Monday, June 05, 2006

Welcome home, 155 BCT! (My MS Trip)

PICTURES CAN BE SEEN HERE.

Wow, where do I even BEGIN to tell y'all about this weekend?! To begin at the very beginning for those who don't know the story, I have friends in Meridian, Mississippi, who I met through www.WebofSupport.com. My friend, Janis, is the wife of MS National Guardsman, Norris Galatas, and is a major driving force behind Web Of Support. Janis's husband, Norris, was severely wounded in Iraq on April 19, 2005. It was only by a series of miracles that he survived the IED explosion (and I've seen pics of his wounds and what was left of his truck…not pretty!!!). To this day, poor Norris is still in awful lots of pain and still undergoing major surgeries to fix stuff. Well, anyway, the final, official homecoming ceremony of the 155 BCT was scheduled for Saturday, June 3, to be followed by a free luncheon courtesy of the VFW. It was a really big deal, and Janis really, really wanted me to be there. Well, of course, I really, really wanted to be there, too, but just didn't see any way at all I could get there… definitely was not in the budget!!!! Well, I got the surprise of my life when on Thursday morning, I got a round-trip Delta ticket to Meridian, MS, from Janis!!!! :-) I was to leave Friday night and return to GA Sunday evening. Sounds simple, right?! HAHAHAHA! It was an experience, for sure.

Friday, I left work and took the MARTA train to the airport. My flight was to leave at 8:53 p.m. (EST) and arrive in Meridian at 9:00 p.m. (CST). Janis & Norris were going to pick me up at the airport, and take me to a hotel right near their house, and then we were going to get on the road at about 6:30 the next morning to drive the 85 miles from Meridian to Jackson, Mississippi, to the homecoming ceremony. See? Seemed sooo simple! Ha!

At around 7 or so, a horrible thunderstorm, or series of them, attacked the airport with a vengeance. So, my flight was delayed until approximately 9:37 p.m. Well, no biggie, it's only a 40-minute delay, right? WRONG. Then it was delayed until 10 p.m. Then 11 p.m. Then it was delayed till 12… and 12:30 a.m. Finally, at 12:40 a.m., they announced that the plane had landed, but that the co-pilot had exceeded his number of allowed flying hours, and couldn't fly anymore. They tried to find a replacement co-pilot, but couldn't, so due to lack of staff, the flight was cancelled. ACK! I was flipping out to say the least!!!! They sent us to get booked on another flight…for the next day. Grrr… A few of us disgruntled passengers who just HAD TO get to Meridian decided that we would all chip in together, rent a car, and carpool to Meridian, roughly a 5=hour drive. So, we left the gate, took the train back to the terminal, and went to the rental car place (the only one that was still open at 1:15 a.m.). Guess what? They had NO CARS. Nada. Zip, zero, zilch. All the other places were closed. ARGH!!!!!! I was flipping out…there were NO flights to little-bitty meridian, MS, before 9:48 a.m. the next morning…which was too late, cuz Janis and Norris had to be in Jackson by 8:45 a.m. There were also no flights to Jackson, MS. Finally, one last idea popped into my head. I called Janis and asked if Jackson was drivable to from Meridian. It was only 85 miles, about an hour & a half drive at most. So, I hatched a plan to fly to Meridian on the 9:48 a.m. flight, arriving at 10:00 a.m., and drive from Meridian to Jackson to attend whatever I could of the ceremony. I went back to the ticketing area, and stood in a pathetically long line – AT LEAST 100 people in front of me, AT LEAST – for well over an hour, and got my ticket. (note to self: If ever flying anywhere again, DO NOT wear high heels to airport!). Finally, I got my ticket, and made the long trek back to Concourse C. The trains that carry you between the different concourses was shut down for the night (by this time it was 3 a.m.) and it took me close to 30 minutes to drag myself to Gate C 36. Once there, I found a window area that was unoccupied and curled up on the floor and passed out for an hour. Woke up at 4:30 to nature's call… had to walk all the way back to the restroom by Gate C25. Ugh. Then all the way back to my little "nest" by the window, haha…. Passed out again until about 5:30 or so… by then the air conditioning had made the room roughly a sub-zero temperature, and I couldn't sleep anymore, I was too cold. Woke up, had breakfast, changed clothes (I was only taking carry-on luggage, so I had everything I needed right there), and commenced waiting. Thank God it was a beautiful day – not hardly many clouds at all. Delta continued to torment us by changing the departure gates several times. We bounced from C 36 to C33 to D38 to D 35 back to C 25 again… many times. Finally, the plane showed up on time, and we left and arrived in Meridian at exactly 10 a.m. CST. I was not happy about that plane…it was an teensy-weensy tiny little jet… so little, we actually had to go outside and climb up four or five stairs to board the plane… small planes scare me to death, so I wasn't overly thrilled, hahaha. But, whatever it took to get me there is what I would do, haha! Anyway, got to Meridian, and got my rental car.

