I did it -- I finally sat down and wrote out the entire homecoming story! (I know you've been checking back repeatedly to see if it was posted!) It took numerous attempts and drafts, actually; how does one even begin to convey the emotions that accompany a military homecoming from Afghanistan? I've definitely struggled with it over the past week, but it's finally here. It's complete. And while I am quite certain that I will never forget the events of this day, I am still glad that the story is written out, to be enjoyed and relived for many years to come... :)
• • • • •
When I woke up on December 18, I was literally shaking... like, heart-pounding, head-racing, outstretched-hand-incapable-of-being-stilled shaking. My sister and I attributed part of it to the fact that for some strange reason, our bedroom was freezing. The other part, however? Cue up the butterflies: Zacharie Jones was less than 14 hours away from landing in the United States, and despite the fact that I was not conscious enough to yet put in my contacts, my body was very well-aware of the significant events about to unfold.
Zero days. Zero days. Since May, I had watched that calendar count backwards from 218 and imagined what "0 days" would feel like. And now? It was here. It was happening.
Is this real life?
It was still a fairly normal Sunday: church & family lunch at Grandma's, followed by an afternoon spent finishing up my final paper for my final class of the semester. The only not-so-normal part about it, actually, was the steady stream of texts between me and Hipp, Zach's Marine Corps bff. I hadn't seen Hipp since the week before he deployed to Afghanistan back in March, and was excited about meeting up with him once I arrived in Jacksonville.
Hipp checked in throughout the day to see when I would be arriving, making sure I had a way to get onto base and offering to get food with me while we waited for Zach (as if I would be calm enough to actually eat anything...). If that wasn't enough, he then offered to take pictures of the grand reunion, and I almost lost it right then and there. I'm telling you: Marine Corps bffs are the absolute greatest.
Truth. It's NOT every day people come home from Afghanistan. But that day? December 18? The day the calendar hit "zero days until..."? There were a lot of people on their way home from Afghanistan, and in that moment, I remember feeling overwhelmed with gratefulness for the blessing of safety and protection and answered prayers.
I was also overwhelmed with excitement as I made the four hour drive to Jacksonville (not including stops to pee roughly every seven minutes), met up with Hipp, and began the (insanely long) wait in the Area 1 Gym.
The sign voted on by my lovely blog readers -- it was a hit! Thanks!
Hipp trying to steal my man. I was a little worried, but it didn't work (fortunately).
I arrived on base around 9:15PM and headed to the gym with Hipp at 10:30. The plane was scheduled to land in Cherry Point around that time, and we were told that it would take at least three to four hours from the time the plane landed to the time we saw our boys. Hundreds of patriotic balloons filled the place, as well as welcome home signs (mine was by far the best -- no worries) and friends & family members eager to greet their loved ones.
No homecoming blog post would be complete without the biggest shout out in the world to Adam Hipp, Zach's previously mentioned Marine Corps bff. As soon as Hipp and I met up on base, he said:
Hipp: You do realize that although the plane lands at 10:30PM, it will still take an hour for the bus to get from Cherry Point to Lejeune, and they have to unload all their gear...Me: I know. It's going to be a longgg night. You don't have to sit with me the entire time or anything. I can wait by myself...Hipp: Oh, no. I'm staying.
Truth be told, I am SO glad he did... I seriously don't know what I would have done without him! For weeks leading up to homecoming, I had debated bringing someone along with me for my own personal sanity. I didn't want to wait alone; I knew that would be miserable. However, I also knew that it would take a very particular person to put up with me for the entire night: someone who just got it. Someone who understood the Marine Corps and deployments and the emotions surrounding it all.
Someone like Hipp.
The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that he's the only person who could have waited with me that night. He had just arrived home from Afghanistan three months prior, and whether he realized it or not, he knew exactly what to do. He knew when to engage in conversation and when to let me sit in silence. He knew to not make fun of me when I shrieked at yet another popping balloon. He knew that two and a half hours of waiting in the gym was more than enough to drive anyone crazy, and the best solution was going out to the car and singing country songs... obnoxiously loud and slightly off-key. He was almost as excited as I was to see Zach, and I'll never be able to thank him enough for waiting with me.
He hates pictures. This was the "pleaseee... just one to prove that you were here" shot.
Somewhere around 1:45AM, in the midst of busting out the "Dirt Road Anthem," I received a text... from Zach! (I had called Verizon earlier in the day and re-activated his phone, just in case.) I screamed and frantically opened it up...
...only to discover that Zach had texted me from his email account nearly 24 hours prior to let me know they had landed in Germany, and for whatever reason, the message was just now coming through. You have got to be kidding me! While quite the false alarm, it was incredibly funny, and only added to the excitement that was building. We continued waiting...
...and waiting! The temperature outside continued to drop (it ended up around 30 degrees before the night was over), but the anticipation rose with each passing minute.
