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May 12, 2012 / Jess

Welcome Home

Dear Army,

Captain Bruce Kevin Clark returned to Rochester today, almost two weeks after his death in Afghanistan. I wrote about what I thought when I read that story a few days ago. What I didn’t know when I wrote that post was that his arrival would be open to the public, and I would be brave enough? dumb enough? to attend.

I don’t know why I needed to go. I just knew I did. I didn’t know him, I don’t know his family, but I did know that seeing a soldier return home in a casket while my soldier is in the middle of his deployment would be very difficult. Very difficult turned out to be an understatement.

Jon and Christi, close friends of my soldier (now also friends of mine), were gracious enough to go with me. He is in the Air Force Reserves, his wife is one of the few people who understands my conflicting emotions. They have 1 year old twin boys. I was hurt, but not surprised, that no one else came with us.

Captain Clark’s arrival was advertised, but few details were provided. All we knew was that he would be at the airport at 10 a.m., and that it was open to the public. There was no other information available – like where we were to go once we got to the airport. As we walked in and asked for help, it became painfully obvious that the airport staff was unaware that this event was taking place. An employee directed us to a Sheriff’s car outside, assuming he would have more information. Jon went to speak with him; Christi and I stayed with the stroller. Christi asked the airport employee if he knew that the ceremony was going on. He didn’t.

“Are you family?” he asked.

“No,” she replied. “But my husband is in the Air Force, and her boyfriend is currently serving overseas with the Army.”

“I don’t understand why people choose to go over there,” he said, his tone indignant. “He wouldn’t have died if he had stayed here.”

I turned away in horror, my eyes welling with tears. Did he really just imply that the soldier’s death was his own fault? To two women who just said they love men who make the same sacrifice?

Christi used that as an opportunity to witness to him about God, while I composed myself. I turned back around and said, quietly, “We just came to pay our respects.”

He said he understood that.

I don’t think he did.

* * *

We had a long way to walk to get to the correct tarmac. I had worn heels, but had flip-flops in my purse. Christi asked if I wanted to stop to put them on; I said no. I was starting to feel numb – a common reaction on my part to death – and I wanted to feel something. Even if something was just a throbbing pain in my feet.

***

There were more people than I expected at the tarmac. The Patriot Guard Riders were there; I was surprised. I had not realized they attended events where there were no protestors. I was glad they were there – there were hundreds, lined up with flags. There were also Army officers and a few civilian groups – like some representatives from Captain Clark’s college (also my alma mater) – and a few people who looked like they didn’t belong, like me, and a lot – a lot – of reporters.

I saw “Welcome Home” banners, and found that odd. I wondered if I’d see those same banners when my soldier came home on a joyous occasion. I was struck by the silence. Hundreds of people, and no one was saying a word. Even the children were still. It was a 10 minute wait for the plane, yet I never heard anyone speak. The only sound was the sound of hundreds of flags flapping in the wind, and the sound of plane engines.

I could not see much, and I was grateful for that. The truth is, I didn’t want to see the casket. And when the plane door opened, I couldn’t. The Patriot Guard Riders were in front of me, and their flags blocked my view. Then someone somewhere gave some kind of order, and the men raised their flags higher while those in the military stood at attention.

That’s when I realized I was standing directly in front of the hearse, which was perpendicular to the plane.

Through the windshield of the hearse, I saw the flag-covered casket make its way to the vehicle. I saw hands with white gloves place it in the car; I saw it slide toward me. In my mind’s eye, I simultaneously saw my soldier as I walked toward him when he arrived at the same airport on leave. I bowed my head, and placed my hand on my heart. I wanted to feel my heart beat. I couldn’t. All I thought was, God.

***

Fifteen minutes later, the Patriot Guard Riders headed back to their motorcycles so they would be ready for the processional. Those of us not associated with them moved to line the way off the tarmac. Once we were in place, those around me looked over their shoulders back toward the plane. I looked away. I didn’t want to see the family go up to the coffin, or embrace the other officers that came off the plane. I didn’t want to intrude, or I couldn’t handle it. I’m not sure which.

For those few moments, I chose to look at Jon and Christi’s son, Jeffery, as he was the one that was still in the stroller. For those few minutes, I chose to look at new life instead of fresh death. He smiled at me. Then, the bag pipes started, and I bowed my head as the processional began.

As the hearse went by, I prayed. God help us. God, where are you? God. Please. As the limo with the family went by, I shed a tear for their loss.

The processional passed by us quickly.

The memory of this day will take much longer to leave me, if it ever does.

(Not) love,

Jess

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. John G / May 13 2012 11:23 am

    That airport employee was an idiot. You could have snapped at him, scolded him, or tried to explain how some men and women posess certain admirable qualities that he never will. I suppose it’s too abstract of a concept to break through the cloud of ignorance, but even the ungrateful benefit by the late Cpt. Clark’s choice to step forward and wear the uniform.

  2. Tracie / May 14 2012 11:27 am

    I attended my first military funeral last summer and it too was for someone I did not know personally but I felt the need to show support. It was extremely moving and very patriotic with all the military and Patriot Guard Riders. I still think about it today.

    It is amazing though how many people do not have a clue. I am glad you had friends with you.

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