Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tell The World, I'm Coming Home...

I've chewed on this post for some time. Thought about writing it, put fingers to keyboard, wrote something else. Today, I saw a tweet from and Army wife that kicked me into action. Such a simple, basic tweet. "But I do miss the big homecoming celebrations."   That's it. A wife whose husband's brigade will come home in bits and pieces instead of all at once. So this time, I guess that means no giant homecoming celebration.

I've never gotten to welcome my soldier home with a big Army celebration.

Tour #1, he was brought home early due to a torn meniscus. If you can't walk, you can't patrol, you gotta go home. I know on that one, we were lucky. It got him home to safety about two months early, and was a fairly minor injury, with no lasting impact. But there wasn't any advance notice. I had actually planned a weekend to myself, traveling from Boston to DC for fun, and got a call that he was now at Brook Army Medical Center.

So tour #2, I can't lie, I was very excited for the big welcome home. I wanted to have my sign, wave my flag, run, jump in his arms. It would be great, awesome, and mentally helpful for both of us. To this day, I am furious over what happened instead.

The extent of FRG we received this time was an "unofficial" FRG lead by a sergeants's wife. (at least we had an FRG this time, right? eh, may as well have not had one...) My understanding is the sergeant was an idiot anyway, relieved of prior duties because he couldn't keep his guys in line. The wife clearly speaks English as a second language. They used to be Active Duty.Yes my dear friends, this would be the makings of a Cluster.    

Now, soldiers can list who they would like the FRG to contact. If you are not on this list, you cannot be contacted by them with any form of sensitive information (including dates, locations, etc.).  My fiance, his best friend in his unit, and from my understanding a good majority of the unit chose to NOT list their family members. Their reason was simple: FRGs are rumor mills, and command tells the soldiers important information, which they can then share with their family.           ....or not.

This unit was a fabulously amazing Cluster. The FRG had a facebook page, where they would leave cryptic messages, I suppose in the interest of adhering to their delusional definition of OPSEC. Our lovely 'leader' would post resources all the time. Most of which had to do with PCSing and other Active Duty-only topics. Nothing relevant or timely was ever posted (i.e. mental health resources, care package ideas, military family support groups, etc.)  But, we did randomly get to see pictures of the stupid crap they'd send to our soldiers, like pinatas. Oh, and I could see a picture of my soldier sitting in the corner at the deployment ceremony... surrounded by other lonely soldiers, texting me on his phone.  Yeah...  because up until the last second, they weren't even going to have a ceremony. By the time they did, I had no way to get to Arkansas on last-minute's notice.

But the coming home, oh, the coming home. Command never communicated a thing to the soldiers. Nothing. As is typical, the return date was changed about a million times. I slowly started getting notices from the fiance "We're in Kandahar, should leave tomorrow."  "We're still in Kandahar." "We're in Germany, we weren't supposed to be here, but the plane got stuck, should leave tomorrow."  "The plane's still stuck, we're still sitting here." I knew he was getting close, but as far as date, time, anything happening when they landed, none of us knew. He didn't know, I didn't know, and it was too late to add any of us to the FRG's list.

All of a sudden one day, the Facebook page tells us that families are gathering at Camp Shelby, because the soldiers will be there that night. I stayed up all night looking at their pictures, which of course were only of soldiers important to our 'leader'. I learned later that the wife of my fiance's best friend saw this post, jumped in the car and drove the 8 hours to get there. Being 17 hours away, I didn't have this option. I have heard just how painful it was for him to watch his buddy see his wife, while my fiance stood there alone.

But don't worry, it got worse. My fiance had not brought his phone. There was no point. His brand-new iPhone had arrived after leave, and he opted against having it shipped to Afghanistan. Not to mention, the FRG declared a mailing deadline two months before they actually came home...  So he borrowed his buddy's phone every now and then. I heard how they didn't know when they'd actually be done with de-mob. He thought Thursday, but some other unit was leaving Thursday, which took up time, so it would probably be Saturday.  Either way, he hadn't heard anything about a ceremony or homecoming. Just told that they'd all be done and the non-organic guys (about a third of the unit) would fly home from Arkansas. I had a Board meeting to plan that weekend, and told him I could get out of it. But since he hadn't heard a thing about a ceremony, he told me no worries.

Friday. Fucking Friday. I'm sitting at my desk, printing documents, all the things you do to coordinate a Board meeting. And of course, checking that Facebook page pretty regularly.  I see a post. "The busses are on there way. They're coming home!"  (yes, I distinctly remember the incorrect 'there'). Deep sigh of relief, along with some disappointment of course, but off to work. Approximately 4 hours later, I come back and notice there are about 20 comments.  I remember thinking, OK, it's all happy messages, but I should look.

