My first conversation back on US soil went like this:
"Where are you coming from?" asked the US Customs officer.
I smiled. "Kuwait, Iraq, and..."
"Come with me."
After a couple of other embedded reporters attempted to return to the US with Iraqi loot, I expected to be searched. It went quickly, and I rounded the corner to reunite with my family after eight weeks.
My wife had a short, sporty haircut. She said I looked skinnier. When I checked, I found out I had lost 15 pounds. I seemed to almost float without the extra weight and my exoskeleton of gear: the helmet, flak jacket, and chem-bio protection. I met a lot of soldiers who had lost more.
Time barely interferes in the most important relationships. And so it seemed, almost instantly, that I had never been separated from my family. However, strangers darted to and fro like hummingbirds and I felt out of synch.
My life sped up as soon as I left the airport. My editor wanted the rented satellite phone returned to the office as soon as possible. Two-month-old receipts had to be deciphered and tallied. A pile of junk mail waited for me on my rocking chair. Our Dodge was leaking oil. And, my wife had put an offer on a house and the purchase-and-sales agreement beckoned.
In the desert, the landscape was simple, repetitive, and boundless. And so was time. I frequently lost track of the day of the week. "Every day is Groundhog Day here," I heard several soldiers say. Over in Kuwait and Iraq, there were no scheduling conflicts, just the conflict.
Now that I am back, I am amazed how quickly the whole war became crowded out by the commitments of everyday living. That world where I hitched rides on Humvees, glanced at people's collars for insignia, and drank tea served in sticky double-shot glasses with villagers still rumbles on somewhere in the dust. But it may as well be Mars.
Watching the news, however, instantly transports me back. I notice the small details -- the green chin strap on a soldier's helmet, the loose white garment on an Iraqi civilian - and I am there again. I look at the soldiers' faces to see if I recognize anyone.
Part of me wants to speak with them, that soldier and that Iraqi, and to find out the who, what, when, where, and how. But I also crave some distance and some time to better contemplate the why.
I know now about the postponed weddings, the parting words of children to their fathers, the anxiety of mothers who haven't heard from their sons in a long time. With great idealism and a sense of mission, all these sacrifices have been endured by thousands of men and women in the service.
Given what they gave up with such conviction, the faith of a generation rests on finding weapons of mass destruction and the growth of good government in Iraq. Short of that, they will feel upon returning, as I do now, that the story has continued without them.
Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy was on assignment as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting fron Kuwait and southern Iraq is collected in a web special project available at http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/.