By SSG Jeremiah La Forest
No single event has caused more anticipation in my life than my reunion with my family after my first deployment to Iraq. Unlike some soldiers during that first tour, I was fortunate enough to have received a mid-tour leave, but that did not lessen my eagerness to get off that airplane and find my wife and children. The memory of the helicopter maintenance hangar where our reunion occurred will never fade from my mind.
The Army as an institution often takes itself far too seriously. After our commanding general greeted us over the plane's intercom system, he allowed us to file slowly out of the jet that had carried us home. The reunion that every soldier on that plane ached for was not to come so easily, however. Some bright soldier had decided that it would be far more impressive if we marched into the hangar in formation, so our next step was to muster into one. When the First Sergeant received his cue, he ordered us to begin marching. I could immediately tell that this had been rehearsed prior to our arrival; the hangar doors opened just in time to allow our first rank access.
The sound of nearly a thousand families cheering our entrance deafened me. Only my years of training kept me marching as my mind tried to understand what my ears were hearing. Soon, some trick of acoustics amplified the sound of our marching feet, the impossibly synchronized footfalls almost becoming louder than the families. I came back to myself when our First Sergeant commanded us to halt.
After coming to a halt, my eyes caught up to my ears. Although my discipline urged me to keep my head and eyes forward, as I should at the position of attention, my eagerness to find my family in the crowd overcame me. All these years later my only consolation is that my searching eyes caught many other heads moving as well. Only a brief moment passed while we each looked, before the general began to speak.
The tension mounted with his every word. He talked on for minutes that felt like hours, as though he were the only person in the hangar oblivious to this tension. His words were of little use anyway, I believe that very few people can remember what he said. I know that he welcomed us home, thanked our families, mentioned our fallen brothers and sisters, and bragged about his unit. No one concentrated on him; all were only waiting for him to stop.
When the general released us from formation, the sound was riotous. Families called out for their soldiers, soldiers called out for their families, and feet pounded on the concrete of the hangar floor. No less anxious than anyone else in the crowd, I called for my family trying to be the loudest in the hangar as well. I found my wife and children quickly and we pushed through the press of bodies to find a corner for a little privacy. For an indefinable time all we could do was embrace.
Slowly the babble of thousands of voices came back to my attention. I remember realizing again just how many people were seeing their loved ones for the first time in many months. As this realization came to me, the general was calling to us again. Our time had expired. He ordered us to get back into formation. All the soldiers reluctantly pulled themselves out of their families’ arms and returned to our places. The last trick played on us was the order to march back out of the hangar, our footfalls causing another round of thunderous cheering. We would have to return our weapons and gear to our units before we could spend any more time with our families.
I have deployed twice since then, each time a unique situation. My second and third reunions were joyous occasions, both highly anticipated and desired. The ceremonies were nearly identical to my first redeployment, but somehow they seemed to lack the magic of that first march into the hangar.