"My son was stuck in the rain, locked out of the barracks!" "You mean only SOME of them are coming home!!!" "Have your happy reunion, my son is stuck without a flight home!!!"   WHAT?!?!?  I can tell you my heart dropped and my hands shook with anger. As I continued reading, I learned what happened.   The organic soldiers boarded buses and headed back to North Conway, Arkansas where all their families and a wonderful welcome home were waiting for them. At the time that they boarded the busses, approximately 11:00 a.m., the barracks were emptied of all soldiers. The non-organic soldiers, my fiance included, sat outside in the rain, and waited for the peons at Camp Shelby to book their flights. They sat, locked outside in the rain, and watched their fellow soldiers pull away on buses toward their families, all while they sat, not even knowing when they would get home.

It took hours to get in touch with anyone. I texted my fiance's friend, who had also been left behind. At this point they were separated. Again, I believe he was able to call his wife, have her drop everything, and drive 8 hours to get him. He was able to tell me which airport the soldiers had been taken to. We frantically searched flight schedules trying to find his flight home. Mind you, tornados were tearing through the Camp Shelby area on this particular day and working their way north. Finally, we were able to reach him! He was using his Kindle to get email, and then was able to borrow a stranger's cell phone. We found that he was NOT in fact booked on this direct flight, but instead routed through Atlanta (right where the storms were headed..). His brother worked for another airline, did a quick search and informed us that my fiance's second flight was already canceled due to the weather. So he'd be stranded in Atlanta instead of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Oh yeah, all while the organic soldiers were having dinner with their families post-welcome-home-ceremony.

In the end, my fiance paid out of pocket for the flight direct to his home. Of course, this took him home to his parents, so I still couldn't hug him, but at least he was home. He told me after that he had bought dinner for Privates from his unit, who of course couldn't afford their own. Before the FRG pulled down their entire Facebook page (as they now had 44 comments, 42 of which were full of anger), I learned that one family had resorted to a 12 hour drive, another soldier wouldn't be flying home until the next day and would be sleeping on the floor of the airport.

Now, you want to know why I roll my eyes when I hear about how much we care about our soldiers? Why it elicits a sarcastic "Ha!" when you tell me that we are focused on the mental health and resiliency of our military families? Why I am insanely proud of my soldier, yet insanely angry at the Reserves?  Because I was denied my celebration. Because he was treated like a second-class citizen by his own unit. Because in an organization that insists no man will be left behind, his General was sitting at home with his family while he was still stranded at an airport.

I was denied that celebration. That wonderful chance to see him and hug him and jump on him in tears of joy. I didn't get to wave my flag. To cheer. To run toward him as soon as I heard the "Di-" of "Dismissed". I cried. But out of frustration. I seethed with anger that this unit, who needed him, who pulled him with barely a whisper of dwell time, this unit essentially gave him a swift kick in the ass and a giant middle finger when they were done with him.

Before she pulled down the page, our wonderful FRG 'leader' attempted to blame our soldiers. She informed us that it is our soldier's responsibility to tell us about events like this. Maybe they wanted to surprise us. The anger that spewed forth included mine. My soldier never knew about the ceremony. My soldier had no phone or other means of telling me this wonderful information that HE DIDN'T KNOW. And regardless, how is it my soldier's responsibility to tell me about a ceremony he wasn't invited to? To tell me about sitting in the rain, locked out of his barracks? To tell me that he watched his unit abandon him and several of his fellow soldiers? To tell me about sitting in a tiny airport, waiting for a convoluted flight that wasn't booked until lunchtime that same day? To tell me about the pathetic, horrible, disgusting he received?

I want my welcome home. I want my closure. I want the anger and hurt we both suffered taken away. Army Strong indeed...

Update: I've been told I got a few facts wrong. In order to emphasize the rediculousness and confusion of the day, rather than fix it above, I will tell you the changes. My fiance's friend was not picked up by his wife. Rather, he rented a car and drove home. My fiance did not buy dinner for another soldier, but instead a drink. Additionally, there was free wi-fi in the airport, so he was actually able to check e-mail on his laptop instead of his Kindle, and we were finally able to reach him via Skype (which is not free when used computer-to-phone).

Update #2: While I have left the discrepancies in here to highlight the confusion of the day and week, I am aware that some could attempt to discredit the story based on this.   To those, I would offer this:  throw out every other fact, and focus on this single one. Did the unit or did the unit not leave behind the non-organic soldiers, and take only the organic soldiers to a homecoming ceremony?   Anything else aside, this unit deliberately chose, created a (terrible) plan, in a way that willfully denied certain soldiers the homecoming celebration they and their families desperately desired. Anything else aside, this unit gave these soldiers and their families a giant middle finger at the end of the deployment.

No comments:

Post a Comment