(Tom Helma's son, Gabe, is on duty in Iraq.)
It had been 265 days since I'd seen his face, the cold night of Dec. 26, when the buses left the Marshall Street Armory heading out to Fort Dix, N.J., for deployment to Iraq. It had been 11 weeks since his last phone communiqué in July letting us know his 15-day leave had been postponed due to others in his unit requiring emergency leaves.
When the phone call came last Sunday, left for us to discover on our phone answering machine, it was from the Baghdad International Airport. His voice, deeper now, with a chuckle announcing he was on his way home for that long-awaited 15-day leave. Four days later, in a jaunt that included stopovers in Kuwait, Germany, Atlanta and Detroit, he was finally here at the airport in Lansing. It was difficult to keep the family Jeep under the speed limit as we hurtled across town.
Four days later now, I am breathing easier than I'd been breathing for a long time. Conversations with him these last few days - there have been many - seem to suggest that, despite difficult, painful, challenging, traumatic situations, he is essentially emotionally and psychologically intact, a whole lot more mature, sobered by his experience, ready for it to be over.
Just before he left Iraq, there had been a car bombing. Four people in his unit, three soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter, had been seriously wounded by a suicide bomber whose car had sneaked by a checkpoint, just outside the base compound, because the driver had a young child strapped in beside him. The blast was strong enough to knock the interpreter completely out of the Humvee.
When the car bomb exploded, he says he felt the blast vibrate in his chest. There are several such explosions every day. They cause windows to ripple like water on a pond, then the windows crack and explode into tiny pieces. The other day, he awoke to thunder and rain outside his bedroom window here in Lansing and thought at first it was mortar fire, but then he smiled. It was the first precipitation he'd seen since February.
He is more talkative now than ever before. He has something to talk about, something of which he is proud. He reports that he is the first person to arrive at work in the morning, the last to leave at night, that he puts in a 12-hour workday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., because the time goes by faster that way. He sits with me on the front porch watching the rain and says that this is the first feeling of relaxation he's felt in 10 months. Whew!
These 15 days will go by way too fast. We will have a party with family and friends on Sunday and then he will be gone again on Oct. 6. His deployment will last, we think, until at least December. There is the journey back into Baghdad to be troubled about, and those last 60 days.
On the way out of Iraq, he'd videotaped out the front window of a Humvee the trip through Baghdad to the airport. Burnedout buildings were everywhere, and the Humvee convoy, protective of the soldiers on board, barreled its way through city streets at 70 miles per hour, never stopping and occasionally nudging Iraqi civilian vehicles not too gently out of the way.
The war continues. For those of us who have a loved one in Iraq, it is a whole lot more than a "news-at-11" kind of an experience, more than a channel to change on the TV. At the local gym where I work out, people tune in to the 24-hour sports channel, and when I change the channel to watch the news of the war, they glare at me. People, some people, do not want to even think about the war. Others of us can not afford not to think about it for even a day.
He sleeps. It is 6:12 a.m. He has been out and about with his 18-year-old sister and her boyfriend, hanging out in the "hood," watching the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" at a friend's house, waking me up as he comes in noisily at 4 a.m. I am smiling. He is safe. I can breathe easy. I can go back to sleep.