Moments of euphoria as troops return
Emotional homecomings are flavored by the public's closest-ever view of war.
SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C.
Finally, they were almost home. After months of waiting, weeks of fighting, hours of flying, the US troops on board the United 747 were on the last leg of their interminable journey to North Carolina, where home-cooked meals and squirming kids were waiting.Skip to next paragraph
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But then, suddenly, one more unexpected stop: The jet touched down in Chicago for, of all things, a de-icing. It was the last thing the troops wanted. Yet as they disembarked to stretch, travelers in the terminal - dozens of them - erupted in cheers at the mere sight of the uniformed soldiers. It was like the return of the 300 Spartans. People waved. They applauded. They offered cellphones so the soldiers could call home.
The spontaneous tableau this week at Chicago's O'Hare airport is one of dozens that are occurring across the United States as soldiers begin to return home from Iraq for receptions that are markedly different than some wars of the past.
Returning troops have expressed outright surprise at the impromptu receptions by strangers. In this era of an all-volunteer force, in which the public is more personally removed from the military, it was the potential public reaction that made most troops wary. Many soldiers watched huge antiwar protests on the news and weren't sure of the reception they'd get at home. At the end of their shifts, they'd often gather in tents and talk about the stateside mood.
"Did we talk about it and did it matter? Yes," says Air Force Capt. Jeff Isgett of Fairbanks, Alaska, an A-10 pilot who flew forward air-control missions over Baghdad. "We fight for our country, we love the people of this country, and we love what it stands for, so the hardest part was [feeling] that people had a lack of trust" in military officials, he says.
The reaction is, indeed, different from wars of the early- and mid-20th century, says Brown University historian Deborah Cohen, author of "The War Come Home" about disabled vets. "If you look at the response to veterans returning home from great wars from the mass-mobilized army, most were conscripted and everyone viewed them as their sons," Professor Cohen says. "But that's no longer the case. The consequence is that the chattering classes ... do not, most of them, know people who have served."
But the cheering classes do. If you weren't family, you couldn't squeeze into Seymour Johnson Air Force Base as troops returned. But that didn't stop hundreds of locals from thronging the approach to the base. When 12 F-15E strike eagles banked in two by two, they saw a 50-by-30-foot flag, on loan from a local bakery, held by dozens in a Food Lion parking lot. After landing, that was all the airmen could talk about, says First Lt. Beverly Mock, a base spokeswoman. "They lined their planes up and came in right over the flag," says John Peacock, president of Wayne County's Chamber of Commerce. "There were men with walkers and a woman in a wheelchair clamoring to hold that flag."
On Monday, tangles of war-weary Rangers touched down in the wet lowcountry of Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga. The event was capped by a delirious Delta Air Lines pilot, who held a US flag out the cockpit window on taxi and mugged for a camera in front of the Rangers in formation. The battalion commander said a few words about three Rangers who were lost on the mission. Then he called for the "Hug-X" - military jargon for "Hugging Exercise" - and the Rangers broke their ranks.
"All these women were all dressed up trying to look their best for their soldier husbands," says Steve Hart, a spokesman for the airfield.