Bathed in the lights of Victory Field on a clear, perfect Mohave Desert night, three platoons of Marines stood at ramrod attention before their unit commander. A few scant yards behind him, a crowd of hundreds of loved ones seethed with barely contained excitement.
“Battery!” barked the commander, “disMISSED!”
Chaos ensued. The distance between the groups vanished in a heartbeat amidst hoops, hollers, handshakes, hugs and tears.
Chris, Jason, Guy, Nathan and the rest of 3rd Battalion, Eleventh Marine Regiment, Kilo Battery was home from Iraq.
Anticipation, of course, had been building for months. But the joyous tension had been escalating even faster since earlier that evening, when moms, dads, wives and families of the troops, arriving from home towns across the country, got a flurry of phone calls from the East Coast.
“We’re in Baltimore,” weary voices told rapt listeners. “We’re back in the USA.”
A cross-country flight, a minor baggage snafu and a two-hour bus ride later, the Marines and their corpsmen arrived at their barracks, where they formed up for the brief march to Victory Field. The families had begun gathering there as early as 10:30 p.m. – it was now close to 2 a.m. – dozing in cars, sipping coffee or munching the snacks provided by the Corps.
The Twentynine Palms Marine Band provided entertainment, at times patriotic, at times playful, always perfect. They coaxed guest “conductors” from the crowd and frolicked with the audience, contributing a raucous, joyous noise that, coupled with the halogen glare of the stadium lights, defied the inky blackness of the desert night.
As the moment of arrival drew near, the band stopped, and the voice on the PA issued a final admonition: “Please wait until they are officially dismissed,” it said, “before you attack your Marine.”
Then: “I see the guidon … here they come! Let them hear what you think!”
The crowd erupted, the band struck up, and the column of camouflage-clad warriors marched through the gate in a dimly lit corner of the field and into the pool of light that awaited them.. Anxious eyes searched desperately for that one familiar face. Some snapped pictures, some shot video, some held their breath, as the unit execute a smart “Right face!” and drew up in front of them, just yards away.
Instilled by their training and honed by the their seven-month deployment to the front lines of the war in Iraq, the Marines’ faces showed only the proud, taking-care-of-business countenance for which one of America’s premier fighting forces has gained international renown.
But when they were dismissed, wide grins replaced the stony visage of the men of Kilo Battery. Hand-held banners and signs fell to the ground as wives leaped into husbands’ arms, and children fastened themselves about Daddy’s knees. Marines whose loved ones were unable to attend congratulated each other at the end of their grueling, successful deployment. Every member of Kilo had returned from Iraq alive.
Having been unable to locate my son Chris among the 90 men of the battery, I looked furtively about as the crowd rushed together. Suddenly from behind me came a throaty bellow: “Hey Lemyre! Where do you think you’re going?”
The video camera lashed around my neck records the next few moments as a series of blurred images of my feet, the stadium turf, and nothing in particular. I hugged my son, my fingers digging into the flesh of his back, for a time that seemed both hours and seconds long.
Then his mother, Cyndy, his sister, Stephanie, and his best friend, Jeremy, were upon him. The scene became one of swirling happiness as everywhere around people were reunited with those they’d worried and prayed over from half a world away. Chris pointed out Melinda’s Jason, and I delivered the hug I promised her I would. I stood back and drank deeply from the river of relief sweeping over all of us, and was numbed by what happened next.
In the midst of the reverie, a lanky Marine in civilian clothes hobbled out of the darkness on a pair of crutches, his left arm encased in a brace supporting the steel pins in his arm. The Marine had been severely injured while driving an armored Humvee on convoy escort duty, and had been home for some weeks undergoing surgery and rehabilitation.
“Doc,” he said to Chris, who had treated him on that Iraqi road and put him on the evacuation helicopter. “I just had to come down here when you came home. I want to thank you for saving my life.”
Over the blur of the next two days, we saw Chris in our hotel rooms, in his new quarters, and in the scorching midday sun, waiting for dismissal on a 72-hour leave. We saw the way they bantered with each other, sharing that special bond only combat veterans know.
But there’s a special bond, too, between these veterans and the ones who’ve waited at home, and it was cemented indelibly in the memories of those who were there. For everyone else who still has the chance, be there when your Marine gets back. For those who can’t get there, make the homecoming that you will have as bright and wonderful as you can.
By Rick Lemyre, Proud Father
Copyright 2004 Rick Lemyre All Rights Reserved Worldwide
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