The Whitney clan will not soon forget Armed Forces Day 2003. That’s when, fittingly, our 19-year-old son Ian came home from the war. Since early March he had been at Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait, serving as a crew chief for the A-10 Warthog. My wife and I had never sent a child off to war, much less welcomed home a veteran.
We knew several days in advance that Ian would be coming into Battle Creek sometime on May 17, but didn’t know the exact time. At 4:55 that morning the telephone rang, waking us from a fitful sleep. Outside the robins had started singing, but it was still dark.
“Hello?” my wife Louise answered, overcompensating for having been asleep; her voice sounded too bright.
Although the hand-piece was an arm’s length away, I could hear my son’s voice, and his first words were exactly what Louise and I needed to hear: “Hey, I’m on my way — ”
With these words, a powerful sense of relief came over us, and we suddenly felt awake and grateful.
“We’re in Frankfurt now,” Ian said. “It’s cloudy, cool, and drizzly — and it’s great!”
Cloudy, cool, and drizzly — and it’s great? Yes, great, even for a kid who has grown up in Michigan and really knows cloudy, cool, and drizzly. He was tired of the cloudless skies and relentless sun in Kuwait. Some of his last e-mails to family and friends had noted temperatures over 110 degrees on the flight line.
“I can’t believe how it feels to be coming back home,” he said, a smile in his voice. “Right now I’m looking at green trees and green grass. I mean, all I’ve seen these past months is tan. Tan clothes, tan buildings, tan land — in Kuwait everything’s tan. Even things that aren’t supposed to be tan are tan, like the water.”
Ian explained that his journey home had started about midnight Kuwait time, when he and 120 fellow guardsmen from the Michigan Air National Guard boarded two buses bound for the airport. The buses were accompanied by an armed escort of black Chevy Suburbans. The guardsmen were told to keep the curtains shut for the 75-minute ride. But as the buses passed several checkpoints, Ian peered through a slit in the curtains to see Kuwaiti soldiers with long beards and in ragged uniforms; they looked at the American convoy as if it were the only sign of life they’d seen in ages. He felt sorry for the soldiers, stationed in the middle of nowhere. What struck Ian was the barrenness around the checkpoints. The only visual relief was narrow shafts of flame at a distant oil refinery.
When the buses reached the airport, they were directed to the United Airlines 747 that would fly the Michiganders back to the U.S. The American crew gave their special passengers their first homecoming reception. Ian relished recounting every detail.
“The inside of the plane was decorated with banners saying, ‘Welcome Home Heroes.’ All over the interior were drawings by school children. Hundreds of drawings — of Americans flags, of houses, and of people saying ‘Welcome Home!’ And the flight attendants gave every one of us a letter from an American school child, thanking us for our service and welcoming us back to the U.S.
“The flight attendants were also giving us hugs. They told us that it was the highlight of their career to bring servicemen home because it was a way they could contribute to the war effort. You could see it in their faces. They were genuinely pleased. It was the best flight of my life.”
Only one little thing spoiled the euphoric mood on the leg of the journey to Frankfurt. Ian said they’d had a head-on collision with German Ordnung — order to the Xtreme. Americans serving in Kuwait had been in an alcohol-free zone for months, living on good but predictable base food and MRE’s [Meals Ready-to-Eat]. During the layover in Frankfurt, the guys felt liberated and wanted to enjoy lunch and a beer in the airport terminal. “But these German guards wouldn’t let us go into the terminal. They wouldn’t even greet us. They just stood there with their arms folded, and watched to make sure we didn’t cross the line between the American part of the airport and the German part. They were so anal.”
We laughed it off. It didn’t matter. The most important thing was that Ian would be back on American soil in less than 12 hours: ETA 4:30 PM….
My wife was nervous about getting to Battle Creek on time. It is a one-hour drive from our home in East Lansing to the base. She wanted to leave four hours ahead of time, and I wanted to leave two hours ahead of time — so of course we compromised at four hours. “No way are we not going to be there when Ian’s jet touches down,” Louise insisted (and she is a force to be reckoned with). So a little after noon we all got in the Chevy Trail Blazer — Ian’s mother and I, his two little brothers, and our two dogs — and headed for Battle Creek. Ian had told us again and again that he wanted to see those two dogs on the tarmac.
Military homecomings run through the generations in my family. On the drive down to Battle Creek, I recalled that my grandfather had experienced a thrilling homecoming in 1919, in New York City, upon his return from France. I also tried to remember what my father had once told me about his homecoming in World War II. I called him in California and asked him to tell me the story again. In 1944 he was 22 years old, a radio-gunner on B-24s flying out of New Guinea. His homecoming journey took a month. First there was the flight from a jungle base called Dobodura to Sydney, Australia; then a three-week passage from Sydney to San Francisco, on a cruise-turned-transport ship called the Matsonia, which zigzagged across the ocean to evade enemy submarines; then several days of processing on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay; then a two-day train ride to Scott Army Air Base outside of St. Louis for yet more processing; then the train ride to Independence, Missouri, where he was met by his entire family and fiancée. The month-long passage seemed like an eternity. At least Ian didn’t have to go through that.
