At least a million feelings were passing through me at any given moment, but one thing I definitely wasn't feeling was alone. Hundreds of people swarmed around me as I waited impatiently in the beaming California sun for five long hours.

People with balloons, and flags, and enormous signs that called out in big bold letters, "Welcome Home, Baby!" and "Proud of You." Strangers, moms, dads, friends, pregnant wives all buzzed around on the hot pavement of that parking lot at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, bumping into each other as they talked, laughed, hugged, and made beelines for the free cookies.

Myself, my parents and two of my aunts were crowded in among them: It took four of us to hold all of our balloons and the big long banner we’d brought all the way from Wisconsin to welcome my younger brother, Matt, back to the States.

Matt and I with our parents, Tim and Karen Nitke, at the homecoming ceremony in 2011. (Submitted Photo)
Matt and I with our parents, Tim and Karen Nitke, at the homecoming ceremony in 2011. (Submitted Photo)

I paced, then stood, then sat in the bleachers, then paced, then stood again, watching the skies for a plane, the road for a bus. Listening for the sound of marching feet. But nothing. The guys were running late.

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Mom tightened her lips and wiped goosebumps off her arms. Dad distracted himself by chatting up another father and former Vietnam-era Marine like himself. Kids danced to happy hip-hop and feel-good rock 'n roll songs supplied by an apologetic DJ on the scene -- "I'm so sorry things are taking so long, folks," he kept repeating into his microphone.

"The unofficial motto of the military," Dad said under his breath: "'Hurry up and wait.'"

But we had already waited so long.

Girlfriends were waiting now to be sights for sore eyes, wearing their highest heels, tightest skirts and pushiest push-up bras. Others showed their support in 3/5 Darkhorse t-shirts. A few little girls were dolled up like proud little princesses. I saw a baby wearing a onesie that said, "I get to meet my daddy today."

Some people wore uniforms. One young man in uniform was being wheeled around by a petite girl with long black hair; he lost all but part of one limb to an IED (improvised explosive device). I was told the couple was still planning to get married in Vegas this summer.

He, along with several other soldiers who came to the ceremony in wheelchairs, later lined up at the very front of the Presentation Deck to be the first to welcome home their brothers-in-arms, coolers full of beer at the ready.

Sacrifice surrounded us all, yet spirits were high. This day was reserved for celebration. They made it back. They survived. And this was the day we had all been holding our breaths for…

***

That was a column I wrote in May 2011 for my then-employer, the Grand Rapids Herald-Review newspaper. I called it, "Homecoming."

It’s been nearly 10 years since that homecoming ceremony, and I no longer recall how much longer my family and the rest of the eager crowd had to wait before the guys finally arrived. But I still remember exactly how it felt to see Matt after seven long months of worrying and wondering whether I’d ever see him again. It felt like a lump in the throat and a heart full of pride. Like wet eyes and a heavy chest. It was a huge, happy relief, and one of the most emotional moments I’d ever experienced.

Eight years my junior, Matt was and will always be a “little” brother to me. Never mind that he outgrew me in height before he could even drive and by adulthood was bulky enough to stretch the sleeves of his t-shirts.

His senior year of high school, when he announced his plan to join the Marines after graduation, it seemed a natural fit. He had the grit for it, the strength, the self-confidence, and the clean-cut type of personality that seems to excel in the military. Plus, our dad was in the Marines, so there was a family history there.

As it turned out, Matt was a model Marine. He proved to be an excellent marksman and became a sniper. He always got along well with the other guys, and his muscles somehow got even bigger. Months would go by in-between visits and it seemed like every time we saw him, he looked more and more like The Hulk.

But when he came back from Afghanistan, he was the thinnest I’d seen him in years. He was still cut, but those t-shirt sleeves flapped in the breeze now. He didn’t seem unhappy, but an unfamiliar cloudy look in his eye made it plain that the past seven months had not been easy on him.

His unit suffered terrible losses. Stationed in the Sangin area of Helmand Province -- considered the most dangerous territory on Earth at the time due to a heavy Taliban presence, drug trafficking and hidden IEDs all over the place -- Matt was part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, India Company. He and about 1,000 other Marines made up the so-called "3/5 Darkhorse” infantry battalion, a group that became the subject of national media attention and, later, a book by Bing West called “One Million Steps,” a documentary called, “For the 25,” and a permanent memorial in Leguna Hills, California.

The battalion became so noteworthy because of the horrible bloodshed it endured in Sangin. The 3/5 Marines lost 25 in action, and more than 200 lost limbs or were otherwise badly wounded, mostly in the first two months of their tour — the heaviest casualties of any battalion during the war in Afghanistan.

Matt talks about his experience very little with me, but what I do know breaks my heart. He lost a friend and comrade -- one whom he was walking right beside when the IED that killed him was triggered. The force of that explosion threw Matt onto his backside and gave him lifelong back problems. He also has permanent hearing loss from bullets that whizzed right by his ears in the fields, just inches from his head. He told me once that he didn't think he'd be coming home.

Mike, the youngest of us three siblings, was in the Marines for several years and, like our brother Matt, also served in Afghanistan -- for two weeks, he and Matt were there at the same time. (Submitted Photo)
Mike, the youngest of us three siblings, was in the Marines for several years and, like our brother Matt, also served in Afghanistan -- for two weeks, he and Matt were there at the same time. (Submitted Photo)

My other brother, Mike, a year younger than Matt, also went into the Marines. Much to the worry of my poor mother, he, too, was stationed in Afghanistan for a time, although his job was to work on aircraft navigation systems, a role that kept him centered inside a large base in Kandahar and thus was considerably safer than Matt’s much more exposed role in the infantry.

Mike stayed in the Marines for a few years longer than Matt, but is now, like his older brother, safe and sound and doing just fine back in the civilian world. They're very fortunate. They both seem to prefer to focus on the present and keep their time at war in the past.

That’s not to say they don’t remember. On the contrary, I’m sure there’s no way they could ever forget. As their big sister, I know I never will. I’ll always remember that constant feeling of anxiousness I had while they were overseas; the rush of dread I’d get whenever I’d glimpse a headline about U.S. troops being killed; the crazy feeling I’d get sometimes that one of them was right there next to me, even when I knew they were thousands of miles away.

Today, a decade after feeling that rush of relief upon Matt's return, years after watching him marry, have kids, and grow into a good-hearted, successful person, it's important to me to never forget what it’s taken to get here. To never forget the sacrifices that have been made. To always remember that freedom really isn’t free. And to be forever thankful for all those who have served.

***

In honor of our veterans on Veterans Day, the Detroit Lakes Tribune is publishing tributes to local servicemen and women, past or present, at no cost.

If there is a veteran in your life that you would like honored in the newspaper, send a headshot photo along with the veteran’s name, title and branch of service, to me, Marie Johnson, at mtjohnson@dlnewspapers.com by Thursday, Nov. 3.

Or mail in your photo/information by then to: Detroit Lakes Newspapers, ATTN: Marie Johnson, 511 Washington Avenue, Detroit Lakes, MN 56501. Photos will be returned if you provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

The tributes will be published inside the Veterans Day issue of the Tribune. Again, there is no cost involved. Call 218-847-3151 with questions.