It was late afternoon on a Thursday at the Marne Parade Field in Fort Stewart as Sergeant Johnson stepped out of the frigid bus and into the sweltering heat of southern Georgia. He squinted his eyes behind the standard-issued sunglasses and remembered how different the heat was yesterday in downtown Baghdad. Sweat beaded on his forehead and trailed past his ear, moments later dripping onto his collar. “At least the heat in Iraq was dry,” he muttered.
He was nervous and elated as he fell into an arbitrary position among the rest of the soldiers. If they were good at anything it was making rectangular formations with their bodies. Chattering and laughing droned out the sounds of a marching band playing in the distance. Through a wall of trees, Johnson could see shaded bleachers packed with civilians, dressed in summer clothes and certainly much cooler than he was.
Sergeant Johnson felt a slight but refreshing breeze on his face. With his eyes closed, head canted skyward, his thoughts raced through the past fifteen months. Gritty battles, lost brothers, and deafening explosions. For a moment, he believed he was still there. Then a young soldier, the company mail clerk, interrupted his meditation by repeatedly calling his name and handing him an envelope. It was addressed to his overseas address, but there was no return address.
“Sorry, sergeant,” the clerk offered. “I got this right before we loaded the planes, but I couldn’t find you.” Sergeant Johnson nodded and turned away from the soldier. Before he could engage the envelope, a lone bugle signaled it was time to march. He stuffed the letter in his cargo pocket and stepped off.
The soldiers marched like they had never marched before. Their chests pushed out and their jaws clenched solid at the brassy crescendo of the band. Their feet hit the ground in precision time with the piercing snare of the drum. With the clash of the cymbals there was chaos as the soldiers charged towards the bleachers. Summer dresses and wicker hats burst forth from their metal cage. The soldiers and civilians advanced in battle lines Johnson was all too familiar with.
Shrieking filled the battlefield as wives were reunited with husbands and children with their fathers. Sergeant Johnson pushed through the fray, eagerly looking for his target. The beat of his heart could have cracked his ribcage, his breathing was becoming erratic. His deep blue eyes darted left and right as if his life depended on it. He made it to the now-empty bleachers and turned around to gaze upon the madness of the crowd.
Some minutes later, after scanning the horizon for his target, Johnson produced the unopened envelope from his cargo pocket. He tore it open and read the brief hand-written note. Then he read it again. His eyes reluctantly met the horizon, only this time a tear joined the sweat on the trail to his collar. With his right hand he crumpled the paper and let if fall heavy to the metal bench at his feet. As he exhaled he could feel the death of his emotions.
The din of homecoming battle faded as Sergeant Johnson drifted away from the parade field. She was really gone. “I wonder if the bus will take me back to war,” he sighed as he faded into the wall of trees.