The cavernous hangar on the airfield at Fort Campbell, Ky., echoes with the voices of families and friends, each waiting for a soldier – theirs – to return from a year in Iraq. In the bleachers along the side walls, hand-lettered posters tell the story: "We love you, Daddy!" "My hero!" "We missed you!"
My husband and I are sitting in one of the top rows. We flew from San Diego this morning so we could say to our son in person, "Welcome home."
The crowd quiets a little in anticipation, then erupts in a roar of pure joy as the hangar's massive metal doors are slid open. There in the sunlight, some 200 soldiers, moments ago on a North American airlines 767 charter plane, stand together in formation as they have these many months, then march inside.
"There he is! There's Roman!" my husband says, pointing to a tall young man in the second row. That soldier looks straight ahead at first, then turns his head to scan the crowd, spots us waving, widens his eyes, and smiles, shyly it seems.
But reunions will have to wait a while longer – for a speech and an invocation and, according to the program I'm holding, two whole verses of "The Army Song."
When Roman looks up in our direction, I wonder if he also sees, as I do, all who are with him and us in spirit at this moment: His sister and her husband, who are back in northern California. The relatives who sent him care packages of peanut butter and homemade cookies, mixed nuts, and funny DVDs. Neighbors who added his name to prayer lists at their churches. Strangers who came to know him through essays I'd written, and who e-mailed me to say, "Sgt. Diaz and the men of Bravo Company are in my thoughts and prayers." Friends who wept at the news last week that Roman was, after two deployments totaling 27 months, coming home for good from this too-long war.
The 10 soldiers from Roman's unit who came home this past year in flag-draped boxes are among us, too, as are their wounded comrades, more than 30, recovering now in the States. Every heart in this hangar holds the families and the far-flung communities of all those men. The actual head count here totals, I'd say, somewhere near 500, but thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions even, sit shoulder-to-shoulder in these bleachers.
My father, Roman's grandfather, is here beside me, even though he was laid to rest in a veteran's cemetery 18 years ago, when Roman was in kindergarten. In World War II, Dad landed on the beaches of Normandy, fought through to Paris, and at the war's end, saw – close-up – the horrors of the Holocaust in places like Bergen-Belsen. My dad, one of the most decent human beings I have ever known, would say about those experiences only a rueful "War is hell."
The men of Roman's platoon would surely agree. For the past 12 months, their mission put them at the dark heart of the insurgency – places like Yusufiyah and Mahmudiyah, in the area known as the "triangle of death." Roadside bombs, mortar attacks, and firefights were a daily fact of life for the Second Brigade Combat team. It was a very long year.
At last the ceremony in the hangar ends, and my husband and I make our way down the bleacher stairs and into the crowd surging around the soldiers. At 6 feet, 3 inches, Roman is easier to track than most. We shuffle closer until the distance between us disappears. And when it does, I throw my arms around him, and bury my mascara-streaked face into the front of his camouflage jacket.
"Roman," I breathe. "Mom," he answers. That is all. That is everything.
In our hotel suite later, after a nice dinner at the best Mexican restaurant we could find in Clarksville, Tenn.., I take a gift-wrapped package out of my suitcase and over to the king-sized bed where Roman has stretched out. When his return from Iraq seemed imminent, I thought long and hard about a meaningful gift to mark a day like this one.
"This is for you," I say, sitting down beside him. "Me?" he teases.
He sits up, proceeds to unwrap the gift I've just handed him, then looks at me with a puzzled expression.
"It's Grandpa's bathrobe," I tell him. "After he died, Grandma asked if there was something of his I wanted to keep. I took this, and it's hung in my closet all these years. I remember my father wearing it at breakfast every morning when I was a girl. To me, it was always so him. And now, I want it to be yours. "
After all that Roman and his comrades have been through, I am sure they will struggle, as soldiers have in the past, with how to come to terms with what they have experienced. Poet Archibald MacLeish, himself a veteran of World War I, speaks to this point in a memorial poem in which fallen soldiers say to the living, "Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this. We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning." This is the lifelong task that falls to those who come home from war. It is life's challenge to the rest of us, too.
Holding his grandpa's robe in one hand, Roman draws me closer with the other. His eyes soften, and he plants a kiss on the top of my head. "Thank you, Mom," he whispers. "Thank you."
I feel the same way, Son. But on this, your first day back, I am more thankful than I can say.
• Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written a series of articles for the Monitor about her son's military service.