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The boys are back

There’s time, he tells me, there’s time. So as my husband places the “Welcome Home” sign under the windshield wiper (it’s windy), I stuff a strand of red, white and blue streamers into the grill of our Suburban. We have driven 14 hours to see the return of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. I suppose two more minutes in a Camp Lejeune parking lot won’t hurt.

Inside the red brick building where others wait too, I talk to Gunnar, 8, whose little league team came in second at state. His dad is a major on the USS Iwo Jima. The major missed the baseball tournament and a hockey one a few months before. Deployments are like that, though, and this isn’t the young athlete’s first rodeo.

Gunnar’s 2-year-old sister, Everly, climbs up on the couch beside me.  She doesn’t say much, but she’s pretty good with a hula hoop. Somehow I learn that Everly won’t be wearing her patriotic best when her dad comes in tomorrow. She’s throwing out tradition and wearing a pink number. I suspect it is a big deal since the whole family is decked out in America’s colors now. They are on base the day before their dad’s homecoming because the Marines of Kilo Battery are landing in waves – literally. They ride in LCACs (hovercrafts) from ship to shore, then drive by the busload to battalion headquarters. Everly’s mom and another officer’s very pregnant wife have coordinated this homecoming affair. They also made sure folks like us five states away got photos and news from the float since February. I appreciate that, as well as the yogurt-covered pretzels they’ve placed on the party table.   

Son No. 3 is scheduled to arrive in an early round, and he does, soaked to the bone. We savor the moment (there are few like them in life) then head to his new room in the barracks to dump his gear. (If you would permit me, an average taxpayer, to make a small gripe at this point: The barracks are terrible. Newly renovated ones stand 50 yards away, empty until there are funds to furnish them. Really?) 

After his dad spends 30 minutes trying to fix the barracks’ door lock, we head to the hotel where our Marine spreads out his treasures. There’s a leather bag from Spain, a handful of Euros, and a shiny new Navy Achievement Medal awarded in March. He presents his dad with a keepsake flag that flew over the USS New York and tosses his sister a T-shirt from Sicily. For me? A beach towel from Corfu, Greece. 

Later, he pulls out his MacBook and shows us a video he’s made of the places he’s been. We marvel over the ruins of Pompei and his cliff dive into the Aegean Sea. His favorite spot, he tells us, was Capri. There’s lots he can’t tell us, though, so we don’t ask. 

The next day we head to Onslow Beach. With umbrellas braced against the drizzling rain, our Marine points to the New York in the distance and the closer Iwo Jima, still unloading MEU members. We watch the LCACs churn through the water, and he mentions scooping up a handful of dirt when he landed. That’s when we spot a formation of Hueys and Cobras banking overhead. “From my ship,” he says, calling out the names of pilots. “Heading to their homecoming at New River.” (That’s a nearby Marine Corps air station.)

For two happy days we cherish regular life. Meals together. Political discussions. Sitting side-by-side at church. All too soon it’s time for us to head back, but good-byes aren’t so bad when a leave block’s around the corner.   

Even so, I eat chocolate — chocolate obtained for me at some faraway foreign port — all the way home.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.