Stevenson and I met the day before his deployment in October 2006. It was Halloween night and I was dressed as Frida Kahlo, Dia de los Muertos style with skeleton makeup on my face. My friends and I were dancing at the SpeakEasy and I noticed Stevenson grinning from the sidelines. I motioned for him to join us on the dance floor. That sparked the beginning of a friendship that has evolved into something more like family. During the past 15 months we've exchanged countless emails between Austin and Iraq, gradually learning more about each other.
Things I have learned about him:
- This is his fourth tour in the Middle East.
- He's the son and only child of a Haitian father and an English-French mother.
- He was raised in Florida and spent his youth attending a private boarding school.
- He's a big fan of opera and classical music, and he speaks French.
- His dialect is a one-of-a-kind mix of Creole, French and American English.
- He has been in the military for eight years. During that time, he has been peppered with bullets; survived countless IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and fire fights; rescued stranded civilians and comrades; helped build a school, a fire station and a clinic; lost a comrade to suicide; and lost several more in battle.
- January 2008 marks the end of his time in combat. If the current plan sticks, Stevenson will have only stateside assignments for his remaining three years of Army service.
So, it's a little after 5 a.m. and I'm now heading to Fort Hood, where more than 33,000 soldiers and their families are posted. Today there are two "Returning Heroes Ceremonies" scheduled. Stevenson will be in the second group, arriving at 10:45 a.m. Between now and then, I have to go to the Fort Hood visitors center to get a day pass for my vehicle and then drive onto the base in search of Cooper Field, where loved ones will reunite with their soldiers.
However, when I pull out of the visitors center parking lot, I accidentally take a ramp that leads straight to the Army base. No turning around. I approach what looks like a row of toll booths with armed guards at each station. I tell the guard that I don't have a day pass yet, that I made a wrong turn. She asks for my license, registration and proof of insurance. I show her my papers. She tells me I can go on base but I have to return to the visitors center when it opens to get a pass for my car.
Before turning around, I decide to drive to Cooper Field. I want to make sure I know how to get there. The buildings on base are lit brightly, but they're surrounded by large open fields, cloaked in darkness. I'm one of only a few cars on the road; soldiers with flashlights stand at each intersection, waving me to proceed through the red lights.
Minutes later the music changes. It sounds like air traffic controllers speaking over a dramatic score. The Brigadier General is at the podium again. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the moment you've been waiting for. Here come our heroes." Precisely on cue, a police cruiser with lights and sirens blaring leads a caravan of six white buses up the street on the opposite side of Cooper Field; they stop when they reach a point that's directly across from the bleachers. People jump to their feet, screaming and hollering. Some kids are cheering, but the younger ones grasp their moms' legs, not understanding the abrupt commotion. There's a sick heavy pounding in my chest and tears fill my eyes. I'm simultaneously excited and frightened by the intensity of emotion around me. The buses sit across from us for what seems like forever; we're straining our necks to see what's going on. Then suddenly, like a scene from "Extreme Home Makeover," the caravan of buses slowly pulls away, unveiling a formation of soldiers standing at attention in the street. The sea of grayish-green fatigues is like a mirage. The music changes to a patriotic score and the soldiers begin marching toward us. As they get closer, I see their faces more clearly; many are blotchy red, raw with feeling. Brows are furrowed. Lips pressed hard. Mid-field, the soldiers stop. The music stops. The crowd in the bleachers falls silent. Then someone calls out from the stands: "I can see you, Tanya!" A woman's voice cracks: "I love you, Scott!
After a moment, he tells me we have to go get his bags. It feels surreal, like I'm greeting a friend at Bergstrom airport. We walk over to a warehouse filled with Army green duffel bags stacked in rows -- it's baggage claim at Fort Hood. Soldiers holding their children or walking arm-in-arm with their spouses search for their gear.
"I can't believe you're here either!"
"You look great!"
"You look great too!"
"Look at you, man. You've lost weight!"