Everyone who has been through it says that for the family back home the second six months of a yearlong tour is harder than the first. In the first phase there is a sense of purpose, of determination, holding down the homefront. There is a spirit of adventure in adapting to day-to-day life without your spouse. But eventually you get your systems down, and then it becomes just getting through the weeks. After four months the adventure is long gone. When you start the second half of the tour it doesn’t kick off with the same élan. It’s just the grind, familiar and prosaic.
But between acts there is an intermission, a two-week mid-tour leave. Getting ready for that is an operation in itself. The scheduling started months ago — August 20 according to the spreadsheet I put together. How much can you fit into two weeks? Friends, family, functions — once you put it on Excel the boxes fill up fast. Even free time has to be blocked out or it will vanish.
There will be a lot to catch up on. Time with the kids is imperative. The first thing Beth said she wanted to do was sit in the baby’s room and watch her play. Rachel hadn’t even been walking when Beth left for Baghdad. Now she tears around the house like she runs the place, which to an extent she does. Jacob is on the cusp of teendom, way too cool to get mushy about Mommy coming back, or at least too cool to show it. He signed the “welcome home” card with his full name — like what other Jacob would be on there?
Beth asked me to schedule a getaway just for us. Great idea, but what? Maybe something outdoorsy, like camping, the mountains? We like doing that, but what if the weather turns bad? No, let’s do the things you can’t do in Baghdad. We’ll head for New York City, walk in Central Park, go to the Met, enjoy some fine dining. I bought tickets to two Broadway shows long in advance. Who knew there would be a stagehands’ strike? Meanwhile the weather report for the mountains is perfect. How the fates mock us.
Getting the house in order is the biggest task, a separate spreadsheet by itself. Cleaning on this level is a tall order. Decluttering, rearranging, scrubbing, dusting, sweeping, everything. Any chore that was deferred on the basis of expediency comes due. How could this much have slipped in six months? Who spilled that — whatever it is — gunk — in the bottom of the freezer?
Add to that the prep for Thanksgiving, which is its own operation. Have to get the turkey, the fixings, see who might want to come, find out which of our friends have nowhere to go. This leave is well timed, coinciding with the holiday. There is a lot to be thankful for.
Beth began her journey home several days out. There are various stages in the trip, long flights and a lot of waiting. We got a phone call from her at the Baghdad airport. Getting there was more eventful than she would have liked.
“It felt ludicrous,” she said. “Hey, insurgents, I’m going on leave, hello?”
“What happened exactly?”
“Tell you later.”
“O.K.” You learn quickly in the military culture that there are things people can’t talk about, either because of OPSEC, or because it’s classified. Things like that are need to know, and by the fact that you are having a conversation you already know the most important thing you need.
By then we were getting ready for the arrival day. There were two major events to plan, at the airport and at home. A lot would depend on the time of day she arrived, but we had no idea when that would be. So, stay flexible. We made a trip to the party store and stocked up on balloons and streamers. I asked if they had anything with a “welcome home” theme.
“Welcome home?” the young lady said, sounding like it was the first time anyone had asked it.
“We have a solider returning from Iraq.”
“Oh!” she said. “Not really. Just a ‘welcome home’ banner in aisle four.”
O.K., aisle four. We picked up the banner and decorations in red, white and blue. Our au pair Polly wanted to get a purple mylar balloon shaped like a heart. Purple heart? Hmm, better make it red.
Tasks for D-1: final house prep, all the last minute things, of which there were many, yet somehow they were getting done. Imagine always being able to harness the awesome power of the last minute. I got ahead of some things at work then went by the florist. He’s a middle aged guy with a pony tail and a big picture of President Bush in the shop, and he does amazing work. I told him why I was there and he made me two very nice arrangements. “My best to your wife,” he said. “Anyone in uniform gets my respect.”
Meanwhile Jacob made some big poster board signs, “Welcome home!” and “Yay Mom!” He also made cupcakes, but it was after bedtime when we discovered we didn’t have the ingredients for icing. Fog of war. We bundled up Rachel and headed for the market.
Then the day arrived. We got a call confirming the arrival time. Polly was in charge of the baby, her outfit, her hair. We made sure the camera batteries were charged, and that the memory card was empty. We picked up Jacob from school and drove to the airport. We stood around the gate area with signs and balloons. People went by, a few taking note. We peered down the passageway trying to spot the familiar green of the ACU. We chatted excitedly as the sense of anticipation grew. Finally, a flash of color, a familiar gait, seeing our solider walking towards us. Signs waving, cameras flashing; Beth was home, the first half was done. Then smiles, hugs, tears, and thanks.
– James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University , senior fellow for national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.