I don’t remember much from the time Mom was at war. I was seven years old; the memories blur into a fuzzy background, punctuated by snapshot images of clarity. I know my world expanded that winter. I learned new words like “Desert Storm,” “Saddam Hussein,” and “Hate.” Dad pointed out Saudi Arabia on our office globe. Mom was there, inside the little star that represented the capital of Riyadh. It didn’t look very far away.
I remember cheese quesadillas—“cheese pies” I called them—cooked in the microwave. A mom from school served them to us while we waited at her house for Dad to pick us up after work.
I remember crying in bed every night after Mom’s tape-recorded voice finished reading a bedtime story, and my sister—a more silent griever—shushing me from across our shared bedroom. I saw the school counselor for a few weeks. I don’t recall her name or what she looked like, or even what we talked about, but I remember staring out her window at the snow-crusted ground. My classmates were at recess, throwing snowballs, having fun.
Despite our proximity to multiple military bases outside Seattle, we were the only local family with a parent deployed. Our neighbors took turns babysitting and delivering meals. A yellow ribbon hugged the big maple tree in front of our elementary school. When she returned, Mom would cut the ribbon off to a whooping chorus of cheers from our classmates. But while she was gone it hung there, through rain and wind and snow. I saw the ribbon every day, and I hated it.
I remember my sister’s ninth birthday party. It was a swimming party. I loved swimming. We rented out the whole pool, and I got to invite friends, too. We looked happy in the pictures.
Every evening we watched news reports on TV. It was a new era in broadcasting, the first time war received real-time coverage from reporters on the ground. Where Mom was looked like another planet. They showed awesome footage of planes taking off from aircraft carriers and terrifying shots of missiles exploding their targets. Everywhere, there were people in camouflage, but it wasn’t the green and black my mom wore for duty with the Army Reserves. It was brown like dirt. There was a lot of dirt on the news when they talked about the war. I thought it must be hard for Mom to stay clean.
I remember the braid. Before my mom left she wove my hair into a tight French braid, just like she did when I had soccer or softball games, the only thing that would keep my hair in place under a helmet and through trips up and down the field. But this braid was special. It held the memory of Mom’s touch—her slender fingers brushing across my scalp, the nail of her little finger drawing a part down each side, her soft breath on the back of my neck. I wanted to keep the braid forever. I promised Mom I would. It would be our special connection while she was gone, and every time I looked in the mirror I would think of her. As the days passed, though, as oil slickened my hair and it began to unwind from its tidy twist, my dad forced a compromise. For a few weeks a neighbor cleaned and re-braided my hair. It looked exactly the same. But it wasn’t.
In war correspondence before email, we lived for weekly calls from Mom, letters, occasional pictures, anything to let us know she was safe. She wrote to us on Desert Storm stationary and sent postcards emblazoned with phrases like “Somebody in Saudi Arabia loves me!” At one point she mailed my sister and me matching T-shirts with pictures of camels wearing combat boots and gas masks. I still have that shirt, a child’s size small, buried in the back of a drawer.
Mom and Dad sheltered us kids from the worst of it. I didn’t learn until years later that the deployment orders had been for an undetermined length of up to two years. I didn’t know that because of the threat of chemical weapons and the size of Mom’s medical unit—which made them an appealing target—it was thought to be a suicide mission. In her phone calls and letters home, Mom didn’t discuss her terror at the nightly air raids, or her aching loneliness, or her doubts about her ability to handle combat. I didn’t know she carried trauma with her every day, even after she returned home. All I ever saw was her strength.
“When will Mom come home?” was one of the many games we played to make time and distance not seem so massive, to trick ourselves into feeling like we might have some sort of control. The whole family—my dad, sister, brother, grandparents and I—scribbled our return date guesses across the calendar. My sister’s prediction, March 12, 1991, was the earliest. The rest of us hoped but doubted she was close. We only got a couple days’ notice that she was exactly right. As suddenly as war had swooped into our lives, it ended. Preparations were frenzied. We spent hours hunched over bright sheets of poster board, tracing letters and gluing glitter onto signs. There were trips to Party City to buy a trunk-load of yellow ribbons and American flags. We must have alerted the relatives, the elementary school, my Girl Scout troop, and Mom’s college roommate, because hordes of them showed up at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma on the morning of March 12.
