IT’S LIKE A REAWAKENING OF THE SENSES. The air is cool and sweet, the trees and grass seem greener, and the simple act of driving down the highway—no body armor, no weapons, no fear of being attacked—is exhilarating. My first stop in the country was Fort Bragg, for one final military hurdle: demobilization, a bureaucratic nightmare if ever there was one. (The outgoing chief of the Army Reserve,
Lieutenant General James R. Helmly, has described mobilization as “fraught with friction” and “harmful to soldiers,” and the same can be said for one’s return. He should be given an award for understatement.) The only thing that made it bearable was the fact that I would soon be free. Thoughts of home—car rides through the Hill Country, swims in Barton Springs, homegrown music on the radio—kept me going.
When I flew into Austin, I knew I was home at once. A live band was playing in the terminal; men wandered around in boots and cowboy hats; I saw beautiful women not dressed head to toe in black sheets and, of course, a guy in drag. All of that within ten minutes of landing makes for some culture shock! I caught a taxi, and in twenty minutes I was at my house.
It’s hard to describe the emotions; they’re as rich and powerful as it gets. I never thought I would be so excited to lay my eyes on the old fixer-upper I bought a couple years ago. As I approached the screen door, I could see my girls through the glass. They were quiet, and my wife opened the door and gave me a big, soft hug. My six-year-old stood by patiently with tears in her eyes as I told her mother how much I’d missed her, while the three-year-old hid in the folds of her mommy’s skirt. Then, as I bent down to hug them, the older one jumped into my arms as the younger one looked up at her mother with an expression that said “Is this who I think it is?” My wife told her gently, “Give Daddy a hug.” And quickly we were all three in each other’s arms and laughing. I remember a time many months ago when I looked into the eyes of my most precious loved ones and said good-bye. There was a horrible feeling that I might never see them again. My technique for overcoming those feelings was to make them small, to put them someplace where they couldn’t be found, which is easier said than done. Now I could take those feelings and really give them the boot. Coming home in one piece is a blessing. I know that I owe God (and those who prayed for me) many thanks.
Next on my priority list was some good food. First up: barbecue in Lockhart. Later in the week, a really great steak in town and some yummy Thai food at the new Madam Mam’s, which is just around the corner from my house (awesome). And I can now say with conviction that a plate of chicken enchiladas and a Lone Star beer from Maudie’s Too, on South Lamar, can truly be a religious experience. Who could be uptight in a place like this?
All the while, I’ve also been noticing my kids’ growth. My older daughter can read like a whiz now. She’s a budding astronomer and can tell me all about the moons of distant planets. The younger one will talk your ear off, and unlike a year ago, you can actually understand what she’s saying. Their laughs and playful sounds are once again the sound track of my life, and I love it.
Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t some adjustments. My thoughts and actions still border on hypervigilant. Whenever I walk out of a building, I find myself looking in all directions, doing what a soldier calls “keeping your head on a swivel.” I scan rooftops whenever I’m driving or walking downtown. Once, as I was driving on the highway, I saw something on the road and felt my heart race. I had to remind myself that there are no IEDs on I-35.
I’m also torn between conflicting desires. Deep down I really just want to forget that Iraq exists, and I look forward to when my memories of it are tucked neatly away in some inaccessible portion of my mind. But then there’s the part of me that never wants to forget. I never want to forget the sacrifice that has been—and is being—made there; I feel an obligation to not let the memory of my fallen comrades fade. Many good men and women have not come home, or they’ve come home wounded, and I feel deep sorrow for the families of those who have been lost. The depth of that sacrifice has no measure. Finally—and this may come as a surprise—I feel sadness for the ordinary American. Our country uses only volunteers for foreign conflicts, and as a result, the average American is far removed from the price it takes to maintain his freedom. I sense that many people wish they could experience the sacrifice—and people are always willing to express their gratitude.
As for me, my soldiering days have come to a close. This summer I’ll be working in Austin before I head back to my final year of business school. I know that transitioning to office life and working with civilians again will be challenging. Changing from a world where success is judged in terms of survival to a world where a bad day is having to work past five o’clock will require some adjustment. But I’m sure I’ll manage.
I’m under no illusions of having made a big difference in Iraq. I did my job honorably, and, with the help of some outstanding NCOs, I brought all my soldiers home. I think that, in the big picture, Iraq will be better off because of the work being done there. The Iraqis now have