On Solid Ground

By: Melissa Collins

The flight attendant’s voice calls out over the loud speaker, and like everyone else on the plane, I put my tray in its upright position. The wheels touch down on the runway, jolting the plane more than I’m comfortable with. A mixture of exhaustion and anxiety spreads through me as I reach for my bag in the overhead compartment. As I sling it over my shoulder, I look up the aisle and see no one else is moving. An older gentleman from the row next to me salutes me, his crooked and work-worn hands shaking at his brow.

“Thank you for your service, son.” His voice is about as shaky as his hand, but I can tell from the way he clicks his heels together, straightens his spine, and looks me square in the eyes, that he was a service man, too. My eyes travel up to the beaten and tattered hat he’s wearing. “Marines. World War Two,” he answers my unasked question and I salute him back. My crew-cut hair and camo T-shirt must have given me away.

He extends his hand, allowing me to step out first as the rest of the passengers stay in their seats. A loud wave of applause accompanies me as I walk through the center aisle. Trying my best to hide it, I cringe at the volume of it.

What a loser! My thoughts of self-loathing and panic are well-hidden behind my public smile. But the honest truth is that every single sound of what should be a harmless clap bounces around in my head like thunder.

Like bombs and gunfire.

Vomit rises in my throat as a few passengers drop a hand on my shoulder in thanks as I pass them. The urge to spin around, grab their arms, and knock them down to the ground is there, but I hold it in check.

Somehow. Figuring the more emotional part of coming home was over and done with when I was out-processed, I hadn’t expected this at all. The first leg of the journey back home was easier. There were a few other troops with me, traveling from our home base after being out-processed and I slept for most of the flight. But for this last part, a short two-hour flight into Colorado Springs Airport, I was alone.

Stepping off the plane isn’t any quieter than the cabin had been and some kind of weird domino effect takes place. I can only assume that somehow word traveled from the plane that there was a soldier on board. One person salutes and cheers for me and it’s as if everyone else in the place falls in line. A loud raucous celebration takes place in the small airport just for me.

They romanticize these scenes on television, you know. Budweiser and Coca-Cola want you to believe when a soldier comes home, he’s ecstatic to be greeted by everyone’s jubilance. And while it’s somewhat true, it’s also mostly false.

Having everyone jump up around me reminds of the life I’ve missed out on in the years I’ve given in service. It reminds me of how I don’t have control over my surroundings, of how I feel like I’ll never be in control again.

Would I give it up? Go back and change the last four years of my life?

No, I know I wouldn’t. They make me who I am. And even though there are days I wish it was me in the ground instead of my comrades, I know I could never change the decisions I’ve made.

Except that one.

With that thought in my brain, I catch sight of my mom in the distance holding up a sign with my name plastered on it.

Welcome Home, SPC Jacob “Dax” Daxton. We love you!

A proud smile splits Mom’s face as tears stream down her cheeks. Dropping her bags and the sign, she runs into my arms.

“Oh, Jake. You’re home. You’re really home.” Her words are muffled as she hugs me close. Dad walks up behind us, clapping a hand on my shoulder.

“We’re real proud of you, Son.” A soldier himself, his words carry less emotion, but I see it in his eyes – the emotion, the understanding, and the gravity of it all. Extending a hand to him, while holding Mom to my side, he surprises me by pulling me into a hug. “It’s so good to have you home,” his tone softens.

After breaking the brief hug, Mom holds me at arm’s length and adds, “For good, this time. You’re home for good this time.” There’s an air of a question in her words, as if she can’t really believe they’re true.

“Yes, Mom. For good,” I assure her as Dad pulls the bag from my shoulder.

“Come on. Let’s get you home,” Mom announces proudly, looping her arm around my waist.

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