We stood behind a chain link fence, a crowd of hundreds, watching the empty runway. My sister and I held homemade signs. My brother, just two years old, didn’t understand where Mommy had been or why; he just knew today was the day she was coming home. He coiled his tiny hands around the fence and rocked back and forth, back and forth, eyes glued to the tarmac. His expectant face, framed by a puffy black and red jacket, became a popular clip on local news segments.
I don’t know how long we waited before we heard the drone of an approaching aircraft. The crowd hushed, twisted heads frantically and shielded eyes from the sun, pointed at a dark speck on the horizon, then erupted into a cacophony of cheers. The dark speck got bigger and turned into a plane that drifted slowly across the landscape. As it inched closer, the mob grew wild. We screamed and shook the fence. My dad scooped up my brother. Someone, a grandparent maybe, grabbed my hand. Reporters yelled into their microphones. We were supposed to stay behind the fence, but when the plane landed and the first camouflaged figure emerged, we stampeded onto the runway. All I could see were legs. Jeans and khakis and sweats, then a trickle of camouflage moving upstream, then a pair of legs that stopped and dropped a bag and bent and hugged and cried, then I was in her arms and nuzzling my face into her permed curls and the world was whole again.
By the time I joined the Air Force in 2006, deployments were predictable. So were homecomings. At Hurlburt Field, an Air Force Special Operations base on the Florida panhandle and one of the main suppliers of pilots and Special Forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, the cycle had clockwork regularity. Once a month, a contracted aircraft took hundreds of troops away. Once a month, an aircraft brought hundreds back. Because of the consistency, or perhaps in spite of it, the base turned each homecoming into a fanfare event.
The public affairs office where I worked played a prominent role in the planning of “Operation Homecoming.” We invited local and regional media and always had takers. This was a military town, and everyone loved a feel-good story, especially when the date fell near a holiday. (Of course, for every planeload that came home in time for Christmas another left just before, but we focused on the positive.) Local civic leaders were invited, too. Mayors, school administrators, presidents of chambers of commerce, and business owners formed a receiving line with base leadership to shake hands with each returning hero.
The events were always the same. The sun was up or down, or somewhere in between. We gathered in the east hangar or the west. Patriotic music played on a loop. A female reporter wearing too much makeup drew approving looks from the men in the audience. There were American flags and yellow ribbons and a huge crowd of family and friends. Everyone looked anxious. Children held hand-painted signs: “Welcome Home Daddy!” “We Missed You Mommy!” Some sat on cement barricades that flanked the walkway to the flightline. Others ran giggling through the throng. A few slept in parents’ arms.
Some wives and girlfriends dressed up. They wore short skirts, even in December, when temperatures dipped into the 20s and wind rattled through the gaping hangar. Once, a woman wore a trench coat that appeared to have nothing beneath. Others wore pajamas, no hairspray or makeup; they had done this many times before. Eventually, routine trumps excitement. But you never get used to the waiting.
It was always too hot or too cold. After twenty-four hours of transit from the Middle East, layovers and customs proceedings, and often a Gulf Coast storm, the flight was never on time. Inside the hangar, the patriotic loop started over. The pretty reporter’s lipstick smudged. A baby cried. A girlfriend chewed nervously on her fingernails. Her boyfriend would propose when he got off the plane—we would feature a photo on the front page of the base newspaper—but she didn’t know that yet. Flags twitched. Signs drooped. Then an announcement: “The plane is five minutes out!” and the crowd was rejuvenated. Signs snapped to attention. City and base leaders took their places along the center aisle. The media angled their cameras at the empty runway. Parents woke sleeping children and joined the growing mob straining at the barricades.
I liked to stand near the back. From there, I could see the media, make sure their cameras didn’t pan to the other end of the flightline where our covert Special Operations aircraft were parked. I could pick out familiar faces in the group of returning Airmen and dart in for a quick, tired hug. I could watch clusters of families and friends point and squeal and jump up and down and cry, and kids run into a pair of open, camouflaged arms.
I attended almost every homecoming at Hurlburt Field. Initially, I went because it was my job. Since the events were often outside normal duty hours, we rotated assigned personnel, but I quickly started volunteering to help on my days off. I genuinely enjoyed the ceremonies. In contrast to the stress and frustration of my daily job and the constant mass media flow of bad news from the warzone, these little happy endings were refreshing. For a few hours, no one had to worry about what happened yesterday or last week, or what could happen tomorrow or the next day. It didn’t matter if the sun was up or down, if it was hot or cold. The world zoomed in on the east hangar or the west, and that hangar was full of joy.
