We woke at 03:45 to prepare to leave Ft. Dix, NJ -- FINALLY. Though there was a winter storm the night before, we rose out of bed, turned in bed linens, received our DD 214's, and cleaned the barracks, determined to go home.
We ventured outside and everything was covered in several inches of ice, evidence we may not make it home. As we made our way to the chow hall, about two blocks away, all of us walked like penguins, trying to stay upright, not slipping and causing ourselves injury, a sure fire way to keep from going home. Several actually fell and one or two hurt themselves only to ignore the physical pain in order to go home and cure their emotional pains.
After breakfast chow, we assembled in the barracks, waiting for the charter buses to show. They were supposed to arrive in time for our departure at 08:00, but par for the course, they were late enough for us to start conversing, in a joking manner, about the possibility not leaving for home. Around 08:10 or so six charter buses showed up and we began shoving our luggage and gear into the compartments on the bottom, barely allowing the driver the courtesy of stopping to park. Alpha company was on their bus first, heckling the rest of the battalion for being so slow to board and get on the road.
On our way in the American made buses, marked by the absence of curtains over the windows and plenty of legroom in the seats, not even a celebratory cheer was made. Everybody settled in for the six hour trip home, listening to music or trying to watch in-ride movie, Tombstone.
Our first taste of civilian life came as we stopped at the Maryland House rest stop on interstate 95 South, which allowed for the bus driver's mandatory rest. Inside we were all overcome by the prices of the goods available. Many bought Starbucks coffee at gold prices, and ate some late breakfast. The only thing I wanted was to but a hard copy of a newspaper. Naturally I selected the Washington Post.
Our break was over after about 45 minutes, where we assembled back on the buses. Everybody returned to their iPods and books, while I read the Washington Post, every single bit of it. Some napped and others watched a second movie on the bus DVD player. Still little, if any, excitement was evident on our bus.
We made our way around the nation's capital on interstate 95/495. We crossed the Wilson Bridge, a project which made significant progress while in our absence. Once on the Virginia side of the Potomac River the feeling of really going home began when all six buses were pulled over onto the right hand shoulder by the Virginia state police.
Our stopping caused a ruckus on the bus, waking any sleepers and directing our attention outside. We were surrounded by six Virginia state trooper sedans. It was the heart of the lunch hour, half past noon, a time when the beltway needs to be open. Once all six of the buses were pulled over, the Virginia state police pulled out, blocking all traffic on the beltway. All six of our buses began to roll, pulling out into the left lane of 495.
Our first thought was one of the four buses in front of us had broken down or violated the law in some way to merit being pulled over. Little did we know this was a planned event where we were scheduled to get an escort home, similar to presidential motorcade escorts I've seen while living in Washington.
We were escorted the whole way home. Virginia state police surrounded our six buses on the interstate. We had the left two lanes to ourselves and the state police would speed up and slow down to keep any cars from breaking into the convoy of buses. All of us were entertained by the attempts to shoo cars away. I am sure there are some people who suffered near heart attacks after having a state trooper accelerate upon their car, lights flashing, and sirens blaring.
Inside the bus, cell phones began to ring with increasing regularity. All of the husbands, wives and children were calling their soldier to find out how much longer it would be before we would arrive. With each call we gave a new location report. Apparently at the reception center, the hangar in Sandston, VA, the position updates were broadcast on a megaphone, allowing the crowd assembled to become anxious.
We made it to Sandston, the small town home to our unit. As we pulled into town, the police blocked everything off, allowing us to blow through the stoplights and signs. As we made our left turn onto the final road home, there were townspeople on the side walk waving small American flags and jumping up and down. There were fellow soldiers who had stopped at the local gas station to fill up, that stopped what they were doing, came to attention, and saluted as the buses passed.
Fervor grew on the buses. We passed the local elementary school, which had its students out on the sidewalk with banners and flags, cheering and screaming as the buses passed. Just after the school we stopped on the side of the road, again raising our interest as to what was the hold up. It turns out we were early for our 14:30 scheduled arrival. We waited about five or ten minutes and were on our way around the corner to the hangar.
As the airfield came into sight, over a mile away, we caught our first glimpse of how many cars were parked on the flight line, where we normally park the helicopters. Almost in complete unison everybody exclaimed "Holy Crap!" We were not expecting the numbers we saw. There must have been hundreds of cars on the flight line. It looked like an NFL parking lot, with the sun randomly glimmering off the windshields.
We pulled into the flight line where they had marshaled all of the friends and family into the hangar area with the doors open so they could see the six buses arrive. Hundreds of families and friends were present, waving flags, cheering, flapping banners, and crying. We parked and waited on the buses with our family and friends only meters away. We just wanted to get off the bus and meet up with them. Many of us did not want to sit through Governor Kaine's monologue, we just wanted to go home.
We got off the bus and made our way into the hangar single file, all 250 of us. Once inside it was what I imagine it is like attending either the DNC or RNC conventions. All of the people were now inside the hangar. There were red, white, and blue banners everywhere. We quickly made our way, single file through the middle of the crowd to our positions in the formation, waving, smiling, shaking hands, and crying the whole way. Here we endured several words from several people, waiting for the special word to come from the battalion commander's mouth, "Dismissed"
Finally it was over and the mad search was on. Each one of us was engulfed in a sea of people looking for our respective friends and family. People had that glare I their eyes which expressed a determination which said "You're not it, get out of my way." It took me a while to find my family, of which my brother was the first I found. We hugged for a long time. He wanted to let go, but I wouldn't let him. Then we went on the search for my parents. I found my father, 6'3" with his gray hair sticking out of the crowd, which lead me to finding my 5'2" mother at his side. I ran and picked up my mother with a huge hug. She did a great job of keeping it together. It was my father that lost it a bit, with wet streaks on his coat from the subtle tears he shed when we hugged. I've only seen this once before when his mother passed away.
We were a family again, leaving our military families this time, for the lives we left 16 months ago. My last comments to some of the fellow soldiers of the 224th included a statement that was of mutual understanding "I hope I don't have to see you for a few while!"
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