By a sheer miracle, I managed NOT to get lost. I entered the coliseum in Jackson, MS at exactly 12 noon – about five minutes after the ceremony started. I didn't miss a thing!!!! Woohoo!!! Roughly 4,000 soldiers were there – almost the entire 155 BCT (except for a few miscellaneous soldiers who did not show up…including, of course, the one we had adopted, hahaha! Oh well… I'd never heard a peep from him the whole time I wrote to him, so it was alright! :-) )

28 members of the 155 BCT were killed in action (27 soldiers, one civilian contractor). I could sympathize… you know our Georgia 48th BCT lost 26. The 27 members' photos were displayed on tables in front of the podium. There was the traditional pair of boots holding an upright rifle, which had a helmet perched on top of it, in between the two tables. At one point, the lights went out in the stadium, with only a single beam of light illuminating the rifle/helmet, while the names of the 27 lost were read. Then, bagpipes played "Amazing Grace," and, of course, a trumpet played "Taps." That was really, really hard. The rest of the ceremony is a blur… the Governor of MS made a speech, a general made a speech, other people made speeches, etc. The last thing that was done was a "Change of Command" ceremony, as the Commander of the MS National Guard was moving on to other things, and a new Commander was taking his place. I guess the whole thing lasted about an hour or so.

When the ceremony was over, Janis took me down to the floor of the coliseum so that she could find her hubby and talk with the soldiers she knew. I met a Colonel, who told me quite emphatically what a difference "Web of Support" made to his soldiers while they were deployed. He said we'll never know just how much it meant and how much good it did for them… and he thanked me. He was dead serious, looked me right in the eye and told me how much it meant to those soldiers who were adopted to get mail from home. I was like… "WOW." I was so tired though, I couldn't think of anything profound to say… I just shook his hand and said, "Thank you, sir." Somewhere in the back of my fuzzy brain it registered that I was chatting with a Colonel, haha…but I was too tired to be nervous, hahaha!!!!! We met other soldiers, too. There was one kid who was there, I don't remember his name, but I'll never forget him. He was standing there on the front row, leaning on two crutches. He looked like he was in his early, early 20s… a baby. He had faint scars all over his face – not tons of them, but enough to where you could notice them. He was on crutches because he had both legs amputated, courtesy of an Improvised Explosive Device. But by golly, he had promised when it happened that come heck or high water, he'd be there STANDING on the front row when his unit came home… and darned if he wasn't doing exactly that! God bless him – what an awesome kid he was – lots of spunk! :-)

And, of course, I got to meet Janis's husband, Sgt. Norris Galatas, who I've heard so much about over the past year or so!!!! And he was very awesome…just a great, funny, laid-back country fella. :-) He's due to fly back to Walter Reed on or about June 23, to see about more surgery… he essentially has no abdominal muscles, and the only thing holding him together is a skin graft. Hopefully they will be able to reverse the colostomy, too, this time, if he's healed up enough. He's got all kinds of painful nerve damage, too, which, according to him, is worse than anything because nothing really helps pain caused by nerve damage. Not even the heavy-duty painkillers he needs just to be able to make it from day to day and manage the pain.

After the ceremony, there was a free BBQ lunch courtesy of the VFW. I met their friends, Perrin & Chris… we all ate together. Chris was over in Iraq with Norris. They were great – an absolute riot. We all ate, and then made the long drive back to the airport so I could return my car. Then, Janis & Norris dropped me off at the Super 8 Motel in Meridian, so I could get a shower & sleep before dinner. I have never in my life been so glad to get a shower as I was on Saturday!!!!!!

