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When my flight landed in San Antonio this past Wednesday night, I was annoyed, sick, and ready for bed. I had just worked a nine-hour day, dropped my sweet dog at a friend’s house, and driven myself to the small local airport in time to board my flight. I looked down at my dead cell phone and wondered how the hell I was going to find my parents, who had just landed from California. I’m sure I looked a complete mess as I approached a family I had shared a few words with on the plane: “Can I please borrow someone’s phone?”
Called my dad – straight to voicemail.
Called my mom – answered! And hung up. Okay, one more time – “Hello?”
“MOM! Don’t hang up. It’s Bethany, my phone is dead, of course.”
After an attempt at a smile and a profuse expression of gratitude, I bolted (sort of) down the stairs to where my mom was waiting patiently to my dad and the rental car.
“Dan, her phone was dead, of course,” they laughed while I loaded my bag in the back of the car.
“Yeah, yeah, typical – I know. Are y’all finally ready to get to the hotel? I’ve been waiting FOREVER,” I said smiling. After three months of separation, we were chatty and a bit more energized on the way to the hotel.
“Left. Left left left here!!!” Mom said quickly as we maneuvered through unknown highways.
Safely in the room, I tucked into bed almost immediately while listening to my parents discuss when we needed to arrive the next day. I jolted up as my mom said, “Work out at five?”
“Well, we have to be there by 7:30 AM; we don’t know how much traffic there will be; we all need to take showers…so, 5 o’clock is the magic moment honey,” she said sympathetically.
“Wake me up by dumping pre-workout in my mouth,” I groaned and flipped over to pass out for three-and-a-half hours. 5:00 AM came too fast.
We pulled up to the gates of Lackland Air Force Base at 7:15 the next morning, clutching precious cups of coffee as we handed our base passes and ID's to the Security Forces. “Enjoy the weekend family, it goes fast,” he said as he handed our materials back to us and we drove on to the Reception Center on base.
At 8:00 AM, the three of us were huddled together outside bracing ourselves from the chill and the unexpected, constant drizzle, anxiously awaiting our first look at my baby brother as he ran by with his squadron (321, Flight 731) – Basic Training Graduation weekend was on the verge of beginning, and we couldn’t wait. From the distance, we saw countless men and women in the colors of their flights begin to barrel towards us, chanting and keeping pace in formation.
“I see gray shirts!! He’s coming!” I said excitedly as I heard the rumble – “what does it feel like, to be shot by, by a Wart Hog” repeating as his squadron ran by us.
“Did you see him?” “Where was he?” “Did you get a picture?” We all talked at once and cracked up.
“They’re coming around again – he was towards the middle, five rows back,” I said to my parents. “Keep your eyes peeled!” When he came around the track again, we cheered and screamed his name at the top of our lungs: “BENJAMIN!!!” Eyes focused forward, he didn’t see us as he continued his chant with the rest of the trainees: “What does it feel like, to be shot by, by a Wart Hog…”
An hour later, we huddled together (again) on bleachers in the same area. The Coin Ceremony was about to start, and the kid was about to officially become an airman. After the formal addresses by those responsible for the last eight weeks he had spent at Basic, they called for the “retreat,” and we were allowed to go find our boy. The trainees, now airmen after receiving their airman’s coin, stood at attention until they were “tapped out” by a family member. We knew where he should have been standing, but anxiety filled the three of us as we searched the 743 recruits, all with freshly shaved heads in their matching uniforms for a tall man with glasses.
I knew he could see us searching. The longer it took, the worse I felt. He could see us clearly, yet I couldn’t pick him out of a crowd? I have spent 21 years around this kid – how could I not find him? Then I felt him – three rows of people away, on the edge of his group. He wasn’t allowed to make eye contact, but I saw his tears starting as one fell down my face. Leaving my parents behind, I broke the rules and ran to him. Standing directly in front of him, tears streaming down both of our faces as he still couldn’t look at me, time stopped. I touched his shoulder and our eyes immediately met before we embraced in the longest hug we’ve ever shared. “I’m so damn proud of you Benjamin. So damn proud,” I let him go to allow Mom to share in the moment, but I couldn’t stop the embrace completely and came back in for a three person hug.
Let me tell you - that moment, the moment we locked eyes, something in our relationship changed. He’s my brother: he’s annoying, rude, and knows exactly how to push my buttons and always will. But being the first one to see him, hug him, and cry with him after 10 months apart and two months of no contact besides a few letters – something switched on. My baby brother, the idiot who has gotten on my nerves since March 30, 1997, was a man – an Airman in the United States Air Force. We’re still going to want to kill each other sometimes, but I will never lose the feeling we shared in that moment, and I will always love and respect him, no matter what.