To the Captain I saw at Cracker Barrel 

WELCOME HOME. Welcome back, sir, and welcome home.

Welcome back to the world you once knew, which looks entirely different to you now, which resembles the world you lived in before but seems drawn like a cartoon and scored with music you’ve never heard.

Welcome back to a civilization you couldn’t wait to get back to, but isn’t what you remember at all.

There are people smiling and shaking your hand and slapping your back – actors in a bad play about the life of someone who looks a lot like you. There are signs and banners and parades and picnics and they whirl around you.

You are an observer at the center of everyone’s attention. “Support the Troops!” They yell until they’re hoarse — waving flags and driving cars with yellow magnets, never trying to explain why they weren’t with you there, suffering 130 degree heat, shaking scorpions from their boots and feeling the weight of sand settle in their lungs. Welcome home, sir.

I saw you at Cracker Barrel the other morning, sir. I sat and ate my Old Timer’s Breakfast and laughed with my wife and forgot about my brothers and sisters living every moment of thirteen months in their own hot hell. I would have missed you if I hadn’t looked up when I did from my hash browns and turkey sausage, would have missed that moment I’ll never forget.

I saw your boots first, sir and the brown and tan of your desert camouflage and then your face — a face I knew like my mother’s, like my own. You scanned everyone as you walked through the restaurant toward your table, scanned their faces, evaluated their threat potential and moved on to the next.

Your eyes held mine for only an instant, one of the longest moments of my life, and moved on to the kids at the table behind mine, content that I posed you and your troops not present no danger that morning.

You sat alone then, talking on a cell phone to a buddy, or a woman who wouldn’t know you any more, and I struggled to maintain the peace and happiness I had with my wife only minutes before.

That feeling was gone, though – those minutes had passed and I felt like I would never eat again. Welcome home, sir.

I felt that thing inside — that thing I can’t put words to — which spins and tugs and turns and kicks me when it feels the need to. My wife watched helplessly, trying as always to understand that thing she knows she never will.

I stood and approached your waitress and paid for your meal and she and the others smiled and waved their flags and told me how sweet I was, but I wasn’t feeling sweet. I wasn’t feeling sweet at all.

I stood and began to tremble and needed to approach you and I stepped into your line of sight and interrupted your phone call and held out my hand. I asked you, but I knew you had just returned, and I told you I had been there 18 years before as a Marine corporal and I looked past the false smile you held and into those eyes that had sent me back.

Those eyes that were seeing me now but still held the sight of whatever had happened, whatever you had done over there. Those eyes which would never see things in fluorescent lighting, but forever washed out by a bright foreign, guilty sun.

You thanked me, and I want to believe that just for an instant, you knew I knew who you were. Welcome home.

I felt like running out of there, but I walked to the counter and paid my bill, and held my wife’s hand as we left your presence. In the car she stroked my head silently as I burst into tears.

God sir, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to keep them from sending you over there. I’m sorry for what the rest of your life will be like – for the burn scar you will carry forever on your soul.

I’m sorry for the anger and frustration you will feel when you think that no one understands, that no one could possibly know what you had to do there.

I’m sorry you don’t know what has been done to you. And I’m sorry for the tears you too will shed one day when you do understand.

Welcome home, sir.

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Richard DiPirro

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