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Finding Joy Amidst The Tragedy Of War

military men

Sept. 11, 2001, changed all of our lives, including mine. I suddenly found myself writing as much about the thousands of local men and women – most of them in military reserves and National Guard – who had been sent halfway around the world to fight, and sometimes died, in places like Anbar Province and Kabul as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ground on and on.

I was the reporter at the Enquirer, who, many times, had to knock on the front door of a family who had lost a son or husband in battle to express my sympathies and to ask if they wanted to talk about the lives of their loved ones – what attracted them to the military, what dreams and aspirations they had once they came home.

Often, I would be turned away, and I could not blame them for doing so. I would simply apologize for intruding and tell them I would be praying for their families.

Other times, I would be welcomed into their homes and, over a cup of coffee, I would sit and listen to them talk about the young man they had lost – all that he had accomplished in his too-short life, all that he dreamed of doing some day.

They seemed to want others to know who their son or father or husband was; that he was not just another number in a long list of casualties, but a living, breathing human being with a heart and soul.

I was there to tell their stories.

And I was there when the flag-draped coffins, borne by a military honor guard, were flown into an airport – usually Lunken – and watched as the streets to the funeral home were lined with people paying their respects, from little children waving American flags in their tiny hands to old men in their VFW or American Legion jackets and hats, standing at attention, their right hands raised in salute.

Those images will stay with me forever.

I can't say I enjoyed them, but I did meet some of the finest people I have ever known in the Gold Star families, some who remain friends to this day.

If anyone believes for a moment that journalists revel in reporting tragedies – natural disasters, the loss of life in war, or the madness of an act like the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso – then they are seriously wrong.

We find it hard to imagine the horror and heartbreak the families of the victims go through, but, as journalists, it takes a toll on us as well, telling the same sad stories over and over again.

It is unbearable sometimes.

But, occasionally, in the middle of the chaos and tragedy of war, I had moments of complete, utter joy – and almost all of them had to do with soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors coming home from their tours of duty to be reunited with their families.

Those, too, are moments I won't forget.

One of those moments was in September 2003, at Fort Campbell, the sprawling Army base that straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border, about 300 miles from Cincinnati.

It is home to the 101st Airborne Division – "the Screaming Eagles," a unit legendary for its record in battles in the Normandy invasion to Vietnam to Afghanistan.

The Enquirer sent me down to Fort Campbell for the homecoming, along with photographer Craig Ruttle.

101st airborne division
Credit Christopher Berkey / AP
Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division return from a year of duty in Iraq to Fort Campbell, Ky., Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004.

It was a cold, wet miserable day at Fort Campbell that day, but there were nothing but smiles among the hundreds of family members of the soldiers of the 101st who were returning home from a seven-month deployment in Iraq.

Among the crowd was 21-year-old Loretta Haynes, with her 15-month-old daughter Arielle. For nearly half of her young life, Arielle had known her father only through the photos scattered around the family home.

Loretta would often hold the infant as she kissed a framed photo of a somber, serious-looking soldier in an Army dress uniform – Spc. Gary Haynes, who was to get his discharge from the Army in a few weeks.

Arielle would point at it and mouth one of the few words she knew – Daddy.

That night, she would kiss the real thing.

"Look, Arielle, look," said Loretta, standing in the doorway of the 326th Engineering Battalion, amid the crowd of spouses, children, parents and sweethearts waiting for their loved ones to arrive on a flight from Iraq.

A tall thin, soldier bounded off the bus in the pouring rain, rushed past the crowd in the hall to Loretta and Arielle, who were surrounded by other family members.

"My baby," Gary said, scooping Arielle up in his arms. "My baby."

The little girl stared in his eyes with a glimmer of recognition – it was the man in the picture. Daddy.

"Man, it's good to be back,'' Gary said.

Like thousands of other young soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who went to war to serve their country, Gary had much catching up to do. His life had been suspended for those seven months in Iraq; now he must start over.

"She was just starting to crawl when I left," Gary said.

Loretta had lived with Gary at Fort Campbell before moving in with her parents in Williamsburg in Clermont County, after he deployed.

She knew how much of Arielle's babyhood her husband would be missing, so she videotaped everything – Arielle's first steps, her first Easter, her first words.

"I want him to see it all,'' said Loretta, "just like he was there."

The next morning, the family gathered in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn Express just north of the base, where they had spent the night.

The family gathered in the parking lot that morning as the clouds began to lift and the sun peeked out. Gary had to stay behind for a while, to finish his post-deployment work and wait for his discharge.

Arielle danced around the parking lot, stomping in the puddles the rain had left behind.

While he was deployed, Loretta had sent him one of Arielle's favorite toys, a stuffed monkey named Sandy. It was something of hers he could keep with him.

Sunday night, at the base, he pulled Sandy out of his bag and gave it back to his daughter. She squealed with delight.

Monday morning, she was still clinging to Sandy.

"That monkey's been around," Gary said. "He's home now."

Home again, safe and sound.

It made an old reporter feel so good.

This story first ran on Aug. 9, 2019. 

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here. 

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.