Recently, I visited Baumholder, Germany, for generations respectfully nicknamed “The Rock” because of its location in rugged mountains. The Rock is also home to units belonging to one of the Army’s most decorated units: The 1st Armored Division. On the two-lane highway leading to Baumholder from the autobahn, I noticed an odd sign posted on the guard rail to my right. The sign read, “Getting warmer.” Puzzled, I had no clue as to what those words meant until I saw another sign a short distance ahead. In the middle of a vast grassy field lay an enormous rolled bale of hay. A large white cloth draped over it read, “Welcome home, SSG Santiago.” These two signs were only small indicators of what lay ahead.
Approaching the gate to enter the post, I admired more homemade signs, particularly the patriotic ones in red, white, and blue paint, which welcomed home the battle-weary troops who had recently returned from Iraq. Once I drove on the post, I marveled at sturdy trees standing at attention, proudly boasting streaming yellow ribbons and plump yellow bows fastened sporadically around their trunks. I was amazed at the various-sized yellow bows visible as far as my eyes could see. Several fences and sides of buildings held more hand-painted signs, which the troops could not have possibly missed as they rolled on to post that day. I was proud of that.
Wanting to do a little shopping, I headed over to the Post Exchange (PX) parking lot. After parking, I stood in a line leading to the ATM right next to the PX. In line ahead of me stood two soldiers in Battle Dress Uniforms and three in civilian clothes. I could tell the ones in civilian clothes were also soldiers as I unintentionally overheard bits and pieces of their conversations about being back home from Iraq and the things they had done already or planned to do. I was happy for them.
These young soldiers, looking barely out of their teens, bore deeply tanned skin as if they had spent too much time lazing in the sun on some beautiful tropical beach. But, Iraq was no day at anyone’s beach. I felt sad about that.
As I neared the ATM, the post speakers came to life with the familiar crisp bugler‘s notes, which signaled “Retreat” to lower the flag and end the duty day. Seemingly, a reverent hush fell over the area, proof that this traditional ceremony had taken on a new meaning, especially to these young men with internal battle scars no one will ever see. Those soldiers in uniform in line ahead of me snapped around sharply to face the source of the music. I also turned to witness a moving panoramic view of the parking lot, which revealed even more pride and patriotism. Soldiers in either Battle Dress Uniforms or desert camouflage uniforms readied themselves to pay their respect to our flag. On the road in front of the PX, drivers stopped their cars and stepped out onto the street, ready to do the right thing to the flag too. Nearby, I noticed a young toddler of about two standing next to her dad in his uniform, proudly looking up at him and probably wondering what she should do.
She connected her tiny fingers with his left hand and stared straight ahead just as her dad did as he prepared to salute with his right hand. That touched me.
As an Army Retiree, I stood at attention and placed my hand over my heart as the bugler continued this time-honored ditty. The color guard slowly lowered the flag. Everyone that I could see stood still, some with a salute, others with their hands over their hearts, honoring the flag as it descended into the soldiers’ waiting hands. When Retreat ended, drivers stepped back in their cars and awakened their engines to continue their journeys. The soldiers and others resumed their pace through the parking lot to their intended destinations.
Finished with my shopping, I headed towards the exit gate, but at the last minute, I decided to ride down the street near the theater to view more of what welcomed the soldiers on the day they returned.
The fence surrounding the track behind the theater held even more signs: “We love you, 1-6 INF (infantry); You are our heroes, 2-6 INF (infantry); Welcome home, 1-45,” and so on.” More yellow bows and ribbons on a chain-link fence filled spaces between the signs. Near the fence stood a group of fresh-faced young men with that unmistakable ‘Iraqi’ tan. As I drove by slowly, I noticed their camaraderie as they talked and laughed among themselves. One quickly puffed repeatedly and nervously on a cigarette. Others punctuated their conversations with animated hand gestures and brotherly hugs. Even from my car, I sensed their lingering uneasiness and discomfort from the war, yet they seemed relieved to be back on “The Rock.” I was happy for them too.
As I turned towards the traffic circle to take the road leading off the post, I saw a lone soldier, clad in his gray and black physical training (PT) uniform, jogging along the sidewalk. As he approached the cross walk ahead of me, I stopped to let him pass so that he would not break his stride. That is when it all came together for me. My heart filled with both pride and sorrow. I felt profoundly proud of these young men who served so bravely and had returned safely to enjoy this extremely well-deserved heroes’ welcome home. A deep sadness overwhelmed me as my thoughts turned to the young soldiers who never made it back. With my heart full, I could not hold back the tears welling up in my eyes. Unashamed, I cried hard for them as I drove down the lonely, tree-lined road leading to the highway. So I say to each of the soldiers stationed on the “The Rock” and to all our soldiers who have returned safely from the war in Iraq:
GOD BLESS YOU AND I SALUTE YOU FOR A SUPERB JOB EXTREMELY WELL DONE!