At Fort Campbell, an emotional cycle as soldiers return home from Afghanistan

May 27, 2011

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — The wounded soldier holds a homemade poster ringed with Christmas lights.

The widow stands in the back, hoping not to be seen.

The wife squeezes her three-year-old son’s hand and leans forward in anticipation.

The newlywed wipes away tears.

All wait in the bleachers of an airplane hangar for soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. They are coming home from the unit’s deadliest year of combat since Vietnam.

After nearly a decade of war, the welcome-home ceremony has become a moment ingrained in American popular culture. The cheering, hugs and tears are staples of television newscasts. American beer and car companies use the return of the soldier in ads designed to evoke patriotism and a sepia-toned sentimentality.

These events are far more complicated than such portrayals suggest. To see why, it helps to step into the lives of the wounded soldier, the widow, the wife, the newlywed.

It is 3 p.m. on a Friday in early May at Fort Campbell. In a few seconds a brass band will start playing, the crowd will start screaming and the soldiers will burst through the hangar doors.

‘You feel helpless’

The wounded soldier is Staff Sgt. Dan Kelly. Twenty-three years old, he is handsome with short blond hair. He is a little bit heavier than he was in Afghanistan. But what defines him most is the guilt he feels over having come home before his soldiers. “Back here, you feel helpless,” is how he puts it. “Back here, I’m drinking beer and eating steak. It’s not a good feeling.”

He shifts his weight off his right leg, which bears two red railroad-track incisions made by the doctors to relieve the pressure and swelling from his wounds. The injuries, caused by an enemy bullet and shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade, have effectively ended his career as an infantryman.

He is waiting for a flight that includes about 30 soldiers from Combat Outpost Monti, a tiny base near Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan where Kelly spent most of his tour.

During his first two months at the outpost, nine of the base’s 140 soldiers were killed and about three dozen were wounded. Kelly was tapped to take over his nine-man squad in late July after his squad leader and platoon sergeant quit, citing mental strain. Kelly held the job for five months before his own wounds forced him home.

In Afghanistan, he was a steady and aggressive sergeant, one of the platoon’s best soldiers.

“He wanted to succeed so badly,” his platoon leader said.

At Fort Campbell, Kelly has bristled at taking orders from superiors who have not seen combat. His fiancee has pressed him to seek treatment for his anger.

“She laid down the law,” he says. “I know she is not going to be understanding forever.”

He has started to worry that he needs the rush of battle to keep his sanity.

In the hangar, Kelly holds a bright orange poster bearing the message “Kelly Loves Ham,” a reference to Spec. Brian Ham, one of the soldiers dumping their gear on the other side of the hangar doors as they prepare to make their entrance.

“He’s one of my best friends, and I wanted to embarrass him and maybe get a laugh,” Kelly says.

Once the soldiers are in formation, two wives of unit commanders, dressed in the black and yellow colors of the division, race the length of the building clanging cowbells.

“Let’s go! Let’s go!” they yell.

The crowd rises to its feet and Kelly raises his poster. More than 600 soldiers from a hodgepodge of units march into the hangar amid a screaming blast of marching music. By coincidence, Ham comes to a stop right in front of Kelly, who flashes a smile that mixes joy and relief. For a moment the helpless feeling recedes.

‘What you’re supposed to do’

The widow is Seana Arrechaga, a 22-year-old from rural Ohio with delicate features and straight blond hair.

Nearly all of her friends, including Kelly, urged her to skip the welcome home. On March 29, Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga was killed as his unit attacked an insurgent-controlled valley near the Pakistan border.

“I feel like I am supposed to be there,” she told friends in the days before the event. “In my head it all makes sense.”

Seana’s plan is to watch the soldiers march into the building, but from a vantage point separate from her friends — she doesn’t want to interfere with their joy. She has left their 3-year-old son with a friend.

She decided to dress up for the ceremony, wearing her hair down and a nice black-and-white dress.

“I wore the dress because that is what you do when your husband is coming home,” she would explain later. “You’re supposed to look pretty. I knew he was not coming, but that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Three years earlier, Seana was nervous and jittery as she waited in the same hangar for her husband to return from Iraq.

“I was so afraid that I had forgotten how to kiss,” she recalled.

During this tour, she worried that she was forgetting her husband.

“We were living two separate lives when he was in Afghanistan,” she says. “I got him for an hour a day on the phone, but the guys he was close to knew him better than I did. You change so much in a year.”

Her husband, who emigrated from Cuba as a teenager, had spent most of the decade with the same 140-soldier company. In July, two months into the deployment, he was promoted to platoon sergeant, replacing the previous sergeant who had quit amid the unit’s heavy losses and plunging morale. He infused the 40-man platoon with badly needed confidence. “He had that aura,” one of his soldiers said. “You were certain he was going to make it.”

Seana didn’t think she could stay in the Fort Campbell area, where she felt as though she had the word “widow” stamped on her forehead. She also didn’t want to move home to Ohio. “I married Ofren when I was 19,” she says. “I don’t know how to live in the civilian world.”

Seana’s brother-in-law and a close friend from Fort Campbell stand on either side of her. Two soldiers pull open the hangar doors, letting in a flood of light. The brass band begins playing as the 600 soldiers march into the hangar. Seana dabs her eyes with a tissue.

The troops from Ofren Arrechaga’s old company stand in a fidgety formation, heads pivoting left and right as they scan the bleachers for their parents, wives and children. Standing at the back of the hangar, Seana cannot see the soldiers’ faces, only the tops of their heads.

An Army chaplain gives thanks for the “awesome” power that God had bestowed upon the soldiers in battle. A general tells the troops that as combat veterans they are now part of “the most exclusive club on Earth.”

