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3 a.m. with the VFW

Sgt. Michael Thomas was disgruntled as he traveled home from Iraq, and then he was met at the airport at  3 a.m. by a group of elderly veterans . He recounts the emotional experience.
Courtesy Of Michael Thomas / Courtesy of Thomas

Submitted to Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

After months of extending our stay in Iraq, our unit was finally going home. The year had felt long enough. We had missed birthdays, births, anniversaries, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and when our final plane was hit by a de-icing truck in Germany, we were left feeling as though we’d never get back to our families.

We were ordered to de-plane in order to wait for the next flight. Sitting in the airport throughout the night, we called our families with the bad news. We waited for what seemed like an eternity before finally catching another plane.

Thirty-six hours after our scheduled arrival, we landed in Bangor, Maine. It was 3 a.m. We were tired, hungry, and as desperate as we were to get to Colorado, our excitement was tainted with bitterness. While we were originally told our National Guard deployment would be mere months, here we were – 369 days later – frustrated and angry.

As I walked off the plane, I was taken aback: in the small, dimly-lit airport, a group of elderly veterans lined up to shake our hands. Some were standing, some confined to wheelchairs, all wore their uniform hats. Their now-feeble right hands arms stiffened in salutes, their left hands holding coffee, snacks and cell phones for us.

As I made my way through the line, each man thanking me for my service, I choked back tears. Here we were, returning from one year in Iraq where we had portable DVD players, three square meals and phones, being honored by men who had crawled through mud for years with little more than the occasional letter from home.

These soldiers — many of whom who had lost limbs and comrades — shook our hands proudly, as if our service could somehow rival their own.

We soon learned that this VFW group had not only waited for more than a day in the airport for our arrival, but that they were doing so for all the returning soldiers.

When the time came to fly home to Colorado, we were asked by our commander if we would like to join the VFW. Every hand in the unit went up eagerly – including my own.

Looking back on my year in Iraq, I can honestly say that my perception of the experience was changed; not so much by the soldiers with whom I served – though I consider them my saving grace – but by the soldiers who welcomed us home. For it is those men who reminded me what serving my country is really about.