect for military personnel has grown deep and strong. God bless them for their sacrifices. Until next time, I say a loving goodbye to the Middle East.