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.