Staff SGT Donald Wayne West, Jr., enlisted in the United States Army National Guard on September 11, 2001. As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Company A of the 150th Combat Engineers served active duty Aug 29, 2004, until Dec 30, 2005. SSGT West returned to college in January, 2006. He married Lauren Ritchie June 9, 2006, at Seaside, Fla., and they have three children. SSGT West completed military service at Camp Minden, LA on Aug 23, 2009.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Day 342 - All Over But the Shoutin'

The pair of police officers who stopped to steer traffic around my car
15 miles outside Hot Springs last Monday night were especially eager to help fix the flat tire once they learned I was en route to Mississippi for Wayne's homecoming from Iraq. Having completed their own stints of full time military service, Corporal Bryan Ray and Officer James Tallent of the Malvern, Ark. Police Department assisted me with courteous professional efficiency, asking in return only that I relay their thanks to Wayne for his service on behalf of our country.

Back on the road by 7:30, I knew it would be midnight before I arrived at my brother's house in Jackson, 100 miles north of Camp Shelby.

When I finally showed up, Wayne's fiancee, Lauren, and his two cousins, Kimbell and Blair Marie, were monitoring his flight into Bangor, Maine on the internet.

By 1 a.m., text messages were flying, and all us girls were squealing with excitement, knowing Wayne was finally back on American soil for good.

Wayne called as soon as their plane reached the gate, filling us in on the soldiers' schedule until we could see them at Camp Shelby. Relieved and tired, I headed for bed, while Lauren and the cousins stayed awake, chatting with Wayne until nearly 3 a.m.

Two hours later, we crowded the bathroom, slapping makeup on sleep-deprived eyes and gulping coffee to jumpstart the adrenaline we needed for the early morning drive to Hattiesburg.

Once in the car, it was hard to be calm or quiet. We skimmed through a Jock Jams CD, looking for appropriate music to play on our boom box when the soldiers started getting off the busses.

Halfway to Hattiesburg, Lauren's cell phone rang. The troops were on the move from Gulfport to Camp Shelby, scheduled to arrive from the south at nearly the same time we would arrive from the north.

"I can't believe it's almost over," Lauren whispered, breathy with anticipation.

By 8:30 Tuesday morning, we were inside the gate at Camp Shelby, never realizing we passed right by 268 soldiers who had arrived in busses minutes earlier.

In a few more minutes, we joined hundreds of friends and family members huddled against the wind whipping between the barracks on 31st Street. Girlfriends strutted in stilettos, children lingered on the lawn and parents cradled their coffee during the final hour of waiting.

"WE'RE ON OUR WAY!" read the next text message from Wayne on Lauren's phone. "WE'll BE THERE IN ABOUT 10 MINUTES!"

Word spread through the camp like wildfire. Children were hoisted to strong men's shoulders. Women pulled out their tissues. Families poured from the warmth of the hospitality room to greet their soldiers.

"They're coming!!" someone shouted, wide-eyed and wishful.

For a split second, everything went silent as ears strained to hear the escort siren. Friends and families scurried to line the road where the busses would eventually park.

Suddenly, thunderous applause and raucous cheering split the air. The first bus appeared! A once orderly crowd now bounced around like BB's dropped on a concrete floor as families frantically searched for their loved ones.

One by one, much too slowly it seemed, soldiers stepped off the bus. Lauren spotted Wayne by the pillow tucked under his arm.

The next few minutes seemed like a parenthetical segment of an old movie...blurred by tears, silent because words wouldn't do, intensely close...
all in slow motion.

We waited patiently and respectfully while Lauren hugged Wayne, who was still clutching his proverbial pillow. At the end of that precious moment, Wayne turned to the family, threw his arms out wide and announced in characteristic Wayne-O fashion,
"OK, let's have kisses! Step right up, folks!"

Recently, I told one of my friends how hugging Wayne that day felt like a funeral in reverse. Instead of burying him, I received my son back from the grave. Waves of emotion held in check all year came gushing out. Each time I tried to pull away, I sobbed uncontrollably, thinking of other mothers whose sons didn't come home alive. Finally, when it seemed like enough, I passed him on to the rest of the family.

Eventually, everybody got their turn with Wayne before we walked with him to pick up his belongings.

On the way to the barracks, we passed our friend, SFC Kevin Kelly and Wayne's battle buddy,
SGT Patrick Bacon.

I hoped to have met many more of the men from Alpha Company who spent the year at Camp Dogwood with Wayne, but everybody had already wrapped up, prepared to make their individual journeys home for Christmas.

And what a Christmas it was. A new friend, musician and blogger,
James Hooker, sent this original song as a gift to all of us:
I wrote this for Wayne and all the other Waynes. Just got it uploaded...All Over But The Shoutin'.

Merry Christmas from me to you and Wayne and all the other Wayne's Moms and Waynes...
or sumthin' like that!

Thanks, Wayne.

James Hooker

(OK, if you didn't listen to James's song, here's the bait. He's co-founder of Grammy Award-winning "The Amazing Rhythm Aces" and current bandleader for Nancy Griffeth.)

More tomorrow...

(Linked at Mudville Gazette.)