Ian and the other guardsmen felt they were home-free when their 747 passed from Canadian to American air space over Lake Huron. About 35 minutes out of Battle Creek, when the plane started its descent, everyone on board started cheering. They looked out onto the spring-green landscape of Michigan and excitedly pointed out the features they recognized. When the landing gear descended, there was another round of cheering. At touchdown, a final round of cheering filled the jumbo jet, this one the most robust of all.
As the plane taxied toward the hanger, Ian looked out the window and picked out his family in a sea of people crowded against the stanchions — Mom, Dad, his two little brothers Alasdair and Andrew, and his two dogs, Skippy and Gal. He felt so many emotions — happiness, relief, excitement. He just wanted off the plane; he had never felt so glad to be back in Michigan.
As the plane came to a stop, the guardsmen put on their backpacks and made their way to the front exit door, eager to get off. But they had to wait … and wait … as the top brass and U.S. Customs agents went aboard.
As Ian and his buddies were coming back into American airspace, on the ground in Battle Creek the families were gathering on the tarmac. TV crews and print journalists were milling about, making small talk. The afternoon sun was starting to feel hot, and our youngest son, Andrew, kept asking, “When’s Ian gonna get here?”
He must have asked the question and tugged on our shirts a hundred times when suddenly a woman shrieked, “There it is! There it is!” And sure enough, coming from the north-northeast was the UA 747, its dark fuselage silhouetted against soft white clouds.
We were a crowd of maybe 350 at most, but we let out a cheer that could have filled a stadium. Our dogs Skippy and Gal began to bark. In the sudden euphoria Louise and I instinctively reached for each other’s hands. She squeezed hard. Even though she was wearing sunglasses, I knew that seeing the plane made her cry. Then I noticed most of the women around us were crying. Between their shouts were sniffles and hugs.
When the jumbo jet landed, we all cheered, and then I felt myself tearing up, just so happy and relieved that our boy was on American soil again, and so proud of the man he had become and the service he had rendered to our country.
As the plane taxied toward us, an amazing thing happened. Two fire trucks had positioned themselves on either side of the taxi strip, and as the 747 passed between them, the trucks sprayed water over the fuselage in a perfect triumphal arch. It was an unexpected treat that made us clap and cheer.
Once the wheels were chocked and engines turned off, the crowd waited impatiently for our heroes to come off the plane. After a bit, the hatch above the cockpit was opened, and a guardsman popped up waving an American flag. A woman screamed, “It’s Jim!” and we all hurrahed.
After another ten minutes or so, the guardsmen suddenly emerged on the stairs that had been wheeled up to the side of the jumbo jet. The first two airmen out unfurled a large American flag and gave the thumbs up. Our cheers rose up into the sky as our tears flowed down our cheeks. Each family hurrahed when they saw their loved one emerge, grinning and waving and pumping the air with a fist. Ian was about the 30th airman out. A big smile spread across his face as he looked into the crowd and saw us cheering and waving American flags. We were ecstatic to see him looking so strong and happy. Louise grabbed me — she was shaking and sobbing. I was trying to take a telephoto picture.
The guardsmen, alas, could not come straight to us. They first had to go to the “Ops” building about a hundred yards from the plane, where their bags were being inspected by U.S. Customs agents, and then they had to walk a gauntlet, shaking the hands of two U.S. senators, a state representative, and several of the top brass at Battle Creek. Only then were they free to be reunited with their loved ones.
Once through the gauntlet, all the guardsmen zeroed in on their families, half-walking, half-running. There were long hugs and many tears, and our family was no exception. (If there was anything exceptional about our reunion, it’s that the two dogs were doing their best to stand where they would get stepped on!)
Unbeknownst to us, a reporter from the local paper was watching our family’s reunion. After a decent interval, she approached and asked, “How do you feel to have your son home, safe and sound?”
Carried away by the moment, I said, “It’s a tremendous feeling for a parent. It’s almost as strong as when he was born and I got to hold him for the first time.” The reporter was young (a twenty-something who I suspect was not yet a mom); she seemed surprised by the response. After scribbling down the words, she asked a few more questions, then left us to celebrate without distraction.
Over the past few days, Ian has spent time reflecting on and talking about his experiences in the war, but mostly he just wants to hang out with his family and college buddies. He met — and came through — a considerable challenge for a teenager, and now he wants to reclaim as much of his old life as possible. He strives for normalcy and insists that he’s no hero; in Kuwait he was just doing his job, serving his country, and watching out for his buddies, his “band of brothers.”
Regardless of what he says, Ian is a hero — our hero. He willingly interrupted his college studies to volunteer for active duty. He worked hard to raise his skill level as a crew chief so that he could do his utmost for the American effort. He accepted leadership roles when they came his way. In short, this young American turned his back on a comfortable existence and dedicated himself to something more than “I-me-mine.”
This coming week, when we celebrate Ian’s twentieth birthday with a homecoming party, our family will be acknowledging more than the passing of another year. We will be celebrating a teenager’s passage to manhood.
Bravo Zulu, my son! You make us proud.
— Gleaves Whitney’s son, Ian, serves as a senior airman in the 110th Fighter Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard. This is the twelfth and final report in the series, “The War through My Son’s Eyes.”