Mostly I went because every homecoming reminded me of my mom. I hadn’t forgotten what it felt like to be reunited on March 12, 1991—that’s not the kind of thing you ever forget. Yet watching others go through that same swell of emotions made it matter again, in a different way. I hadn’t deployed yet. I hadn’t lost anyone, like many of my colleagues had. I hadn’t sacrificed in such tangible ways. But I understood what it was like to wait and how it felt when waiting finally came to an end.
I knew my turn would come eventually. Deployments were the reality of military service in the post-9/11 era. I wanted to go; I wouldn’t feel like I was fulfilling my duty otherwise. I didn’t think about the possibility of not coming home—the idea was too vague, too surreal, too terrifying—but I dreamed about my homecoming. I had been in the crowd and on the fringes, and someday I would be on the plane. I would hear people cheering as the front door creaked open and the Florida sunlight or moonlight spilled into the cabin. It would take forever to unload. My family would grow impatient, like thousands of families before: Where is she? Everyone looks the same! What if she’s not there? Then I would make my way out the door, down the stairs, and onto the tarmac to be funneled through the outstretched hands of the base commanders and city leadership. The scene would probably be overwhelming, a sea of arms like the legs in my memory. But it would be heartwarming to get such a reception. Commanders I’d worked with would pat me on the back, maybe even offer a hug or a high five. Welcome back, LT, they’d say, We missed you! Working my way down the line, I would see my colleagues hovering by the media, and they would grin and wave. The reporters might recognize me from past media escorts and wave, too. Flags and posters would dance past as I reached the main crowd. The shouting, the colors and the patriotic music would build into a bubble of emotions. Then I would see my family at the same time they saw me. It would be just like all the homecomings I’d witnessed. It would be perfect.
When I flew back from Afghanistan in March 2010—almost exactly 19 years after my mom came home from Saudi Arabia—I was the only military passenger on my commercial airliner. I had traveled by helicopter from a small Forward Operating Base near the Pakistan border, then left some of my deployed unit at Bagram Air Base, the military’s main hub in Afghanistan, where their home units required additional paperwork prior to departure. Others had flown with me to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where we were herded through a small crowd of USO volunteers whose cheers and unfamiliar faces were as genuine as they were jarring; then through customs, then to separate terminals for separate flights back to wherever home—or home base—might be, barely registering that after nearly a year of living, eating and working together, depending on each other for survival, those jetlagged, bewildered moments might be the last we ever shared.
Most of us made the final leg of the journey alone. When mine ended at the Tampa International Airport, there was no celebration waiting for me. No screaming spectators or clicking flashbulbs, no important hands to shake. The air wasn’t filled with patriotic music or glitter blowing off homemade signs. I didn’t need to elbow through throngs of camouflage to find who I was looking for.
I'd been gone 349 days. From Afghanistan, I emailed my family frequently and called when my work schedule, the 12-and-a-half hour time difference, and third world technology allowed. I’d shielded them from much. I didn’t talk about the creeping fear that even 50 pounds of body armor couldn’t keep away; the local attacks that sent ripples of paranoia through our tiny, vulnerable compound. I didn’t mention the frustration and hopelessness that clouded daily operations, each small victory overshadowed by corruption, violence, or bureaucratic red tape. I didn’t admit my isolation—even on a base crowded with soldiers, contractors and local Afghan workers. Once, in a phone call, Mom told me it was harder for her having me deployed than when she’d been gone herself. It was the closest I got to crying to my parents.
Six months later, I emerged at the Tampa airport. I had been in transit for eight days, including nearly 24 hours of straight flight time from Afghanistan to Turkey to Germany to Baltimore, where I had sleepwalked through a few-hour layover. My internal clock was stuck halfway around the world. My head was straining through a thick fog to make sense of the sleek terminal and bright windows, people in civilian clothes, neon restaurant signs, the discordant symphony of music and newscasts and flight updates, the missing weight against my thigh where my pistol should be holstered. I felt like I was on another planet.
Then I saw my family. My six-foot-two brother was easy to spot at the end of the terminal ramp. Next to him was his girlfriend, holding a small American flag, and my parents, straining against the security rope. All my senses zeroed in on them. My mom yelled, “There she is! There’s Lauren!” Then I was seven years old and running into her arms, crying into her hair.
And for a moment, the world was perfect.