h o m e

This is the first time I’ve driven anywhere without an escort.
— The Soldier

I have been looking forward to this week since mid-March. Like a countdown to Christmas morning, yesterday could not come soon enough. My best friend returned from Afghanistan. The Soldier was officially Home. 

As an only child people are everything to me. More often than not, my best friends become family. When one of them was deployed 9 months ago, a war that had largely existed in the background of my life, suddenly became very present. There was a place named Shank that didn't give me warm fuzzy feelings. I learned a new vocabulary that included acronyms like IED (Improvised explosive device. Read: car bomb.) There was news coverage that now came with a personal story. Seven thousand miles away was very close to home.

My final countdown began in March, but for the Solider there was never a countdown. In true form, he concentrated on each day as it came. I learned the last 60 days of a deployment are actually the most dangerous. Soldiers get distracted with thoughts of home, and become complacent in routine. As the date approached, I asked questions and the Soldier tried (but failed) to shrug me off. This was a milestone, and I would be there. In the season of graduations, this was his. Instead of a diploma, he earned a combat patch. Limits were pushed. Intuition was tapped. Death was cheated. He had been to war, and survived. I would be there to torture him with a hug. 

In the midst of my excitement, I learned a harsh reality. Homecomings are not always filled with joy. For some, it's a return home to nothing. No one to give the (unwanted) hugs, and gush with elation. Sometimes the uncertainty of a military timeline (it's ever-changing) makes travel difficult for loved ones. It's a sad thought, but understandable. In other scenarios, there was a choice to move on...with someone else. The thought of a soldier returning to emptiness nearly broke my heart. 

Throughout his deployment, I badgered the Solider nearly every day. Mostly out of sheer curiosity (really though, who does all the ACU laundry?!), but also because I unknowingly feared that void. The empty thoughts of no one caring. I wanted him to know people - especially those outside of the military - were thinking of him. I didn't want the Soldier to have a moment of doubt. Ever. 

So I sent quotes, stories, and an endless barrage of questions. He didn't always have time, and he couldn't always give me details. But I didn't care. My mission was clear: to be a strand in his web. His web of support. The network that tied him to his life back home. Things would change and move on, but we would not. 

Jake Owen was on in the background, but the music wasn't playing as loud as normal. As we drove to lunch I could tell he was still on edge. "This is the first time I've driven anywhere without an escort." (Read: armored vehicles with machine guns mounted on top.) His eyes were darting, scanning, still trying to pinpoint the hidden dangers. It was a fleeting glimpse of the Soldier's life for the past nine months. It was proof that this was his calling. It was the best version of him I've known yet. A veteran.