Going two hours north to the welcome-home ceremony for the Wisconsin Army National Guard 229th Engineering Company gobbled up essentially my entire Thursday.
Serving in the 229th meant going to Afghanistan for nearly a year. So I went to Volk Field with Platteville’s John Dutcher, and I am glad I did.
John pointed out while we were winding our way northward to Volk Field (and seeing a lot of high water) that the return of the 229th was 10 years to the month from when the 229th returned from its second deployment to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was also 22 years after the 229th’s return after its first deployment to Iraq, during Operation Desert Storm. And it was 50 years after the return of the predecessor of the 229th, the 32nd Division, called to active duty during the Berlin Wall crisis. (The days when, during my youth and college days, one joined the National Guard to get money to go to college, with a weekend a month and a couple weeks each summer of training and no more commitment beyond that, don’t exist anymore.)
When I went to the sendoff of the 229th in Prairie du Chien last August (the same day, you’ll recall, as the Chicago’s Best fire), I wrote that I was struck about the different atmosphere between the 229th’s sendoff before Operation Desert Storm in 1990 (where I saw the sign in the Platteville Armory that noted that one realizes when going into war that every soldier’s equipment was built by the lowest bidder) and the combination pep rally/family reunion feel of last August’s ceremony. (Complete with good food.)
There was more ceremony and order in August. There was comparatively little Thursday, and no one cared. I don’t know how often Sun Country Airlines flies National Guard companies home, but if they did, they’d get cheers for landings as they did Thursday afternoon. The soldiers and their family and friends kind of drifted into the hangar where the ceremony was held. Attempting a group photo like the one taken in the Prairie du Chien High School gym last August would have been a lost cause.
It was amusing, and then touching, to watch the walk from the airplane into a sea of 1,000 or so people who came to greet their returning soldiers. Husbands greeting wives, parents greeting children, children greeting parents, significant others greeting significant others, siblings greeting siblings, friends greeting friends … you’d have to have a heart of stone to not be touched by what was happening around you. In one local case, a father greeted his son, born during his deployment, for the first time. (I apologize now for interrupting son’s lunch to get a father-and-son photo.)
Maj. Jesse Anderson, who was a captain when the 229th left for Afghanistan, was one of many speakers who noted that all 147 soldiers returned. Anderson reiterated the feeling I had when I interviewed him in August that he is one of those leaders for whom his men and women would do literally whatever he asked. Not everyone who leads people would always say something like “You’re unbelievable. You’re heroes — you’re my heroes.”
Anderson also said something poignant: “No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you cannot make up or get back the last year — it’s gone. Those days have passed. Make good decisions. If you need anything, we are here. One hundred and forty-seven went over, 147 came home. It would be a tragedy to lose one of you now.”
Readers have commented, with dark humor, about the amount of, as I call it, mayhem I get to cover as the editor of your favorite weekly newspaper. (One of them calls me “the master of disaster.”) The one story I thank God I didn’t have to cover was a death of one of the members of the 229th while in Afghanistan. Serving overseas may well be tougher on those back here because most can’t imagine what it’s like over there, and some, like Platteville’s Paul Budden, do know what it’s like over there, wherever “there” is.
That also brings to mind one positive difference in the military and our society over the past, say, century. Because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the soldiers who fought that war were unjustified pariahs upon their return. The ugly stereotype was that Vietnam soldiers returned damaged, maladjusted, prone to violence and/or substance abuse, susceptible to flashbacks, unable to return to their former lives.
That stereotype grew because the soldiers who return and resume their lives, or start a new post-military life, or finish a career of distinguished military service don’t get attention. At the same time, soldiers who fought before and after Vietnam — indeed, anyone who fights a war — see things civilians are fortunate to never have to see.
The positive difference between then and now is that we recognize today that soldiers need time to process what they’ve done and seen, and some need help processing what they’ve done and seen. That, I think, is what Anderson meant when he said, “If you need anything, we are here,” and “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but tell your stories.”
Sometime between now and the Party in the Park July 25, Platteville’s own welcome-home party — or after that if the opportunity arises — would be a good time for everyone who knows a soldier in the 229th to welcome them home and thank them for their service.
I wrote 10½ months ago — after a day that featured both the sendoff of the 229th and the Chicago’s Best fire, fought by fire departments and EMS units throughout the area — that we are lucky to have such people serving us. And we still are.