I finally laid down at 5:20 p.m. (CST) and passed out immediately, until the phone rang @ 7 p.m. – Janis & Norris were on their way to pick me up for dinner. We went to the Cracker Barrel there in Meridian – Cracker Barrel is one of my favorite restaurants. I felt somewhat more human by then, haha! After a great meal, back to the hotel I went, where I crashed at about 9:30 and slept like a rock until about 8:45 the next morning. Janis picked me up for breakfast (Cracker Barrel again) and then we just spent the day hanging out & chattering away about anything & everything, and worked a little on cards for Operation: Thanks for Freedom.

We went by their farm to see their three horses and check in on Norris, who was out there taking care of some things.

At 4:00, Janis & I went to the airport to catch my (supposed) 5:25 p.m. flight back to Atlanta. Norris showed up shortly after we got there, as did their friends, Perrin & Chris.

There were three soldiers waiting to get on the same flight (that flight had a total of 12 passengers). Janis started a conversation with them and told them all about my excellent misadventures in getting to Meridian, hahah! We were all just laughing and chatting away and having a good ole time. I took their pictures, had Janis take pictures of me with them, etc.


Then, I had a bright idea. Janis had given me a T-shirt that said, "Operation Iraqi Freedom: Supporter" (Norris had one that said "Operation Iraqi Freedom: Veteran"). On the back it advertised "Dixie Thunder" – a motorcycle ride scheduled for next week, to raise money to help the families of the wounded of the 155 BCT. She had suggested we have Norris autograph it. I got a bright idea… let's get ALL OF THEM to autograph it!!! Haha! So, Norris signed my shirt (NO I was not wearing it at the time, haha – I was wearing something else!), then Chris signed it, then the other three soldiers signed it. One of them drew a replica of their unit's insignia by his name…it was really cool.

Once I read their names, I about had a heart attack… I didn't realize I'd been casually joking and chatting with a Major, a Command Sergeant-Major, and a MAJOR GENERAL!!!!!!! Ack! Oh well…by then I was already "used to them" so I wasn't all intimidated and nervous like I would have been if I'd realized it before, haha! The General had given me his business card earlier & I promised to email him copies of the pictures I took… but I hadn't really LOOKED at it and noticed the "Major General" rank, haha – I just kinda glanced at it and stuffed it in my purse, haha! (Note to self: PAY ATTENTION, DINGBAT!)

My hubby called me at around 5 p.m. CST to let me know there were thunderstorms in ATL… guess what? My flight got delayed! Ack! I was having flashbacks!!!! Poor Norris eventually had to leave around 6 – he was tired & hurting, so he needed to rest. I thought it was awfully sweet that he'd come out to the airport at all to see me off. :-) Janis, Perrin & Chris stayed with me until my flight finally boarded around 7:30 or so (CST) and didn't leave the airport till my flight took off at around 8-ish. With the time change & all, I finally landed back in ATL around 10:30 or so, I think. I got off the plane & went inside the airport, and waited by the escalators till my soldier buddies came in. I shook their hands and thanked them for their service, and they each said they appreciated what I & my friends do for the troops… I said, "Aw shucks, no, WE appreciate YOU!" But the Major, the C.S.M. and the Major General each reiterated what the Colonel told me Saturday…tangible support from home is absolutely, extremely important to the morale and well-being of deployed troops and makes all the difference in the world. I can now say I've personally heard that same sentiment from soldiers ranking from Private to Major General and various ranks in between… those soldiers out there need us, and they need to know we support them unconditionally and that they are not forgotten! I of course had given each of them my "Loganville Parade Committee" business card with my email address, and written on there two of the troop-support organizations I volunteer with. The Major told me she would definitely check out the websites, and that she'd email me so I could send her copies of the pictures I took at the airport. Hopefully she will – that would be too cool!

Anyway, I finally got home around midnight, and was sound asleep by 12:30.

All in all, it was an experience I'll NEVER forget!!!

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