The clapping, the hooting, the whistling: It was all very familiar. As I hurried toward the terminal at Baltimore-Washington Airport, where U.S. troops land after serving overseas, I spotted the cheerful retirees from Operation Welcome Home who applaud each servicemember returning from deployment. These greeters, clad in American flag T-shirts and carrying handmade signs thanking the troops, organize themselves to be present for every incoming military flight, even ones landing at 2 a.m.
I remembered them from exactly one year ago, when I hugged my husband Scott goodbye as he left for a year in Baghdad. Now he was finally coming home. But after 12 months of planning for this moment (I ordered an enormous "Welcome Home" banner for our porch only weeks after his departure), I feared I had missed it.
There had been some confusion when Scott called to relay the date and time of his return from Iraq. His itinerary said noon, but administrative staff in Iraq had mentioned 1 p.m. I decided to arrive early, and it was only 11:45 a.m.when I stepped on to the escalator. But from the sound of the greeters' enthusiastic cheers, I was too late. I ran the rest of the way, feeling my face redden from exercise and anxiety. A few of the greeters, looking sympathetic, approached and assured me that the flight I was waiting for had just startled to trickle in. Scott hadn't walked through the double doors yet. I stationed myself off to the side, and scanned the terminal. Only one other family waited alongside me—a twentysomething woman with long brown hair and her two biracial children, who held hand-crayoned "I [heart] Daddy" signs.
There were so few other families because the terminal at BWI is only the first point of entry into the United States for many returning troops; most then board a series of connecting flights to their local airports, where husbands and wives and moms and dads wait with bouquets and balloons. We live relatively close to BWI, so I could welcome Scott as soon as he arrived. But many of the troops were still many hours away from a real homecoming. That's why the greeters make it their mission to applaud and thank every single returning servicemember.
I knew about Operation Welcome Home from the documentary The Way We Get By, a moving look into the lives of three elderly troop greeters in Bangor, Maine. The last time I saw these eager, vocal volunteers, I wasn't feeling very generous. I admitted as much in my first Deployment Diary, where I confessed that I was unable to be happy for the families I saw embracing their returning servicemember at the terminal where I'd said my heartbroken goodbye to Scott. My own misery prevented me from being gracious, and the whistles and cheers of the greeters shredded what was left of my nerves. I so desperately wanted it to be my turn to have my husband home.
"Come closer," one of the greeters urged, pulling my elbow forward. He had a camera in his hand and his patriotic T-shirt was tucked neatly into his chinos. But I was rattled after convincing myself that I was late, and from absorbing, for the first time, the magnitude of this moment. I started to cry, and I covered my mouth. We survived this, I thought. We did it. The greeter seemed sympathetic, though I hadn't said a word. He returned to his spot, leaving me alone.
Scenes from the past year played unbidden: Last August's departure, as I walked to the airport parking lot alone, numb with misery and uncertainty; my 6-year-old son Ethan waking in the middle of the night a few times a month for the past 12 months, crying out for his father; my 4-year-old daughter Estee climbing into my bed every morning, her lean, warm body wrapping itself around me and readying me for the day ahead; the three of us, homebound during the past winter's snowstorms and power outages.
As I wiped my eyes and watched the greeter return to his spot, I was relieved to have left the kids at camp that morning. Scott's permanent homecoming was still several days away—he would fly to California after a two-hour layover at BWI to complete administrative details before coming home for good, and we didn't want to confuse the children with another goodbye.
We decided to tell them he was coming home just the day before his return from California, when we were more certain of the details, and could assure them he would spend a long summer vacation with them. After that break, he will start a Navy staff job in the D.C. area, driving to work every morning and pulling up to the house every evening. The domestic dullness I've long craved is imminent.
More servicemembers in camouflage stepped through the double doors, blinking in the bright light of the terminal. The greeters cheered and clapped. Soldiers, sailors, and Marines navigated the gauntlet of outstretched hands, some reaching back eagerly, most nodding politely and smiling, a few staring straight ahead, acknowledging no one. They carried little, and they all looked exhausted. "Thank you for your service," the greeters called out over and over. But it never sounded rote; it was impossibly original and real each time. It was as if they had a secret which re-energized them each time they shared it.
I've thought a lot this past year about the idea of service. I have a better understanding of what it entails—not just in the military, but in any field that demands similar sacrifice and devotion. I'm still not sure where the obligation of service ends. I'm not even sure if thinking of service as an obligation negates the authenticity of that service. Clearly, the greeters set out to serve their country each time they met these flights, vowing that no veteran will return to the United States unappreciated. If they consider it an obligation, it is one they fulfill joyfully, which is more than I can say for how I feel about our family's commitment to the military on most days.
My eyes were still on the double doors. Scott walked through, and I heard myself gasp. He looked exactly the same as he does in the photos hanging throughout our house, but this time, he was smiling back at me. I ran to him. I was still crying, still thinking: We made it. We survived this. I heard applause as we embraced. I don't know how long we stood there, but when we pulled apart and made our way toward the exit, dozens of greeters reached toward Scott. He tried to shake every hand and return every hug.
"Thank you for your service," one woman said, but I didn't look up. "Thank you for your service," I heard again, insistently, the same voice. I searched her out in the crowd. She had close-cropped gray hair and was so small that she barely peeked out among the others in the group. When I found her, she was already looking into my eyes. I realized she was actually talking to me, and not to my husband. I appreciated the sentiment, but I didn't know what to say. She disappeared into the throng. I held Scott's hand tightly, and we kept walking.