Ticker tape parades no longer exist. Parades only happen when wars definitively end. Now the progress of war is measured by when we turn over responsibilities to local police or army. This means it isn't as easy to recognize veterans returning from war. Sure, when a unit comes back from deployment, families, the United Service Organizations (USO), and various veterans groups are there to welcome the troops. But often those who need to be thanked the most do not return with their units; they come back sooner.
Despite having supported Operation Enduring Freedom twice, combat had remained distant for me-until my recent experience. Prowling the halls of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany brought me closer to the front lines than any of the "combat missions" that earned me points toward my undeserved Air Medal.
It is one thing to receive and read intelligence briefs about the ongoing operations in theater. It is another to read about these and then look across the room to see the wounded Polish soldier recovering from being shot, or the Romanian truck driver who survived an improvised explosive device. But be sure to speak up, since he can't hear so well anymore. Anyone who doubts the commitment of our allies should keep in mind that although they may be bowing out of the fight, they've done their part. Americans may be bearing the brunt of casualties, but others have borne the ultimate sacrifice as well, and that should not be forgotten.
For Americans who are injured in combat, the first stop is Landstuhl. Here they are stabilized, then flown home on C-17s. Non-Americans get flown to the States too, but they deal with significantly more red tape before they arrive at Walter Reed Army Hospital to be fitted for prosthetics. Regardless of where they come from, the journey home for all wounded warriors is filled with significantly less fanfare.
The first C-17 on which they travel is filled with others like them. Some have obvious injuries, such as missing legs or arms held together with pins. They have to be carried on litters. Others appear fine and can walk themselves on board, until the pressure changes during a descent trigger flashbacks to an IED blast, and it becomes clear that they suffer from a different kind of injury. Only a lucky few have a friend or family member accompanying them. Most take refuge in headphones or books during the long flight. A few make temporary friendships with their fellow travelers.
Upon arrival in the United States, half the passengers are taken to Walter Reed or Bethesda, where they remain until they are healthy enough to travel the rest of the way home. The others are treated to an overnight stay at an aeromedical staging facility. Here the USO has set up a small place for them to watch TV, play video games, call home, use the Internet, and so on. American Red Cross volunteers remain for a couple of hours to make sure everyone has eaten and received any needed assistance.
Then the facility begins to quiet down. Most patients are tired from the journey and time-zone change. By early next morning everyone is awake again, because they haven't yet adjusted to the time change. Soon the remaining patients are on planes taking them to various parts of the country. When they arrive at their final destination or a stop in between, only a few people remain from the original flight. They arrive at a military medical facility with little notice. A few representatives from the local veterans' organization might be there, to thank them for their service and hand them some baked goods or blankets. Eventually they find their way home to friends or family, or perhaps to no one.
Do these Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, or Airmen receive the recognition they deserve? Most probably do, but some may not. Theirs is a quiet return. Most are hurting and really just want to get better. Along the way they may receive visits from important people like the President or congressmen. The heartfelt gestures they do receive are mostly from other veterans, people who were once there and know what an honest thank you means. But those who have never served, or were never in combat, should know that these warriors return every day, quietly and without much fanfare.