Editor's Note: The best party of the holidays

By Richard Wiens, The Triplicate December 22, 2011 06:09 pm

A Sunday afternoon telephone call brought an unexpected holiday bonus.

After learning that three local members of the California National Guard were coming home from Afghanistan on the late flight to Crescent City, Laura and I headed for an airport terminal already jammed with more than 50 greeters.

The plane had landed but the passengers were still aboard. Kids held signs up to the glass wall reading “Welcome home soldiers” and “Welcome home Daddy!”

Non-military passengers were the first to disembark, heightening the anticipation. “Here they come,” someone said, and three happy soliders, clad in fatigues and no doubt fatigued, entered the room to spirited applause.

They were home and in the arms of their loved ones in time for the holidays.

As the assistant city editor supervising military coverage for the Colorado Springs Gazette, I was involved with numerous homecomings at Fort Carson from 2004 to 2007. Soldiers returned from Iraq by the hundreds, walking into a base gymnasium while patriotic music blared and crowds of well-wishers went wild.

After commanders delivered blessedly short speeches, the people in the bleachers at last could rush into the embrace of home-safe fathers and mothers, husbands and wives.

When those events occurred just before Christmas and Hanukkah, they were all the more poignant and always destined for the front page.

All too frequently, Gazette writers and photographers were dispatched to cover very different homecomings — memorial services for the fallen — often multiple casualties. The duty usually fell to military reporter Tom Roeder, who has written at least a couple of dozen such accounts.

Comrades’ eulogies. Symbolic placement — in a practice dating back at least as far as the Civil War — of the soldiers’ boots, rifles and helmets. Twenty-one-gun salutes.

Roeder always managed to forage through the somber sameness to find something unique to write about each soldier, each service. He knew some of the fallen personally from covering stories at the base and from being embedded with Fort Carson units in Iraq. It was an almost-sacred undertaking. Frankly, sometimes I worried about the effect on his own psyche.

The very real danger of service in Iraq or Afghanistan, of course, is what makes the safe return of our soldiers such big events. You could feel it in the airport Sunday night. Not just happiness, but palpable relief.

Del Norte will know no better secular celebration of the season.