Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bringing Home Stevenson

I am staring at the ceiling when my alarm goes off at 4 a.m. Sleep has eluded me; all I did was toss and turn and think about where he must be at this very moment. Is he somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean or is he still on a layover in Germany? Today is Wednesday, January 16, and I am driving an hour and a half northwest to Fort Hood to welcome home my friend Stevenson Charite, a squadron leader in the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Brigade Combat Team under the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division. He has been in Iraq for the past 15 months.

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.

As I drive along a pitch-black stretch of Hwy 190, I picture Stevenson touching down in Bangor, Maine -- his first stop on U.S. soil. I smile at the thought and then take a deep breath - in and out -- trying to release the butterflies that keep filling my stomach.

I get to Fort Hood about 6:30. The visitors center doesn't open for another hour. It's still dark outside, 33 degrees and misting. I debate whether to sit in my car and wait. I think of the Starbucks I passed on the way in and put the key back in the ignition. No need to wait outside in the freezing cold without hot coffee in my hand.

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.

I turn onto 761st Tank Battalion Avenue, looking for the First Cavalry Division Headquarters and Cooper Field. I gasp as my headlights, panning across a dark field, suddenly illuminate a formation of soldiers -- maybe 100 -- dressed in black pants, gray sweatshirts and reflective vests. They stand at attention, their backs to the road. More soldiers instantly materialize as my headlights hit rows upon rows of reflective vests, and there are hundreds more to my right. I decelerate and turn off the radio; my car is parting through a sea of silent statues. I feel like I'm seeing ghosts, though I know what I've stumbled upon is only morning formation.

I find Cooper Field and ask the soldier on duty what time I should return if I'm meeting the 10:45 arrival. He tells me to get there an hour ahead, so I turn the car around and head back to the main gate. At the visitors center, a line of five people has formed outside the door. I take my place and wait. By 7:15 there's maybe 75 people behind me. I eavesdrop on the conversations. There are fathers, girlfriends, brothers, best friends -- all waiting to embrace their soldiers. I get my vehicle pass just after 7:30. I then sit at a Jiffy Lube in Killeen and get my oil changed. The clock could not tick any slower.
I drive back onto base around 9:15. There's a heated tent next to Cooper Field for family and friends. A concession stand hands out free coffee, sodas, granola bars and Dorito's. Three sets of bleachers face Cooper Field. A deejay is set up on the sidelines; he plays everything from the Grease movie soundtrack to the Macarena. Families are milling about the scene -- lots of red, white and blue outfits. Streamers, balloons and homemade posters are everywhere: "We love our Heroes!" "Welcome home, Daddy!" A pretty blonde walks by with two kids in tow. They wear matching sweatshirts with a picture of a soldier on the front and customized messages on the back -- Paul's Wife, Paul's Little Girl, Paul's Little Man. I try to breathe away the butterflies again. I look at the time on my phone. Another hour to go.

As the time grows near, I leave the heated tent and take a seat in the bleachers. The deejay plays "Hokey Pokey" and the kids in the stands stick their right arms in and shake it all about. Fresh-faced female soldiers in fatigues, who look not a day over 17, follow along from the sidelines like cheerleaders at a football game. After a while, I notice a mounted cavalry riding out into the field, directly opposite us. I am wondering what this means when the Brigadier General approaches the podium. He tells us the soldiers have been loaded onto the buses. They'll be here in 20 minutes.

It is a very long 20 minutes. The cheerleading soldiers are clapping their hands to MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This." The kids boogie along, but the adults look anxious, distracted. We all stare at the intersection south of us, where the buses are supposed to appear.

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!

The Brigadier General asks for everyone to bow their heads, and then he leads us in a prayer. He follows it with a brief speech about honor and valor that nobody hears. The soldiers are now spotting their loved ones and waving. The loved ones are excitedly whispering to each other and pointing at their soldiers in the formation.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, go forth and welcome home your heroes!"

Wives, girlfriends, daughters, sons, grandmas and grandpas stampede onto the field; the soldiers break from formation in all directions like billiard balls on a pool table. It's absolute chaos. I walk on to the field. My teeth are chattering though I'm not cold. People rush past and bump me, making bee lines into their soldiers' arms. I can't find Stevenson in the swarm of faces. And then I spot his last name on the back of a soldier's hat. "Stevenson!"

He turns around, that unmistakable smile beaming. I run over to him and we hug. I am so glad I am here. I am so glad he is here. He feels strong and healthy. He is not a mirage. He is alive.

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.
"Is this yours, son?" a man in a cowboy hat and starched Wranglers asks the soldier near him. He moves quickly from bag to bag, swiftly turning them over, checking the names, so eager to help his soldier.

