By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
In the last four or five years, I've covered more than 100,000 soldiers as they go to and come home from war.
I've interviewed countless friends, family and other loved ones at welcome-home ceremonies whose lives and stories were just varied as the soldiers for whom they waited.
There was the Vietnam vet who wanted to make sure the returning men and women got what he didn't.
There was the Marine in his dress uniform who bragged how much tougher he was than his soldier big sister, but cried when he hugged her.
There was the retired father who welcomed his son back in the same hangar he returned to during Desert Storm.
There was the giant Black Lab who didn't know what all the commotion was about until he looked up and saw his owner, then yelped and leaped uncontrollably.
There was the military reporter who, despite telling the stories of thousands returning from war, never waited for one she loved. Until now.
Saturday night was the first time I stood next to the 1st Cavalry Division's parade field and waited for my soldier. I didn't carry a notebook and I didn't have to worry about a deadline. I was off duty.
I've waited on a parade field or in a gym or in a hangar for friends, friends' husbands, and hometown friends. I've helped pick outfits, made big, glittery signs and given advice on mothers-in-law. I've fetched purses, taken photos and waited for hugs.
This time I was the first in line for hugs.
I've been to so many returns, I can read ceremonies and crowds with alarming accuracy. The DJ's homecoming play list is like a CD I've played over and over again: AC/DC, Toby Keith, Etta James and Marvin Gaye. I can spot naïve first-timers teetering in heels that sink in the dirt or new dresses that are slightly out of place in the cold weather. I can spot seasoned veterans who say, with their warm outfits and sensible shoes that safely carry them to their soldiers, "this isn't my first rodeo."
I was clearly a rookie.
Sinking into the dirt? Check. New dress? Check. Manicure? Check. New haircut? Check.
Did he appreciate it? Check.
In the days leading to his return home, I wondered what it would feel like to be on the other side. How would I react? Would I run? Would I scream? Would I be able to find him in the crowd? Where should I stand? Shoot, we should have made a plan before he got to Kuwait and communication wasn't as reliable!
It felt strange standing at the parade field next to my outfit-picking, purse-fetching, photo-taking friend. I looked across the crowd and recognized what would make for some good stories.
I, like many reporters who find it difficult to have a life outside of work, had to remind myself I wasn't there for them. I was there for him. And me.
I can't remember what the DJ played and I can't remember what the chaplain prayed and I can't remember what the colonel said before, "Charge!"
Typically upon hearing that, I will follow the family of a soldier I interviewed onto the field and watch the celebration. I'll take a few notes, maybe ask the soldier an obvious question or two, say "welcome home" and make my way back to the office and a looming deadline.
More than 300 soldiers came home that night and the scene on the parade field was chaotic. I weaved through the crowd, reading every nametape. I was worried. Maybe in my rush to get ready I missed a call or an e-mail saying he encountered yet another delay.
My heart sank as I made it all the way down one side of the parade field. I felt like crying. My advice-giving friend suggested we stay near the large concrete slab painted to look like a giant 1st Cav patch.
Then, like something I'd write in a story you'd read on the Killeen Daily Herald's front page, the crowd parted and 10 feet away I saw a nametape I recognized. I looked up through teary eyes and saw a face to match.
There he was. He was mine. At last.
Amanda Kim Stairrett is the Killeen Daily Herald's military editor and editor of the Fort Hood Herald. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7547.