It was December 17, 1972, a week before Christmas, and I was on the “Freedom Bird” flying back to the States following my tour in Vietnam. We landed at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco. I was wearing my Marine “Alphas,” the green trousers and jacket with khaki long-sleeved shirt and tie, and the fore & aft green cover (“hat” for you civilians).
My parents, sister and grandmother were at the terminal to welcome me home. My brother also flew out from Louisiana having returned from ‘Nam himself just four years earlier. The sense of excitement when you realize you are back in the Good Ole USA is hard to explain. No more war zone. Family and friends glad to have you back. And the opportunity to breathe air that smells of freedom! As the plane touches down, you are met with a flood of emotions. Will my family be there? Will they be on time? Have I changed? Will they notice anything different about me?
Finally the plane rolls to a stop at the terminal. Then you wait while the plane is shut down, and a military representative boards the plane to give some inane instructions before you were allowed to deplane. Oddly, there was a general tendency on the part of most of us to drag our feet as we grabbed our carry-on items from the overhead bins. We were ecstatic to be home, but having been away for a year, many of us had experienced some of life’s uglier lessons. It was as though death was on us and everyone could see it. We had certainly smelled it, and we were forever changed. And you could never forget that fellow Marines were also returning home in vinyl body bags. There would be no more family Christmases for them.
As I walked down the portable stairs from the plane, I hesitated to look up at the terminal for fear that my family would not be standing there. Of course they were, and all of a sudden I was smiling. But we had to wait for our sea bags to be unloaded first before we were set free to embrace our loved ones. The two hour ride to our home in Danville is a complete blank in my memory. I’m sure we chattered the whole way back to the house, or perhaps I dozed off, comfortable in the knowledge that I was safe back with my family.
The house was brightly decorated with all manner of Christmas lights and ornaments both inside and out. The odors of freshly baked sweets and the foods we always enjoy at Christmas were heavenly. For days I sat around the house having no desire to go anywhere. I was home. And I relished every moment of it. It was as though my soul was a sponge, absorbing every aspect of being home. I was surrounded by the people that meant the most to me, so there was nothing more I needed, nor wanted. I was perfectly content.
It wasn’t until we prepared to sit down for Christmas dinner that I was emotionally ambushed. As I watched everyone gathering around the table, I was overwhelmed with a thought that had never before assaulted me. Why was I home safe with my family preparing to enjoy another Christmas dinner lovingly prepared by my mother, when there was an empty seat at so many other tables of fallen servicemen? They wanted to live just as much as I did. I had to excuse myself from the table for about ten minutes or so before I could collect my emotions, knowing they might yet betray me again before the evening was over.
Each night I would grab a blanket and stretch out on the living room floor next to the Christmas tree. I would have a few logs in the fireplace burning warmly while I would lay there taking in the pine smells of the Christmas tree brightly lit with colorful lights only a few feet from me. Some nights I would sleep there the whole night. Other nights I would awake sometime in the early hours and stumble off to my bed. I didn’t care. I was home. And that’s all that did matter.
I fear I have become rather maudlin in my recounting these experiences from a Christmas now 39 years in the past. But in recent weeks our military men and women have been arriving home from Iraq, rejoining their families, preparing to enjoy another Christmas around the table. Gifts will be exchanged, and special moments shared. But for those who have left the ugliness of war behind them, there is a special smell in the air, and a taste of freedom that is hard to define. But for those who have been there, it is inescapable.
As you gather with loved ones this year, please pray for our returning warriors and their families. They are the reason you are able to enjoy the Christmas season.
And may each and every one of you have a Merry Christmas!