A year or so ago I got a letter from a man with whom I’d first begun corresponding shortly after his tour as an infantry lieutenant in Iraq. If memory serves, we began by discussing various questions of just war theory, but then our letters touched more and more on my young friend’s vocational discernment, for he had left the service on completing his deployment in sunny Mesopotamia. In his August 2008 letter, he sent an account of his homecoming and asked whether I thought it could be published somewhere, because he wanted to “thank the American public.” I couldn’t find an outlet for him, but on re-reading his letter, it occurred to me that I could help him say “thanks” by reprinting parts of it here.
“We were slowly coming together in a mass formation, rather numbly, in a dark parking lot. The usual chit-chat and murmur of side-bar conversations was conspicuously absent. We had just spent the last couple of days in a series of hangars and airfields and airplanes traveling back from the Middle East and it was now almost 2 a.m.; that was certainly one of the reasons for our numbness.
“All several hundred of us seemed to know where to go and what to do without being told. Nobody was saying anything. It was silent, except for the dull roar coming from the large building in front of us. We had rejoiced when we heard them say that our date of departure from the theater of operations was finally known, and now our feet were standing once again on beloved American soil.
“The first row of soldiers started moving once the buses were empty and the bags were all put in a certain place. I was further to the back. Someone had apparently told the first row to face to the left and start walking. The rows behind them were following suit as the walking turned into a jog. It appeared that all of us were going to run single-file into the gym…
“As we ran through the main doors, through the smoke from the smoke machine and out onto the gym floor, we were plunged into sensory overload. Bright lights, booming music, mobs of people cheering and shouting and waving at somebody. Homemade signs, welcome home banners, and red, white, and blue bunting were everywhere. Someone was on the microphone stirring up our families and loved ones even more. And we just stood there in the middle of it — not knowing quite what to do or where to look or what to think. And it went on and on and on. Then I saw the American flag…
“I remember everything about the Welcome Home ceremony very clearly until the national anthem began, at which point the details of the festivities and sequence of events turned into a watery blur. For a thousand reasons I could no longer look at that flag while hearing that song unemotionally, partially because I was raised an American patriot who loves his country dearly, but mainly because of what our band of brothers had experienced over the past year. I didn’t know why I was tearing up. Was I happy or sad? It was all jumbled up together: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“So thank you for supporting us, praying for us, and welcoming us home. It makes a difference.”
In the cover letter accompanying his thank-you note to America, my correspondent wrote that he had recently “gotten an education in how to put down tile and will soon be learning how to refinish wood floors. I love the fact that we do all our own maintenance, cooking, and cleaning. We get to know each other in a different light.”
So what’s my pen pal, the Iraq veteran, doing now, down on those floors? He found something even tougher than the training he received in the armed forces and he’s in love with what he found, even though it took him to the hard streets of Newark.
He’s a novice in the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.