Near the end of January Matt asked me what I thought about him trying to catch a space-available flight to the States in order to meet up with some of his friends for a Nascar man weekend. I thought it was a great idea, if I could come too. I would stay in VA, he could go do man stuff and then we'd head back together. We looked at our timeline and all the variables with space-a travel and decided that it was too risky. We scrapped the trip.
However, the idea was already planted in my head and it was too late for me to abandon my hopes of getting back to the U.S. on a space-a flight before the summer rush crushed our chances of getting a flight. So, I picked a week, alerted a few of my friends of the plan, and started dreaming of seeing our VA friends and family.
In short this is how space-a works: A day or two before a flight is scheduled to depart, I get flight information and plan to be at the terminal for a "roll call". I'll spare the details, but basically there is a really fair system worked out to decide what order space available passengers can get on a flight. Once it is determined how many seats are available, the Air Force guys go down the list and put as many people on the flight as possible. The space-a process takes a long time and the experience can be very stressful. Our flights to and from the US were emotional, but not as I had expected.
As we boarded the aircraft bound for Baltimore, I realized it was nearly filled with soldiers and airmen on their way home from a deployment. These men and women had been traveling for over 30 hours and were eager to return to their families, the comforts of home, and safety. Just a short 7.5 hours and they would be on American soil. I was excited for them to get home and to reunite with their family. I was sorry for the amount of time they had spent in airport lounges and cramped airline seats in order to make this journey. I was guilty for taking up space on a plane that could have been used for a soldier to stretch out.
Upon our arrival at BWI soldiers and airmen retrieved their bags and weapons from the baggage claim and loaded everything up on carts to clear customs. The bags were dirty and battered and showed all the signs of a year of being in an unfriendly environment. The weapons cases were heavy, a metaphor for the burden a deployment brings on them and their loved ones. I watched as people embraced each other as they said "goodbye" and went their separate ways and wondered if they developed a bond during this deployment that would last for a lifetime. As all this was unfolding I kept hearing a quiet whistling sound in the background that would go off, then silence, and a whistle again. I found myself a little irritated at what ever it was. It was midnight by now, 6am German time, and everything was getting irritating.
After I gathered all of my belongings and cleared customs, I discovered what that "irritating" sound was. Six USO volunteers were standing just outside of the arrival area cheering for every single soldier that passed by. Over 250 soldiers were on the flight and over the course of 2 hours, each one was welcomed home by volunteers who had nothing more important to do at midnight than give these soldiers the best welcome they could. They clapped, whistled and yelled "welcome home". I cried as I saw the cheering people handing out snack bags and shaking the hands of the soldiers. I was overwhelmed as I thought about these soldiers' sacrifice, the families' that were about to receive their loved ones home, and also the generosity of the Baltimore USO volunteers. The fan fare was small, but the numbers made their effort even more admirable. Every soldier deserves a "thank you" and a grand welcome home. This was the first step on US soil in months, and the USO made sure the soldiers were greeted.
Our return flight was filled with a different emotion entirely. The USO volunteers were still wonderful as they served over 300 people waiting to get on the flight to Ramstein. They gave us drinks, snacks and ice cream and provided us with a place to rest, the kids to play, luggage storage, and free wi-fi and computers. Once we boarded the flight, the mood on the flight to Ramstein was somber. These soldiers were heading downrange to begin their year deployment and their journey was just beginning. I couldn't help but wonder what the soldiers were thinking as they sat on the flight. Some have probably made this flight a number of times by now. Some may not return. A sickening feeling welled up inside of me as I thought how long these soldiers' year would be. When we arrived in Ramstein nobody was greeting these soldiers with celebration. They were simply getting off the plane for a two hour layover before continuing on their way.
The fights were easy for us to get, they were cheap (total cost of the airfare was $130 - for all three of us) and they were a poignant reminder of the number of lives affected by the current deployment cycle. These flights carried soldiers in two distinctly different situations but whose lives are similarly disrupted by war.
Dear God, the lives lost are so many, the lives altered and shaken are even more. Protect the warriors that have obeyed this nation's commander to go into battle, be with the families who are challenged by the difficulties of a deployment, and guide this nation's path for future involvement in this war. Give the soldiers who returned home on my flight a smooth reintegration into their family and give the soldiers who were just beginning their journey peace and protection.