A few minutes before the troops break formation and begin their mad dash to find their loved ones — scenes that will play again and again on the evening news — Seana decides she has had enough. She ducks out of the hangar.

‘I can breathe again’

The wife clutching the hand of her 3-year-old son is Emily Franks. Three days later, more soldiers from Combat Outpost Monti are arriving in a second welcome-home ceremony, a group that includes Emily’s husband, Sgt. Michael Franks.

Emily is dressed in a bright blue bolero jacket that she bought for the ceremony. Her son, Caden, wears an Army-green T-shirt with his father’s nametape on the front and a picture of the unit mascot sewed on the back.

Outside a light rain is falling as a sergeant tells the soldiers to drop their packs and their rifles.

“Crap! We are going to have to leave our weapons out here in the stupid rain,” Michael Franks will recall thinking.

The rifle he had carried for a year and depended on for his life in Afghanistan would rust.

For many of the soldiers, weary from a year at war and the long flight to the United States, the welcome-home ceremonies are something to be endured.

“It is really more for the families than it is for us,” Michael says.

The hangar doors slide open, and the soldiers march in to screaming and the clanging cowbells. Again, the chaplain and a general speak for a few minutes and the brass band launches into “Rendezvous with Destiny,” the theme of the 101st Airborne Division, followed by the “Army Goes Rolling Along.”

Emily and her son belt out all the words. In the year that her husband was gone, Emily, 32, became the go-to person for young spouses who needed help with problems ranging from car trouble to child care. When the company suffered a death, she raced to comfort the widow.

“Maybe it is just me accepting the inevitable,” she says, “but I came to the realization that I don’t see us walking another path outside of the military.”

She loves the homecoming ceremonies and has attended more than a dozen of them as the volunteer leader of the company’s Family Readiness Group, which funnels information from the Army to spouses. It saddens her to think that some of the troops see the events as a chore.

When the soldiers break formation, the spouses rush down from the bleachers. Emily’s husband hugs and kisses her.

His first year home after his Iraq deployment in 2008 was a tough one on their marriage. Michael says he acted as though he was owed special treatment because he had spent a year at war.

“I was a bit of a jerk and thought Emily should put up with it,” he says.

The Afghanistan deployment had been much more violent than the Iraq tour. Soldiers at Combat Outpost Monti were killed riding in their trucks and on foot patrols. A soldier had even died while sleeping in his bunk — an artillery shell crashed through the roof of his hut.

Michael had promised himself that this return would go more smoothly. He picks up his son, Caden, closes his eyes and tilts his head toward the ceiling as if in prayer. For his wife it is a moment of elation and relief. “It is over,” she’s thinking. “I can breathe again.”

‘A happy sad’

The newlywed is Anne Krolicki, a 24-year-old from rural Illinois. When she spots her husband, 1st Lt. Ryan Krolicki, Anne smiles and then unexpectedly breaks into tears.

A half-hour later, she and Ryan — who married in February while he was on leave — sit next to each other on the metal bleachers. Television news crews from Nashville, Atlanta and nearby Clarksville, Tenn., circulate on the hangar floor.

Anne nervously bites her nails.

It is her second welcome-home ceremony of the week. Three days earlier, Anne and Seana stood together in the back of the hangar as they watched the troops march into the hangar without Seana’s husband. Later that evening, seven of the wives — three of them widowed during the deployment — gathered at Anne’s house for a party to mark the one-year anniversary of their husbands’ departure for Afghanistan.

The women talked and drank until dawn. They told funny, embarrassing stories about their spouses. Everyone feared that when their husbands came home they would begin to drift apart.

“The end of the night was sad,” Anne recalls. “It was like a happy sad.”

Like most couples, Anne and her husband had a hard time talking during the deployment. On the night before Ofren Arrechaga’s funeral, Ryan called from Afghanistan, peppering Anne with detailed questions about what her life had been like at Fort Campbell in the days after the death. He and Ofren weren’t especially close, but he knew that his wife and Seana had a tight bond.

Anne answered the questions and then vented her anger at her friend’s loss.

“It’s a pointless war,” she said to her husband, almost immediately regretting the words.

Ryan called again the next day as Anne was driving to the funeral and mentioned that he couldn’t wait to get home, drink coffee with her on their back porch and watch the sun rise. Anne felt a pang of guilt that her husband was going to make it back alive.

“Somewhere in my person I was excited,” she says. “I just couldn’t find it for a while.”

In the hangar, Anne and Ryan sit quietly next to each other before the soldiers are told to assemble on the other side of the hangar doors.

A fleet of buses is waiting to take them to their company headquarters, where they will turn in their rifles, night vision devices and other sensitive material.

The troops assemble outside in the rain. A sergeant major addresses them in the dull monotone of a flight attendant pointing out the safety exits before takeoff.

“America is not going to run out of beer, so don’t try to drink it all tonight,” he says. “Practice safe sex. Make sure all sex is consensual. No problem is so insurmountable that we can’t help you solve it.”

The spouses stay in the hangar where a chaplain tells them that they are now entering the most difficult part of that he calls “the deployment experience.”

“Make this a positive experience,” he says. “Make up your mind that you are going to enjoy this time.”

Two hours later, Ryan and the rest of the soldiers from Combat Outpost Monti form up in ragged rows outside their company headquarters building. There is another lecture on drinking, sex and suicide.

Anne waits a few hundred yards away, filled with questions. How has he changed? What if he’s different? They’ve never lived together as husband and wife. What will that be like? What questions should she ask about Afghanistan? What questions shouldn’t she ask?

“We have to get to know each other all over again,” she says.

The soldiers are dismissed and walk wearily toward their cars. Anne snags Ryan out of the mass of green camouflage uniforms, hugs him one more time, and they head home.

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