I stand out of the way while Stevenson locates his bags and then we head to my car. It takes us a good while to walk from baggage claim to the parking lot, though it's only a few yards. Some of Stevenson's comrades who live in Killeen have come out to the reception. Each time he is approached, Stevenson drops his heavy bags with a thud and embraces his friends warmly. "Welcome home, man," the guys tell him. "It's good to be home," Stevenson replies.
I ask one of his friends to take a picture of us. Then we load up the trunk of my car with his Army gear and head toward Fort Hood's main gate. We chatter nonsensically.

"I can't believe you're here!"
"I can't believe you're here either!"
"You look great!"
"You look great too!"
I announce that today is officially Stevenson Charite Day. Whatever he wants to do, just name it. It's time to celebrate! He says he wants to go to the mall in Killeen.
OK. Not what I anticipated. But Stevenson has nothing but dirty clothes and he can't wait to get out of his fatigues. So, Killeen Mall, onward ho! We stop at a kiosk so he can buy a cell phone; I help him pick out some shirts, pants and new shoes at Dillard's. We hit the Food Court. Stevenson indulges in a triple-entree platter at the Chinese food place. Intermittently we're approached by other soldiers.

"Stevenson! I heard you were coming back this month. Welcome home!"
"Look at you, man. You've lost weight!"

There's lots of ribbing and laughter. Stevenson's smile is infectious. I find myself giggling a lot for no particular reason.
Stevenson asks me to drive him to his rent house so he can turn on the water and electricity and take a hot shower. He's a little anxious about what the place will look like. While he was in Iraq, the duplex flooded. Fortunately a friend was able to move his belongings before the water got to them, but the place still looks ransacked and deserted. Everything is in piles or covered up with blankets. We get the electricity to come on, but can't figure out the water situation. He thinks it might have gotten turned off accidentally, but nothing can dampen his spirits today. We have to go to San Antonio next, where a friend is keeping his car, so I suggest we stop in Austin so Stevenson can clean up at my house.

On the way to Austin, we talk about some of the things he saw and did in Iraq. But for the most part, we keep the conversation stateside. We talk about his elderly grandparents, whom he'll see when he goes home to Florida in February. We talk about his mother, who's battling cancer and couldn't make it to Fort Hood. We talk about his father only briefly. It doesn't seem like a welcome topic; I don't press. I thank God a million times in my head that I met Stevenson on October 31, 2006, and that I was able to welcome him home today.

Later on, after we've had time to settle into each other's company, the conversation circles back to Iraq. How different it is to hear about the war from someone who has been living inside it. I try to imagine seeing what he has seen; I wonder how he hasn't lost his sanity. I marvel at his ability to still joke, smile, feel love and hope.

But it's not all horrific. He also talks of building schools and clinics, of handing candy to children -- the youngest of whom seem genuinely happy, unbroken, unaware. Ironically this is what makes Stevenson grow silent; I sense if he continues talking he will cry.
"They have no idea what's waiting for them; they haven't become a part of the mess yet."

He tells me it bothers him when his friends at home don't ask about the positive things he and other soldiers are doing in Iraq. His civilian buddies just want to know if he's ever had to kill someone. I shake my head disapprovingly, silently wondering the same thing. But deep down I already know the answer.
He also tells of a deep distrust between the Iraqis and American soldiers, poor communication in the field, lack of adequate equipment, failed missions. For every step forward, there are three steps back. People betray, people disappear, things get bombed, shot at, boycotted, vandalized.

I know that war is not clean, nor is it exact. I know that changing the course of history -- the collective consciousness of a people -- can't be done overnight, or in five years. But I'm hearing from the inside what I have long suspected from the outside: We have gotten ourselves way in over our heads. Who do we think we are? What the hell are we going to do now? Are we going to withdraw our men and women and leave the Iraqis to clean up our mess? Or are we going to continue to occupy Iraq as long as it takes to strong-arm the Iraqi people to do it "the American Way"? I recognize that it is a good thing that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power; he was beyond evil. But after listening to Stevenson, I wonder if we have removed one version of Hell in Iraq and replaced it with another.

I ask Stevenson whether he thinks his time was well spent. Are we making a difference? Are we succeeding in making things better for the Iraqi people? I want him to give me an enthusiastic "yes" so I can make sense of it all. But he just stares past me for several moments, thinking.

"I guess we are -- in some ways, in small ways."

I started the day literally in darkness, with this distinct impression that all the activity on Fort Hood was some kind of self-contained, make-believe world of uniforms, artillery and slogans. But tonight I go to bed knowing that their business is very real. It's my world here in Austin that feels like the illusion.

I think of all the families and friends of the 3,943 dead American soldiers (CNN, Feb 2008). I think of the loved ones who never got the chance to stand on Cooper Field. To watch the white buses roll down the street. To run across the grass and jump into their loved ones' arms.

I am grateful that my friend was spared. I am overjoyed that Stevenson can move beyond Iraq and live out his dreams. Because, in the end, that is very real too. And it makes me smile.
Words and images printed with Stevenson's permisson.