Father Stephen C. McDermott

So there I was, standing in the gym with hundreds of others. This was my fourth time witnessing this powerful moment.

For one full year, these families had been split apart. For one full year, the fear of the knock at the door became a way of life. For one full year, communication “blackouts” were a sign that something serious happened down range. It was a year of fear, stress, loneliness, anger and tears.

That year was now over. The year of an emotional roller coaster had ended. {{more}}

A huge curtain cut the gym in half. On one side were the families and friends in the bleachers. On the other side were the Sky Soldiers of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade. Everyone felt the electricity in the air. Kids were running around playing while the adults waited eagerly for the moment to come.

Then it came. The dim lights began to get brighter. All eyes were fixed on the bottom of the curtain that separated the soldiers from their loved ones. As the music played louder and louder, the curtain began to rise. At first, all you could see were boots — hundreds of boots — all in a row.

These were the boots that patrolled the streets. As the curtain rose higher, legs emerged, and the unit’s formation could be seen. Next it was the bodies — bodies that carried body armor, heavy rucksacks and camelback. Arms were next — arms that saluted the flag of a country for which sacrifices are willing to be made.

Finally, their faces that emerged from underneath the curtain — the faces of our loved ones. As the curtain moved from boot to cap, adults and kids alike joyfully cheered, loudly whistled and frantically waved signs, signs of love.

The Sky Soldiers stood like statues in formation, full of pride, full of honor. The year had come to an end — the members of the 173rd had finally come home.

After the National Anthem ended, the chaplain approached the microphone and gave thanks to God for the brave men and women’s safe return. Next, the garrison commander congratulated the soldiers on a job well done, and thanked the families for their love, support and prayers during the past year. Then came the words: “Let the reunion begin.”

Families and friends rushed onto the gym floor. Seeing the wave of humanity coming at them, the sargeants standing in front of the formations quickly did an “about-face” to properly dismiss the troops. It was too late. The children were the first to break through the ranks and run into their parents’ awaiting arms. The spouses and friends were right behind. Like a tsunami, they all crashed through the ranks. Hugs, kisses, high-fives, laughs, tears — all of the year’s emotions had finally come to this.

Slowly emerging from this sea of humanity came a group of soldiers. These were the single soldiers who did not have anyone to greet them. Their families and friends were all back in the States. As they left the joy and excitement of the reunion behind them, they hugged each other and quietly made their way from the gym to the buses that brought them there. I thought to myself that those buses most likely were more comfortable than anything they had the whole year in the “sandbox.”

As I looked back at the gym floor, families were still embracing each other. And then, little by little, with the children securely nestled in the soldiers’ arms and spouses by their sides, they began to depart.

As I wrote at the beginning, this was the fourth reunion I had witnessed. The next group was coming in at 4 a.m.

I stayed until the end, and as the last ones were leaving I couldn’t help but think of the five soldiers who wouldn’t be coming home with their brothers and sisters. May God be with them and bless them for the ultimate sacrifices they made and their families endure.

Finally, as the gym quieted down, I thought to myself that it is sad how our country is tearing itself apart back home, how more and more we are embracing a culture of death and moral decay.

Yes, I know that there is indeed much good in our country, but I cannot help but think that the real battle these soldiers have to fight still lies ahead of them — back home. It is the battle of good versus evil, a battle for our society, our way of life.

May God bless all our soldiers — may He watch over them, bless them and bring them safely home to their loved ones.

And may our God also bless the families of these soldiers who endured so much suffering and hardships themselves. May they, too, have the strength to persevere. Amen.

Ordained a priest for the Philadelphia Archdiocese in 2003, Father Stephen C. McDermott is a U.S. Army chaplain stationed at the Garrison in Bamberg, Germany.