I arrived at Ft. Stewart’s Cottrell Field a few hours early – it was a long drive from Atlanta and I wanted to make sure I got there with plenty of time to spare. I was the only one in the parking lot as I pulled in, grateful for the opportunity to rest a bit before the ceremony. My son’s unit was coming home from Afghanistan and in a few short hours I’d actually get to see him, put my hands on him and rest assured that he was home and well.
As I sat there thinking about the upcoming event, my eyes wandered to two rows of small trees lining Cottrell Field at either end and what appeared to be markers at their base. Curious, and needing to stretch after the long ride, I walked toward them. It was a beautiful hot August Georgia day with a slight breeze, enough to keep the heat from being oppressive and the gnats at bay.
Walking toward the trees I noticed a walkway with two brick pillars. On the pillars were brass plaques, one announcing this was “Warrior’s Walk” and the other explaining it was a memorial to the soldiers lost in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. My heart caught in my throat as I looked down the long double row of trees and I thought, “there but by the grace of God …”.
Understanding the joy I would soon experience with my son’s homecoming, I felt an obligation to at least share some of the pain the families of the fallen must have endured when they found out that their loved one would never walk across Cottrell Field and back into their lives. I walked “Warrior’s Walk”.
If anyone can manage to do so with a dry eye, they’re a better person than I am. Each tree has a marble marker with the soldier’s name and rank. Each includes a metal flag representing the unit with which he served. But the most poignant items were those which families and fellow soldiers had placed under each tree. Lovingly left and carefully preserved, these mementoes tear at your heart and remind you of the lost love they represent. Many families had put wind chimes in the trees. Walking alone along the walk with the breeze gently stirring these chimes gave the walk an eerie almost otherworldly effect, strangely welcoming and embracing a visitor.
I finished my walk, sobered by the sacrifice of so many young lives. It was almost time for the ceremony and my son’s wife and my 4 grandsons, who had traveled earlier that morning to attend some classes at Ft. Stewart, had arrived. We all moved into the stands and waited for my son’s unit to arrive. The excitement was palpable. It continued to build as the time neared and more and more families arrived.
We were given updates – “they’ve just landed; they’re loading the busses; they’re enroute; they’re 10 minutes out” – and each update drove the anticipation up another notch.
Finally the busses were spotted and the gathered crowd went wild in a frenzy of cheering and clapping. Looking around it was a sea of smiles.
The unit unloaded behind a screen of trees at the far end of the field, shielding them from our view and then, dramatically, emerged from the tree line and marched in formation toward the stands. The gathered families cheered as they approached, some with tears streaming down their cheeks. Young children waved flags and signs they had lovingly made, all the while looking for their daddy.
The Colonel assigned the unenviable task of officially welcoming them home knew his duty and limited his remarks to about 2 minutes. At the conclusion, the PA announcer barely got, “and this concludes the formal portion of our ceremony”, out of his mouth before the crowd in the stands broke toward the formation. If the scene was pure pandemonium, it was the happiest example I’ve ever witnessed.
As our family pushed into the throng, we searched for my son. Finally, the crowd parted and there he was. He looked hale, hearty and happy. He looked good. We all tried to get to him at once, but everyone enjoyed a great big hug before it was over. My youngest grandson, age 6, had tears streaming down his cheeks and dripping off his chin as he wrapped his dad up in an embrace that he seemed not to want let go. More hugs, more smiles, more looking him up and down to ensure he was okay – that he was really here.
Finally, we began to walk off the field, and as I walked behind him and his son’s I smiled at the picture they made - the soldier holding the hands of two of his sons as we headed toward the cars. It was then that I heard that ghostly sound on the wind, the faint sound of wind chimes. A chill went down my back as I glanced back toward the double row of trees. It was as if those along Warrior’s Walk were welcoming him home too.