The buses pulled away for the airfield about 12:30 am Saturday morning.
Up until then, we’d been scattered in little company-centered groups across Fury Field, a grassy quad in the middle of modern office buildings and barracks, some hiding from the intermittent rain under temporary canopies, some of us just standing in the warm rain. Mostly it was soldiers in ACU’s; peering at lists illuminated by red-lensed flashlights, moving huge rucks or duffel bags onto flatbed trucks like ant swarms carrying large crumbs or just sitting alone or with wives and children or girlfriends or the occasional parent.
We parents had evolved a standard greeting; a handshake, a tight smile, a compliment to each other’s kids, a soft “…they look good, don’t they…they’ll do just fine.” line of reassurance. The wives and girlfriends allowed themselves emotion; we kept ours to ourselves. Biggest Guy’s sergeant sat on the wet pavement with his small, ACU-clad son asleep in his lap, leaned into an hour-long hug with his young wife who grabbed him tighter every time he started to lean away from her.
The weapons were casually set on the ground, laying on their sides, or on bipods, or leaned against small assault packs. They seemed – insignificant – in the swarm of people, kind of an afterthought that no one paid any attention to except the soldier assigned to watch over them and the people walking past who delicately stepped over them.
Up until then, it had been a kind of unreal; it felt more like the kind of away games I remember from high school sports, except that instead of girlfriends, there were wives and small children. The level of emotion and tension – until late in the evening – was kept in check.
Then the soldiers went to the armory and drew and prepared their weapons.
The parents sat watching and waiting.
Then they were called into ranks and counted; the counts were never right and there was a light buzz of confusion “why are you here? you’re not on the manifest! where’s Cooper…anyone seen Cooper?”
That somehow died down and led to the young soldiers answering “Moving!” to a name, picking up their packs and weapons and walking off to the idling busses as the families ran forward and grabbed them for one last hug. TG gave Eric a long hug, kissed his cheek and then I grabbed him by the back of the head, pulled him to me, let go and he was suddenly walking away into the dark toward the waiting bus.
We drove past the idling busses back to the Airborne Inn and a restless sleep.
But he’d given us his phone, and at 4:30 am it ran out of battery and started beeping; I got up to turn it off and realized that his plane for Manas, Kyrgyzstan was just leaving, and that was it for sleep for me.
We’re in Charlotte, visiting friends and relaxing for a bit. Home end of the week and our routine starts again; maybe just a little different.