“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Proverbs 17:17
I’ve heard it said that you can never go back. To be honest, I’ve experienced that. In the summer of 2015 I went back to my first Air Force duty station, the former Hahn AB in Germany, now known as Frankfurt-Hahn Airport. It wasn’t the same . . . not even close. Sure, there were a few things I recognized, and a few things that elicited emotions and feelings, but overall it wasn’t what I remembered. Things had changed. This is how it is with places we’ve been. Progress covers the memories we have leaving only vague hints of the past. The portraits painted in my mind are only safe if left there, untouched. This phenomenon is not restricted to places and things. Occasionally I’ve run across people from my past and, while pleasant, the interaction was strained and awkward from the years of separation and the inevitable changes we have gone through.
So why, then, did I not have the anxiety associated with the potential for such a reunion with my brothers from Desert Storm? Was it because social media had softened the blow of a long overdue reunion? It might be easy to explain away with that, but I’ve reunited with others from my past after communicating through social media and while it certainly eased the awkwardness, there was still an obvious void created over the years. I didn’t have that fear this time. What about the “elephant in the room” that one of our brothers has been diagnosed with the devastating disease ALS? (I’ll talk more about this later, but it really wasn’t an elephant in the room.) Nope. I have also been reunited with others in times of hardship or adversity and there was still an air of apprehension and the polite conversations held in check by the realization that we had little left in common with each other. I’m no psychologist, but I do know that there was a bond formed in the adversity of war that was not broken, weakened, or strained. Driving to Concan, TX, a place I had not visited since I was a small child, in a rented car on unfamiliar roads, I knew I was going home. Not the physical home, but my emotional home. Back to the brothers and sister with whom I share a lifelong bond.
When I pulled my rental car into the dusty parking area of the Frio Country Resort Store and Office, I saw two of my brothers standing on the sidewalk. They were facing, “quartered”, away from me, but I knew their profiles immediately. 26 years had not passed. Todd, Gordon, and I greeted each other immediately with hugs. No hesitation, no awkwardness, just a happy reunion.
We made our way to the lodge we had rented and over the course of the next few hours, the rest of the family arrived. Ben, Andy, and AJ, from Florida, Billy from La Vernia, TX, Lou from Colorado, Tom, Lara, and Trey from the Austin area, all arrived with hugs and seamless conversation. Had it really been 26 years? I would say no, not really. I’ll make an attempt, albeit feeble, to explain.
Lou, Tom, Gordon, Todd and I had deployed to Desert Shield/Storm from Andersen AFB, Guam on December 26th, 1990. Ben, his son Andy, Lara, and Billy were all back on Guam. Steph would arrive in Guam after we had returned in 1991 and would endure further adversity with the rest of us in the late summer and onward in 1991. When we deployed, with the exception of Tom and I, we really didn’t know each other very well. We were, in a way, a new generation of warriors. Lou explained it well when he said we were the first since Vietnam, really, to go to war. Sure, there had been Panama and Grenada, but on a large scale, this was the re-emergence of full-scale war. We were headed into the realm of the unknown for those of us who were post-Vietnam era military members. It was the journey through that unknown that forged our brotherhood.
Brotherhood. I don’t use that term flippantly. There really is no other term to do justice to the relationship forged in the adversity of war and, later, more tragedy. We returned to our support network back on Guam in the summer of 1991. Stephanie had arrived on Guam by then. It was to be a relief. A breath of fresh air, both figuratively and literally, after the smoke filled skies of Southwest Asia. It was not to last. We were soon tasked to facilitate the evacuation of the Philippines after Mount Pinatubo erupted. We were also leading up to an exercise, Operation Midnight Trail. It was that exercise that brought more tragedy, as one of our comrades, Amn Laurie Lucas, was killed and one of our brothers, Sgt Gerald Delp, was injured. We grieved in our own ways, and had returned to a sense of normalcy when another tragedy happened on December 29th, 1991 when another member of our squadron, Sgt Stacy Levay, was killed during a robbery. The bond that had been formed during the war had grown stronger, and had brought in more brothers and sisters who had now gone through more adversity and tragedy with us. I don’t think most civilians have experienced, or can fully comprehend, these types of bonds. Do I wish they could? I’m just not sure. Does one wish on someone the type of adversity required to forge it? These bonds are forged through pain, stress, tragedy and reserved for those who have endured it. Trey, Cade, Colton, and AJ got to witness it at the reunion. If they ever experience it, as parents we will simultaneously be heartbroken over the tragedy that forged it and rejoice over their new ‘forever’ family.
What the kids witnessed was a lot of laughter, reminiscing, gallows humor, and the love of family. We talked, ate, drank, and played games. We swam, sat in the hot tub, and did the ALS ice bucket challenge together. We watched videos and looked at photos from before, during, and after our deployment. We toured the USAF Security Police Museum on Lackland and made a video of conversations about the war and its impact on us. Tom has been diagnosed with ALS and we talked about it. Openly. Honestly. Without pity, which is not what he needed, but instead with support. Likewise, with Ben and his diagnosis of COPD which requires him to bring oxygen with him everywhere he goes. It really wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable. Did I mention it was like how you would expect family to treat each other? Yeah. That. Mostly, we enjoyed the therapeutic effects of reconnecting.
There will be more reunions. We were unable to see many of the ‘family’ because this one was done on relatively short notice. Life got in the way for some and prevented them from joining us this year. It was short notice because of Tom’s diagnosis and we wanted to have this sooner rather than later to allow him the maximum physical enjoyment and comfort of the reunion before the disease limits his mobility. We were able to make some phone calls to a few who couldn’t make it . . . Gerry Delp, who took the time to speak with us only hours after the birth of his new baby boy, Teddy Hampton, who I think we woke from a nap, and Zeke, who took the time to speak to us from work. Hopefully there will be more next year. Dan P., Dan D., Danny, John, Tony, Dinah, Bert, Michael, Mike K., and the list goes on. Spouses and kids will hopefully get to meet their extended family too.
Some reunions will inevitably be for celebrations of life and mourning of loss. I can only speak for myself when I say that these brothers are the ones I want carrying me to my final resting place one day. That will be the ultimate honor for me. Like the biblical quote at the top of this post says, “A friend loves at all times . . . “, and death will not mark the end of that love. The second half of the verse says, “. . . and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Brothers, I truly believe that even before we knew it, we were destined, we were born, to become brothers in our time of adversity. As long as I draw breath, I know there will be adversity for all of us, and through that adversity I will always be your brother, and you will be mine.
Daryl “Country” Sellers