Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Homecoming

Waving flags, yellow ribbons and “welcome back” signs decorated Main Street in Smalltown, Minn. today, in anticipation of the long-awaited return of the National Guard Charlie Company of the 134th Brigade Support Battalion. But Smalltown wasn’t the only rural city welcoming soldiers back today. About 85 miles south of Smalltown, they were also welcoming the return of troops. A story for my newspaper took me to THAT welcome home ceremony, instead of the one in my very own backyard.

I was actually an honored guest at the welcome ceremony, where only family was invited. The sound of a motorcade let all of us inside the crowded hall know the men and women we had come to (symbolically) embrace had arrived.

The days leading up to the ceremony in Smalltown (and I imagine in this other community) reminded me of the week before Christmas as experienced by a child. There was a sort of anticipation in the air. Mothers and wives couldn’t sleep at night. Businesses rearranged the letters on their display boards to spell out “Welcome Home” and “Thank You” instead of the usual “Help Wanted” or “Kit Kat Blizzard.” You could feel that something very monumental was about to happen.

No one I consider “close” has gone to Iraq, although the brothers and sons of those around me DID embark on the journey and one did not return. Still, I have thought about the soldiers in general terms and as an American citizen can appreciate the experience of welcoming them home. This was a much preferred story assignment to covering the tearful sendoffs, which I have also had the experience of attending.

Although the soldiers were often stoic, the emotions were high (and apparent) on the part of their families. Eyes everywhere were brimming – with pride - mostly, but also happiness and maybe a little relief.

For me, the ritual was a reminder that no matter who you are, what your faith or political alignment, we all need to be our best selves at home, work and in the community because that is the only way to REALLY say thank you for the gift that the soldiers have given us. Our continued experience as free Americans.