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Coming home; the experience of fighting a war wasn't over yet - the most important lesson lay ahead.

The powerful thrust of the jet engines drove me deep into my seat as the plane rose into the Georgia night. It was July 15, 1969, and 35 minutes was all that remained of a journey that had begun two days earlier and a world away. First Lt. Hugh Weldon, Infantry, United States Army, was coming home from Vietnam.

The face that stared vacantly at the disappearing Atlanta lights was different from the fun-loving youngster who had reversed this route a year earlier. Tonightthanks to relenting sun-my skin tone was darker. And I was more subdued-a hair-raising episode or two had a way of impressing on young lieutenants the of a low profile. Finally, baby fat had given way to a leaner body-restful nights for junior infantry officers were few, and the food, well, let's just say that nobody goes to war for the cuisine.

My tour had changed me. And although it was unknown to me at that precise moment, the experience wasn't over yet. The most important lesson was ahead.

This trip had been the focus of my life for the past year; the anticipation started from day one. As with every soldier in every war, there was but one overpowering desire: to go home. To those of us in Vietnam, "home" took on an almost magical air. We spoke of it in reverent terms and built it up to mythical proportions. We called it "The World."

Although each of us had a personal view of The World, we generally agreed on the following: The World is a special place where people sleep in real beds, take hot showers every day; and do not have to keep their steel helmet, flak vest, and M-16 rifle within lunging distance. The lazy late breakfasts feature hot, fresh-brewed coffee; and the chocolate desserts are so creamy you need a spoon. In The World, buddies have nothing better to dc) than pack sandwiches and go on daylong hunting trips together. And last, The World is a distant land where pretty girls smell nice and wear dresses.

Except for specific military duties, everything centered around going home. For one year we dreamed, discussed, and planned on getting back to The World. If you wanted to start a conversation with anybody, all you had to do was ask, "Hey, what are you gonna do when you get back to The World?" And then get comfortable.

If you've never come home from a war, picture it like this: Assume that all your life you've dreamed of being rich. Of course, all along you knew there was not much chance of its actually happening, but it was fun to while away the hours, daydreaming about how you'd spend the money. Then out of nowhere, a huge inheritance. All of a sudden, your dreams come true. But after concentrating on the dream so long, it's tough to separate the dream from the reality. In a word, it's disorienting. That's what coming home from a war is like.

There had already been one culture shock. That morning, while I was passing through San Francisco International Airport, it struck me that nobody had a gun. The entire airport was defenseless. It would be a piece of cake for a few Viet Cong to slip up to the airport doors, blow them-scratch that, the blasted things would open automatically-and enter unopposed.

I nervously sat there awaiting my flight, eyes glued to the door, and worked out in detail what I'd do if they showed up before I could get out of there. And the odd thing was that I knew I was being silly. But my eyes never left the door. Yeah, you could call me disoriented. Caught between worlds. The twinkling town of Augusta, Georgia, silently passed beneath us as we crossed from Georgia into South Carolina. Then the pilot reduced power for landing. The trip so farBien Hoa to Travis Air Base near Oakland to Atlanta-had taken 38 hours. It had been an emotional roller coaster. And it wasn't over yet.

It was 10:30 p.m. when the plane's tires squealed touchdown in Columbia. Sometime during the long glide in, I had started crying softly into my handkerchief. Here was this infantry officer, his chest covered with combat and service award ribbons, crying. Fortunately, the plane was almost deserted. Nobody was watching.

Deep breathing helped, and as we pulled to a stop I regained control. After the rolling stairway was in position, the door swung open and the few passengers quietly filed out. I had not moved. Not a twitch. * Coming home is not something

infantry lieutenants take lightly. While outwardly we were all like John Wayne, in quiet moments we

acknowledged the awful truth:

infantry lieutenants had the highest mortality rate of any army

group. For example, in my first unit there were three lieutenants.

I alone came home. I was an

extraordinarily lucky person.

Out came the handkerchief again. I knew I couldn't stay on this plane forever. Slowly, I made it to the front of the plane-still out of sight of the terminal-and peered out into the brightly lit runway area.

There appeared to be about a dozen steps to the ground and then 50 yards to the terminal. And there, behind the security barricades, stood a small quiet group of people. They were staring at this airplane.

I had to do something. With a deep breath, I stood straight, tugged at my wrinkled khaki shirt, and stepped out of the plane's darkness onto the illuminated top step of the stairway. The five people behind the barricades went nuts.

Momentarily I froze, uncertain about what to do next. Then, deliberately, I groped my way down the stairs. One hand held the briefcase containing my army separation papers, and the other-white knuckles showing-was attached to the railing.

As the distance narrowed, I began to recognize faces. There was Mom, her eyes scanning me as she went through the age old Mother's Checklist: two eyes, two arms, two legs, no limp, no scars or wounds, moving under his own power....

Dad stood beside her, his arm around her waist. From experience in World War 11, he knew there was often more to wartime homecomings than met the eye. His expression said, "He looks fine, but I wonder ... ?" As usual, he was close to the mark.

My two rotten little brothers were the most animated. They knew high drama when they saw it, and they were milking this scene for all it was worth. But somehow they seemed less rotten and certainly less little.

Next to them was the stuff of every soldier's dreams. She was wearing a red plaid skirt and waving wildly. I was tired, but I wasn't dead-now that was something.

Halfway between the plane and the terminal, I slowed to a stop, unable to continue. All this was just too much. * Out of the worst comes the best. Our most cherished values are forged in the fires of troubled times. Like the seriously ill man who comes to appreciate everyday things, the prisoner who comes to prize freedom, and the soldier under fire who comes to know the calming power of prayer, I was

about to make a terrible

experience worthwhile. It hit me. We had all been wrong. Every trooper who had viewed The World as some thing or some place \vas wrong. It never was hot showers, or soft beds. And it had nothing to do with hunting trips or chocolate cakes. We had missed the point. The World was the people-our loved ones-who wrote us, prayed for us, and waited for us. They were what was good. They were what was important. And my world was standing behind the barricade 25 yards away. With that understanding came the end to a long year. I was with the people I cared for and, once again, everything was as it should be. I had made it. My war was finally over. I started forward again, slowly, one foot in front of the other. Then a little faster. And faster. And faster.... Epilogue-July 15, 1990 I'm pleased to tell you that in the years which followed, I found The World to be to my liking and well-worth the price we paid. To this day I love to sleep in a soft bed, appreciate hot showers, and seldom pass on the desserts. More important, our family is close; I speak to my parents almost daily, and the whole gang gathers on all the traditional days. And after 20 years of marriage, that pretty girl in the red plaid skirt is still the brightest light in every room. So my luck continues; I remain the most fortunate of men. But I never go hunting anymore.
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Author:Weldon, Hugh W., Jr.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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