Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I am happy to say I am writing this - my last blog entry - from my couch, with my dog curled up at my feet, Sara and Naomi singing with Amy upstairs in the bathtub. It was a long trip, both the 15 months leading up to it, and the actual travelling back home. But I would expect nothing less from the Army. So to give you a feeling for the end of my time in Iraq...

Our unit - the 86th CSH - was sent home in waves of about 120 people each starting in mid-December. I was in the middle group - which had its ups and downs. It was very bittersweet to say goodbye to our friends on the first group. As anytime you say goodbye to family. Even though a lot of us knew we would never see each other again, there is a bond there that being in that hole-in-the-ground brings out and solidifies. Not to sound too corny, but it is a real brotherhood. So the first group went off - which also left us a little short staffed for a short time. We compensated by not taking any days off, which was probably a good thing to help make the time go by that much faster. About a week later, the next unit started to arrive - the 10th CSH out of Fort Carson, Colorado. We were very happy to see them. So much so, that some of our nurses spent the whole night prior to their arrival 'pimping' out the gators with which we pick up patients from the helicopters. We were 'dead' tired the next morning... But while we continued to have the fun that has kept us sane (maybe insane) throughout the entire deployment, we still were kept busy enough to keep out of any serious trouble. Although it seemed that most of our
patients were medical type patients - the kind that you tend to see in a normal ER back in the US.

This whole transition was taking place around Christmas time, so in typical DFAC (dining facility) tradition - they interpreted the holiday in an unique fashion. We had Abraham Lincoln make another fashionable appearance. Unfortunately I misplaced the picture of me sitting on his lap asking for a holiday present. By far the greatest addition to the decorations, though was the aardvark's head made out of frosting. With 'realistic' blood where it was freshly shorn. Sometimes, even there, you just need to scratch your head and wonder. And no, it was not aardvark flavored frosting ( I tried).

Our send off from Baghdad was a bit of a surprise - basically "ok, thanks, get on the bus.". We had gotten our awards already, had our bags packed, and were nicely kicked out the door on Christmas Day. We bundled up for the cold (or what we thought was cold after 15 months in the desert) and headed over to Baghdad Airport (BIAP) for a few days. In our typical fashion, we couldn't just sit still and decided to go explore the base around the airport. As usual, we were awed by the megalomania of Saddam and his cronies as we toured around the"water palaces" which are several imposing residence's and offices surrounded by hundreds of acres of man made lakes. Which, by the way, were built during a drought in Baghdad that was worsened by the diversion of the Tigris river for the filling of the lakes. They were proclaimed 'The People's Palaces'. He was such a humanitarian...

Eventually, after a lot of 'hurry-up-and-wait', we traveled to Kuwait for another day or so. A lot of sitting around looking at sand in that country. We had to come up with things to do - like make our weapons more friendly to the local nationals who we came across. Those googly eyes did the trick.

Finally, we were off to the US with a brief stop in Germany. As we were coming in for a landing in Bangor, Maine (don't ask), watching the snow covered ground come up to meet us, I realized it was finally over. Thank god, it was finally over. It seemed very fitting to come home to a state that Amy and I hold dear to our hearts. Even though traveling for almost 5 days, smelling wonderfully, unshaven - we were greeted as we got off the plane by a cadre of local Veterans and well-wishers. Walking out into the terminal, they stopped us all, one-by-one, and shook our hands, thanked us, and welcomed us home. It really made for an emotional return home.

Then, of course, the plane broke.

We sat in a locked room in Bangor Airport for about 12 hours, trying to stave off insanity. It didn't help that there was a locked cafe in the room with an advertisement for some beer. We were still under the constraints of 'General Order #1' which prohibits alcohol. One of the soldiers felt it appropriate to alter the sign.

Finally... we were off to Fort Campbell. We landed on New Years Eve, shortly before midnight. They marched us in for a brief reception and turn in of some of our gear - and then... I was home for real. Amy found me in the crowd. It was one of the greatest emotional rushes I have ever had to be there with her. She had come down to greet me and spend New Year's with me before heading back to pick up the girls at her parents'. We celebrated the New Year and all of its promise together as a couple along with the new family I had gained while away for so long. And yes... they kicked us out of the bar at 0430, something I am very proud of.

Finally, a few days later - I flew back home to New Jersey where I was greeted by the other two loves-of-my-life (along with my sister and parents, who are important, just in a different way). The girls saw me and recognized me right away and started screaming and clinging on to me. Sara brought the Paddington Bear that I had since childhood and asked her to keep safe for me. She carried it around with her for the next few days, reminding me how she had kept him safe. That night as I was putting Sara to sleep, she said what was one of the greatest and saddest things I have ever heard - "I am glad you are home Daddy, so I don't have to cry anymore." Still makes me tear up a little bit.

Anyway, I am home now. I will never be able to thank all of you enough for your support while I was gone - to me, to my unit, to the soldiers over here, and to Amy and the girls. I learned alot over there, grew a bit, made great friends and memories - some to cherish, some to hope never to relive again. We laughed, we cried, but mostly we laughed and enjoyed what we could when we could. While I would never want to do it again, I am glad and proud that I did. It was an experience that changed me in many ways. Thank you all for being there with me.

Don't be a stranger and please keep in touch.