The clapping, the hooting, the whistling: It was all very familiar. As I hurried toward the terminal at Baltimore-Washington Airport, where U.S. troops land after serving overseas, I spotted the cheerful retirees from Operation Welcome Home who applaud each servicemember returning from deployment. These greeters, clad in American flag T-shirts and carrying handmade signs thanking the troops, organize themselves to be present for every incoming military flight, even ones landing at 2 a.m.
I remembered them from exactly one year ago, when I hugged my husband Scott goodbye as he left for a year in Baghdad. Now he was finally coming home. But after 12 months of planning for this moment (I ordered an enormous "Welcome Home" banner for our porch only weeks after his departure), I feared I had missed it.
There had been some confusion when Scott called to relay the date and time of his return from Iraq. His itinerary said noon, but administrative staff in Iraq had mentioned 1 p.m. I decided to arrive early, and it was only 11:45 a.m.when I stepped on to the escalator. But from the sound of the greeters' enthusiastic cheers, I was too late. I ran the rest of the way, feeling my face redden from exercise and anxiety. A few of the greeters, looking sympathetic, approached and assured me that the flight I was waiting for had just startled to trickle in. Scott hadn't walked through the double doors yet. I stationed myself off to the side, and scanned the terminal. Only one other family waited alongside me—a twentysomething woman with long brown hair and her two biracial children, who held hand-crayoned "I [heart] Daddy" signs.
There were so few other families because the terminal at BWI is only the first point of entry into the United States for many returning troops; most then board a series of connecting flights to their local airports, where husbands and wives and moms and dads wait with bouquets and balloons. We live relatively close to BWI, so I could welcome...