It was a heartwarming scene from an increasingly disheartening war; one certainly sufficient to take the chill off an approaching northern Utah winter.
This past Monday, about 100 members of Bravo Battery of the 1st Battalion of the Utah National Guard, all freshly returned from Iraq, paraded past their friends and neighbors in a two-bus caravan that wound its way through Brigham City and Logan.
As they filed past collections of school kids sprung from class, high school bands, swarms of well-wishers wildly waving American flags and block after block of car wash, supermarket and hamburger drive-in marquees proclaiming "Welcome Home Troops," the soldiers received the kind of warm reception they sure never got in Baghdad.
Flanked by police cars and with fire trucks bringing up the rear, the contrast between yesterday and today could not have been greater. After a year and more of providing security in Iraq, looking for roadside bombs and roadside bombers while trying their best to keep the peace, now they were the ones everyone else was looking out for.
When the buses left Brigham and headed up the open ground of Sardine Canyon en route to Logan, nobody flinched.
The heroic return of Bravo Battery represented the end to the most personal connection I have had to Operation Iraqi Freedom. My nephew, Kyle Martineau, is among those back from the front. For the past year, Kyle, who celebrated his 22nd birthday in his barracks, patrolled throughout Iraq, mostly in the north, constantly scanning the horizon for trouble.
He was never really out of harm's way. The odds weren't awful — an average of 65 Americans die a month in Iraq out of a force of about 157,000 — but they did exist. One member of Bravo Battery was killed by a roadside bomb and two others were injured, one of those losing part of his foot.
"You never stop thinking about it," said Kyle, who left his wife Serena and young sons Austin and Will at home in Providence while he served in Iraq. "But after the first month or so you kind of accept it and don't think about it as much. You just do what you have to do. If a bullet has your name on it, it has your name on it."
But it's still an X job — the kind where you cross off the days until it's over.
And it's the kind of job where the ripple effect is tremendous. As Kyle's family and friends came to personally realize, every single peacekeeper in Iraq brings so many others with him or her into the daily life-and-death suspense roller-coaster. When it's your loved one over there, every news report about "A car bomb exploded today in Iraq . . ." comes with a requisite inhale.
In some ways, it can be less stressful to play in the game than sit in the stands. I watched Kyle's father, Scott, stoically plow through the long year Kyle was away, keeping up a brave front while knowing full well the possibilities.
It was Scott who first called and told me Kyle had returned safe and sound. "His plane just landed in Washington," he said about a week ago. "Kyle sounds great and even over the phone you could feel the sense of relief now that he's back on American soil. You could just hear it in his voice."
You could just hear it in his dad's voice, too.
That same sense of relief was palpable this past Monday as the National Guard buses paraded through Brigham City and Logan. The soldiers in those buses had returned not just with honor but with their lives. They're back and they're safe, and just in time for Thanksgiving — freeing up northern Utah to exhale.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and faxes to 801-237-2527.