We had another false alarm around 2:45AM: I went back inside the gym to use the restroom and a couple of guys came in wearing deserts (only Marines that just came back from a deployment would be wearing desert cammies; it's woodland season). I freaked out & called Hipp who was still in the car, he came rushing over, and... nothing happened. I still have no idea who the men were or why they felt the need to mess with my head like that, but (unbeknownst to us) we still had an hour and a half to go.
Finally, a little after 4:00AM, everyone began pouring out of the gym and lining the streets, eagerly waving flags and banners. Hipp noted that it looked exactly like a 4th of July parade :)
At 4:15AM, the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines began their march down the street. They were in rows of six or so, and my eyes frantically scanned the crowd, hoping to find Zach amongst the hundreds of men in uniform. Row by row, they passed, until I finally saw him: slightly tanner and somewhat more rugged than when he had left, and despite the fact that he was wearing that hideous USMC toboggan on his head, he was even cuter than I remembered :) Fortunately, he saw me at the exact moment I saw him. I grinned, he grinned, I screamed (apparently quite loudly, since numerous people, including his sergeant, made a comment about it later... whoops!) 218 days had come down to these final moments, and I used every last ounce of self-control to stay on the side of the street and watch him pass less than ten feet from where I was standing.
The rest of the Marines continued filing in, I continued screaming, and it seemed like an eternity before everyone stopped marching. I never heard anyone yell "dismissed," but the next thing I knew, people were running out into the street in a mad dash free-for-all.
I began moving in Zach's general direction, standing on my tiptoes with arms fully extended, holding the sign above my head as high as it would possibly go. It took a while; the Marines had continued marching well past the place Hipp and I were standing, but I soon saw Zach fighting his way through the swarm of people. The only thing I remember are excited shouts of "There she is!" from Zach's 1/9 buddies, as if Zach and I hadn't already locked eyes across the massive crowd and entered into our own little world well before they started yelling anything, making a beeline toward one another.
We continued maneuvering our way through the hundreds of people, until finally, finally, finally... there was nothing between us but five feet of pavement: just enough room for me to jump and wrap my arms & legs completely around Zach's body.
Sunday, December 19, 2011 - 4:17AM
And although the first couple of pictures didn't turn out like this intentionally, I love them. It's impossible to truly capture a moment like this in a photograph - the chaos, the emotions, the relief that accompanies that first embrace. But these pictures... they convey that moment in a way I could never describe. When I think back to 4:17AM, this is exactly how I remember it: so surreal, hazy, dreamlike. I don't remember anything or anyone around me. I don't remember how long we stood there. I don't remember sound, period. I just remember this:
And while I will forever cherish my artistically poetic photographs, I am also glad that the camera situation was resolved and I have these pictures to cherish forever as well:
After a fairly significant amount of time had passed, I remembered that Zach and I weren't actually the only two people on earth. In fact, there were lots of other people around, particularly another someone who had waited all night to welcome home his good friend...
...as well as other Marines who had promised me that they would look after Zach while they were deployed (and they did!)
Before I knew it, we were some of the last people standing in the street, talking and hugging and gushing over the chocolate that boyfriend brought me from Germany. I'm telling you... he's a keeper ;)
After retrieving seabags and other gear, the only thing left to do was the ceremonial removal of the yellow ribbon. The custom of girls tying a yellow ribbon around a tree to symbolize remembering and waiting for the one they love goes back for many centuries, but since I don't have a permanent residence with a tree to call my own, I opted for the antenna on my car. (Hey, it worked.) :) I tied the yellow ribbon on the day Zach deployed back in May, and now, seven months later, Zach got to take it off.
Oorah, Semper Fi, [insert every other moto military phrase here]
- he's officially HOME!
We even ended up in the good ol' Franklin County newspaper :)
As the sun started to rise, I drove off base with one hand grasping the wheel and the other hand tucked into Zach's, and by the time we reached McDonald's to get the long-awaited sweet tea, he was completely passed out with his head on my shoulder... just like old times. It was perfect, and the emotions of the past year began to instantly melt away. It felt almost as if the past year didn't even happen - from the weeks spent training out in California all the way through the last few days on FOB Geronimo in Afghanistan.
Can you guess which smiles are forced & which are smiles are 100% genuine? :)
The entire deployment already seems like such a blur, and I have to keep reminding myself that it really did happen. This is real life :) Zacharie Jones completed his first tour of duty in Afghanistan - he made it! We made it, thanks to an incredible God who is faithful and sustained us every step of the way. I am so grateful for the safety and comfort He provided during the past year, as well as the love and support from all of my family & friends, especially you wonderful blog readers! You'll never know just how much your comments and encouragement has meant during the past year, and how truly thankful I am for your role in my life - in our lives.
And now, 17 deployment blog posts & nearly 30,000 words later, I suppose all that's left to say (in the quintessential Ty Pennington voice, obviously) is:
"Welcome home, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Welcome home."