"The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned." - Maya Angelou
Our wait ended on December 22, 2011. The previous night we loaded on buses that transported us from Camp Buehring to the "Theater Gateway" at Camp Virginia. Thus began the complicated process of coming home. Nothing in the Army is ever as easy as it seems. Demobilization is a great example. It requires travel back to CONUS followed by several days (or weeks) at a designated demobilization center. In our case, we would travel to Fort Dix, NJ. The process began with our arrival at the Theater Gateway. After shuttling into a large tent, we were given complete briefings from the Navy Customs personnel and reminded that General Order #1 remained in effect. Then we gathered all of our gear and baggage for the screening. This meant moving to another tent where x-ray machines were ready to receive us. It was a scene reminiscent of TSA at an airport except that everyone was in uniform. Fortunately, there were no glitches and we rapidly made our way through the screening. From there we went on "lock down" inside a t-walled customs holding area, where we would remain until departing for our flight. By now it was around 0300 and we were all very tired. We tried to stretch out on the seats or the floor but it was no use. We were either too uncomfortable or too excited to sleep. It didn't help that the tents were cold. As the sun came up on the 23rd, we all knew our last day in the CENTCOM AOR had arrived. By the time the sun set, we would be well on our way back to the U.S.
Around noon we loaded buses again for the drive to Kuwait City International. There awaited a North American Airlines Boeing 767 with our name on it. Once we finally boarded and got our gear stowed, the flight commander briefed us on the rules. Then we were off. As the plane lifted off we all cheered and clapped. We were on our way. Our flight plan included two refueling stops. The first would be Leipzig, Germany. Flying time from KCI to Leipzig was about six hours. Most of us slept. Once in Leipzig, we had about two hours to visit the gift shop and be tempted by the beer (still off-limits due to GO#1). Many of us purchased stocking stuffers. I bought a few Kinder Eggs for family (and one for myself). Then we were off to our next refuel stop - Shannon, Ireland. It was almost a replay of Leipzig, except the native language was different. CSM and I purchased breakfast and ate in a daze of travel exhaustion. Once we were back on the aircraft for the final leg I crashed and slept for the majority of the remaining travel.
Our final destination was McGuire Air Force Base. We arrived at 0430 on the 23rd. It was raining and dark. But when we descended the ramp onto the tarmac we were greeted by a long line of Soldiers who were there to welcome us home. The first person in the line was my good friend and former Commanding General, BG Lennon. We shook hands and embraced. Nobody noticed the rain. We were just happy to be back - all of us. The news of our historic mission had traveled far and wide. Now we were back on United States soil. Although we weren't home, we were at least a huge step closer. The awaiting buses took us to Fort Dix, which shares the same real estate as McGuire AFB. By 0700, we were in our temporary barracks and ready to begin the process of demobilization. Welcome back to the United States! I think all of my Soldiers can now see the light at the end of the tunnel and now believe that home is our next stop. We'll all be home for 2012. It will be a very good year indeed.