Wednesday, August 25, 2004
'Hooah!' She's home
Army warrant officer Beth Eby, our "Letters from Iraq" correspondent, returns to Roanoke with more stories to tell about her journey home and the people she left behind.
The road home from Iraq was arduous.
As Beth Eby's five-mile-long convoy wended its way through Southern Iraq to Kuwait, a semi-truck crashed head-on into a troop-carrying Humvee, killing two of her fellow soldiers.
Both were heading home from a 15-month tour in Iraq. One had a baby he hadn't yet seen; the other had 10- and 8-year-old sons.
Back at their home base in Germany, where the wives were waiting, neighbors heard the widows' screams from blocks away.
"They could tell somebody had just died," Eby recalled.
Her unit spent two weeks in Kuwait waiting to fly home to Germany, processing what they'd seen. The Roanoke native, a 31-year-old warrant officer, wrote about the experience on The Roanoke Times' "Letters from Iraq" message board, an online diary that began when she landed - amid gunfire - at Baghdad International Airport in January.
At Kuwait's Camp Arijon, they camped in an air-conditioned tent - it was 128 degrees outside - "and you let yourself get as hungry as you could possibly stand" before making the half-mile trek to the mess hall. The heat felt like a hair dryer blowing in your face, she said. "Your eyeballs actually got hot."
When they finally stepped off the plane in Germany, it was a heavenly 70 degrees. A 10-minute ceremony marked the homecoming. "Then the Commander boomed out the highly anticipated command of, 'DISMISSED!' and everyone yelled, 'Hooah!' and ran to their wives and children (and even a couple of dogs were there!)," she wrote. "Everyone was crying."
Friends in Germany had arranged to have Eby's apartment cleaned, her re-frigerator stocked and all her neighbors lining her living room, cheering when she walked in the door. For the first time in months, she had a real beer instead of non-alcoholic Beck's.
"I drank three-quarters of one and was slurring my words," she said, laughing. Then, she climbed under her satin sheets and slept like a boulder.
The trip home to Roanoke to see her parents, Dr. John and Pat Eby, was supposed to be a surprise. The Ebys thought they wouldn't see their daughter until Christmas, but at the last minute Beth was able to fly standby on a military cargo plane to Dover, Del.; the ticket cost $3.50.
She'd e-mailed some friends and family members about the impending visit, but her grandmother accidentally blew the surprise when she couldn't open the e-mail and called Pat Eby for help.
"It was all in divine order," Pat Eby said. "It meant that I got to have the joy of anticipating her arrival."
A week ago Beth arrived in Dover, caught a shuttle to Baltimore, rented a car, then waltzed into the Marine base at Quantico for a shower ("Who else but Beth would have the nerve to do that?" her mother said). On her way home to Roanoke, she spent a night with her brother, Justin, in Richmond.
His co-workers at The Tobacco Company restaurant had her Roanoke Times articles laminated in the kitchen. They'd sent her care packages of music, bug repellent and several bottles of ... PMS medicine. "I was like, 'Does somebody know me? Did [fellow soldier] Sgt. Stone write and ask them to do that?'"
Thursday afternoon, she drove to her folks' Southwest Roanoke County home, where her grandparents, Gene and Maggie Sharpe, her parents and Beth's dog, Guppy, awaited. The humans greeted her with hugs, and the dog leapt onto her stomach.
She talked about the soldiers she'd chronicled on the Web site. She'd run into Sgt. Stone - the one who had the comic run-in with bats - at Ramstein Air Force Base when he'd run back to the airport lobby to get the Spider-Man toy his son accidentally left behind. He asked her to thank John Eby for the book he'd mailed him - all about bats.
Doc Swaims, the eccentric brigade surgeon whose pranks she'd chronicled, had already been to Paris for a vacation and was back in Germany with his family - trying to work on his wife's car while drinking beer at the same time and reportedly not doing a very good job at it.
1st Sgt. Bartnick - aka the soft-hearted "Baghdaddy" - was picking up his children from their grandparents' home in Oklahoma. He and his soldier-wife are moving the kids to their base in Germany.
Of the 22 soldiers Eby supervises, only one was returning to a broken marriage.
"People seem to be doing really well for the most part," she said. "But it may be just the honeymoon phase."
While she's home, she wants to catch a movie at the Grandin Theatre, read a few books and cash in the gift certificate for a pedicure her mom had waiting for her. "Seven months in the desert wearing boots every day, she deserves that," Pat Eby said. They also plan to drive by The Roanoke Times billboard on Interstate 581, where Eby's picture is splashed across the top.
She wants to thank the hundreds of Roanoke Times readers who e-mailed and sent care packages, which she distributed among her fellow troops.
"I was extremely popular with everyone - except for the people carrying the mail," she said.
In a week she'll return to Germany, where she'll train for a new position supervising missile maintenance on Bradley fighting vehicles. Her group is scheduled to redeploy to Iraq next year for a 12-month stint - "but it's all flexible and based on politics and what they'll need at the time."
She plans to continue the Web journal and had already posted a new message entitled "HELLO ROANOKE!!!" Friday morning. "It really helps me process what's happening," she says of her letters.
As she wrote a few weeks ago:
I really wish that I could tell you about deep spiritual lessons that I learned, but right now, I just feel so numb to it. ... It just feels like a big Department of Defense circle to me right now, and thinking about having to go back there, when I just walked in the door - well, it just makes me feel deflated. ...
I had some fun while I was there though, I admit it. I loved being able to stay in touch with you all through e-mail. ... It kind of kept me moving forward mentally, if that makes a lick of sense.
Plus, I met some great people through the bulletin board that just may be pen pals for life. It allowed me to introduce some real characters to you as well, like 1st Sgt. Bartnick, Sgt. Stone, and Doc Swaims. I like being able to share them with you. They are some of the reasons why I stay in the Army.
Beth Eby's e-mails and message-board correspondences are available at roanoke.com.
You can also e-mail her directly at email@example.com.