A good way to come home from war

The last time I worked at my civilian job, I flew a planeload of passengers from Jacksonville, Fla., to Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. We lifted off into a cool, clear February night, the air so smooth and calm that I flew the jet by hand for a good while, forgoing the autopilot for the simple treat of handling the machine myself.

As we glided over Southern towns, their lights sparkling like scattered jewels, I had no idea I would not do this again for many months. The next day the phone rang, informing me that my Air National Guard unit had been activated. I was headed for the Middle East and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The following days and weeks brought a range of emotions and experiences: the pain of family separation and the pleasure of camaraderie with longtime squadron mates. A surreal conversation with my wife, Kristen, from the airplane via the Military Affiliate Radio System - "I love you, over." Great distances traveled above an ocean of sand. Fire in the sky over Baghdad, and a white-knuckled high-speed turn to escape a heat-seeking missile.

At home, life went on without me. Spring came, the time when I would normally plant a small garden in front of our Alexandria, Va., townhouse. Not wanting to look at a bare patch of dirt for months, Kristen asked me to e-mail instructions for putting together the flower bed.

In a sweaty flight suit, tapping away at a computer in the desert, I described how to spade the soil to loosen it up, how to mix in the fertilizer, and how deeply to plant the seedlings.

I also advised her to toss in a few snail pellets and to water almost daily if the summer turned out to be dry.

Encircled by a moonscape of sand that tolerated only the occasional scrubby weeds, I envisioned our garden of impatiens and begonias springing to colorful life. Horticulture by computer gave me brief but welcome breaks from the grim duties of war.

Months went by. Kristen e-mailed me a digital photo of the garden. I sat down at the keyboard, bleary-eyed from the long night in the combat zone, and double-clicked to see her handiwork.

The arrow on the screen turned into an hourglass for several minutes, the photo gradually taking shape from the other side of the world.

And there it was, my own home and garden, red bricks and red flowers, along with some whites and yellows and lots of greens - lush green, something I had not seen and would not see for many months.

The photo was a digital connection with normality. In calmer times, I would have been there, watering, pulling weeds, shooing away squirrels. Given my present circumstances, it seemed a vision of domestic bliss.

As I looked at the photo, I told myself that I was not wondering whether I'd ever see that garden again. Rational analysis told me that a crewman on our C-130 transport was in much less danger than a fighter pilot or infantryman.

Yet home was still a long way away, and the lights coming up at us over Iraq at night weren't fireflies.

Meanwhile, the days and nights of war rolled by. We took them one at a time because there was no other way. For a long time we did not know when we were leaving; we knew only that each day brought us closer to that unknown date. We felt for every death on our side - and ultimately, for those on the Iraqi side, too. At the chaplain's services we gave thanks and prayed.

A counselor in camp gave some helpful advice: Have a long-term project, she said, so I got lots of reading done. She also warned us that things at home were changing during our absence; spouses were taking on responsibilities and might not be eager to give them up immediately upon our return.

Fine - I'd deal with that later.

Then, at last, came the day we'd awaited the way kids anticipate Christmas. We took off for home in a rare desert rainstorm, the shower washing dust from the aircraft like some ancient purification ritual for returning warriors. We arrived in the United States, thank God, with everyone safe and accounted for.

I drove home from my base and pulled into the cul-de-sac as if I'd just been away for a workday. When I shouldered my well-worn duffel bag, I must have made a strange sight still wearing desert flight gear in verdant northern Virginia suburbia.

A few steps down the sidewalk brought me to my cybergarden, now real and alive, chlorophyll instead of pixels. Kristen had done a fine job. Leaves and petals spilled copiously over the wooden stakes that bordered the garden, the taller varieties set in the back against the wall. More flowers hung from a basket on a shepherd's crook, still others from a basket under our doorway flagpole. One or two types I had never tried before grew expansively, as if they'd belonged there all the time. They did, actually. Kristen had bought them at a sale of native Southeastern plants.

She greeted me with kisses, and thus began my process of rest and decompression. One day recently, as we relaxed by the garden, Kristen told me she feels ownership of the garden now. She'll be making decisions about what to plant and when, because she has a new hobby.

That's OK; it's not as if the counselor didn't warn me. Weekends now find us reading the newspaper by a garden that's no longer all mine.

It's a good way to come home from war.

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