The glint of sunshine off of the Boeing 757’s wings was blinding. Under the American Airlines livery, the silver aluminum aircraft works as a reflector and at Naval Air Weapons Station Pt. Mugu not far from where I live, the tarmac is an expanse of unshaded concrete and summer sun reflecting, hiding shadows and desert-like, all absorbing.
I watched the aircraft on final approach as I drove toward the base to meet my media contact there. I was a little nervous because I was told that the flight I was waiting for would not arrive for another hour. I called Shane and he assured me that he didn’t know which aircraft this was, but it was not Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Five returning from eight months on duty in the Pacific.
At the guard gate, credentials shown, name registered, I followed Shane into the landing ramp where the airliner sat. Doors open, flight stairs loaded at the front and rear of the aircraft and the generator whirring away preparing for engine start-up, the families of NMCB Five wondered too what the civilian airliner was doing there. At that moment, Navy officials, iphones in hand, reported that the chartered World Airways MD-11 aircraft carrying NMCB Five was turning on final and would be landing within the next 20 minutes. There was a minor cheer from the assembled crowd, some with newborn babies who had not yet met their fathers, some who were brothers and sisters waiting, husbands who tended the home-fires while their wives were away. A military troop homecoming is always emotional and it never gets old.
As the breeze picked up and the cool ocean air softened the summer sun, the roar and rumble of buses coming down the access road was audible. In front, three police car and three police motorcycle escorts led the way, drove right past us and over to the awaiting 757. It was the Dallas Cowboys, who make their summer home in the adjacent town of Oxnard, and they were boarding the flight to Oakland to play the Raiders.
Their buses were shiny new motor coaches and their police escort remains a mystery-why do they need it? Flight attendants and the captain and first officer were waiting at both the top and the foot of the stairs to welcome the V.I.P.’s. They boarded, the doors were closed and the engines started.
In the distance, the bright landing lights of the Seabee’s plane came into view and as it touched down, the 757 powered up and turned toward the runway, the two aircraft passing each other as one readied to unload, the other headed skyward.
When the Seabees came off the plane, the scene was nearly readied cinema. My favorite image that was printed in the newspaper alongside the story I wrote (I was not allowed to reprint the image here and in order to see it, you must subscribe) was of a Seabee husband meeting his daughter for the first time as his wife held up a sign saying, “Hi Daddy! I’ve waited my whole life to meet you!” It’s a beautiful and touching moment as this warrior gently holds his porcelain doll of a daughter, only two months old.
As the Cowboy’s plane split the clouds, police escort moving back to wherever they came from, the cabin crew preparing drinks and small snacks for the less than one-hour flight, the Seabees stretching their legs down the steps from their airplane had been flying since the previous day–from Okinawa to Alaska and then from Alaska to the base. The men and women who didn’t have families waiting for them boarded plain white school buses that would take them to the processing center where they would rejoin their stateside lives for at least a few months until the next deployment.
The contrast was stark between the two stories. Though I was not there to write about the football team, I was surprised that they couldn’t or didn’t stop for just a few minutes to welcome home the Seabees. What a great press opportunity they had before them–a chance to say thank you to the men and women who allow them, for the sake of convenience, to use a secure Navy facility to get to their next game, to make their next million dollars, to fly in true comfort, dressed easily in designer slacks and shirts. Not even 1o minutes? Not even a hand-shake or thank you?
Schedules to keep, places to go, I know. But here was a clear view of the values of a society on display and it was a bit disturbing. Our military has been overworked, overstretched and overused of late. The suicide death rate has climbed astronomically as warriors ill-prepared for more than a year on combat duty, come home to find themselves unable to adapt to a relatively peaceful life. As I awaited the Seabees return, I spoke to a young woman, part of NMCB Three, a media relations representative. She was getting ready to deploy to the Pacific herself in a few days. Her husband, also a Seabee, is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Night terrors, sweats, panic and fear of loud noises all visit him regularly. He’s getting help and therapy and he’s doing better, but she worries about him–and she’s about to leave for half a year while he struggles to maintain a normal life. He’ll be discharged soon, mainly because of the PTSD, and she’s told him to take the six months off, that she’ll support him and get him whatever he needs to be OK again.
The Cowboys lost their game to the Raiders by two points on Friday. They already came back to Pt. Mugu and are preparing for next week’s game. The Seabees are just beginning to get adjusted to life at home with their loved ones, new children, new situations, reconciliation of old relationships that perhaps soured a little while they were gone.
Sometimes, life’s most poignant ironies force us all into humble submission. And the only response to it is to wonder why.