The long-awaited reunion finally happened as July came to an end.
My nephew, my sister’s son Tyler Daugherty, had arrived safe at home on United States soil after serving seven months in Afghanistan with the United States Marine Corps.
He had volunteered to go just before Christmas last year when he was barely home from a tour in Iraq.
The last weekend in July was time for the family to get together and say welcome back. A large group of friends was also invited.
Caleb and I traveled to Sanford, N.C., where my sister lives with her husband Don, for the event.
Arriving Friday night, we began three days that would include a healthy amount of old fashioned family time, the kind where people sit around, talk and the only thing anyone worries about is the next meal.
Early Saturday afternoon, the first group to arrive for the welcome home celebration was four of Tyler’s Marine buddies. It was obvious Tyler, Phil, J.T. and Stephen were all close. All had served together and all are coming to the end of their five-year commitments.
Tyler will leave the Marine Corps at the end of September, two days before J.T. Phil was celebrating the last day of his enlistment the weekend we were all together. Stephen had put in his papers for a one-year re-enlistment and was waiting for his answer.
Watching them, there was an almost unbelievable sense of loyalty. Hearing them talk, their sense of honor was amazing.
Soon my sister’s friends started showing up for the celebration cookout.
Later, after almost everyone left, the Marine stories started. I simply sat back and listened, learning some of the things these servicemen had experienced.
Tyler showed several pictures of what Afghanistan had been like.
Early tales were mostly light-hearted.
Tyler told of going 30 days without a shower. When some of the men started complaining, he told about a staff sergeant that shared how, during Desert Storm, his unit went 45 days without a shower. The stiffness was so bad, the collars of their tee shirts cut into the men’s necks.
Tyler was part of one of the biggest invasions in Afghanistan. He shared how, soon after U.S. forces occupied their objective, he was sleeping in a two-man tent. A helicopter gunship flew over at an altitude of about 50 feet, doing a gun run, spraying a Taliban force.
Sleep, by the way, was a stretch of the imagination. Four straight hours was a blessing. Most nights saw Marines getting two hours.
Then the stories got deeper. J.T. shared the bad news of a fellow Marine who lost both legs. But, his wife had not left him. That woman’s praises were sung long and loud. Here again, loyalty and honor meant everything.
Tyler talked about “one of only two” times he thought his number was up. He was in the lead vehicle in a convoy following the same route that had seen a similar convoy hit hard the day before. There had been several casualties.
He talked about how all the Marines in the vehicle were noticeably silent. At the end of the ride, when all were safe, he was the one to speak up. It turns out, the silence had not come from fear. No one wanted to have their mouth open and run the risk of biting off their tongue had they been blown up.
Tyler’s battalion suffered several casualties in Afghanistan. I did not ask for numbers, I jut listened.
Then, there was the recognition expressed for one friend, one obviously close friend, who did not come back. The sacrifice will never be forgotten.
Freedom is not cheap. It should not be taken for granted. Sometimes, imagining how much these words really mean is impossible. Then, an opportunity comes along to get a small glimpse into freedom’s price tag.
Thank a serviceman or woman. Then say a prayer for all those still fighting.
Harbison is publisher of The News Observer in Blue Ridge, Ga., where this column first ran. He can be reached at 706-632-2019 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.