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The Homecoming of the 2/9

March 18, 2011

By R.W. Hampton

The night of February 10 found me in Camp Lejeune, NC, to welcome home the 2nd Battalion 9th Marines from their combat deployment in deadly Marjah, Afghanistan. More specifically, I was waiting for my oldest son, Platoon Sergeant Cooper Hampton of Golf Company. This was Coop’s second deployment, so the waiting was not new; but somehow, with the constant flow of almost instant information via email and Facebook, the months passed by slow and long.

I had made a conscious decision from the start to be “in the know.” This meant being familiar with Helmand Province, its people, geography, topography, politics, customs and even weather. Our clock on the fireplace mantle was set to Marjah time, 10 ½ hrs later than our Mountain Standard Time.

Platoon Sgt. Cooper Hampton on patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Being “in the know” also meant starting and ending every day checking emails, Facebook and the news reports, trading information and updates with other family members. Even though our boys had no electricity or running water at their FOB (Forward Operating Base), we were able to receive short messages and even photos by virtue of generator-powered laptops. At times when all communication ceased, we knew we had lost one of our boys and the next of kin were being contacted. Through photos, video clips and short messages, we knew that our boys were “mixing it up” with the Taliban on an almost daily basis.

And so it seems in a strange way that somehow the lives of these young warriors, their families and our lives are forever entwined, and that on some level we, too, had fought and experienced the joys, sorrows, victories and losses.

It was all of these things and more that had my heart full and running over that cold, wet night. Along with dozens of others, I crowded into a Marine base gymnasium to wait. The scene could best be described as like a Norman Rockwell painting where people of all ages, carrying banners and balloons, eating hotdogs and drinking coffee, were passing the time visiting, playing bingo and doing crossword puzzles. There were grandpas and grandmas, moms and dads, and pretty young women dressed in their finest pushing baby strollers. Charlie Daniels’ music played over an ancient P.A. system that also brought us an occasional update on the status of our loved ones.

We were told that our boys had flown from Germany to the Marine Corps air base at Cherry Point, NC, and were being bused from there to Camp Lejeune. Although I’d never set foot in that gymnasium before, I felt as much at home there as any place I’ve ever been before or since. I felt as if I’d walked into a church social that had no beginning or end, no specific time or location. Just anywhere, anytime USA.

The spell was broken when a fella with a strong New England accent walked up and said, “You must be Coop’s dad.” 

“You got that right!”

My new Yankee friend explained, “I’m Nate’s dad!”

We visited a while, then a new update came over the P.A.: Fox and Golf Companies were on base. They’d check in their weapons at the armory and be marching in soon. They’d be here in 30 minutes to an hour.

You could feel the level of excitement grow as folks lined up to use the restroom and get one more cup of coffee before going out into the cold, damp, North Carolina night. As I refilled my coffee cup, a man beside me, sporting a ball cap that read “Proud Grandfather of a US  Marine” was doctoring his coffee with a little Red Stag whiskey.

“Want some?” he asked.

“You bet!” I said, “If there was ever a night to celebrate, this is it!”

“Amen to that!” was his reply.

I looked at the clock. It was a little after 11 p.m. I got a little nostalgic thinking that almost 24 years ago I was anxiously awaiting my son’s arrival into the world. Now here I was, waiting for that same son, no longer an infant but a hardened combat veteran, to return home from yet another world. Somehow I find that this waiting is just as intense as that first waiting was so long ago. And the questions are the same, too. What will he look like? How will he be? Will he be glad to see me? What will I say? How strange, I thought, these circles life takes us in.

Platoon Sgt. Cooper Hampton

As I look around I see that others are dealing with these strange emotions as well, and I’m glad we’re all going out into the night together where tears of joy and raw emotion can have their way. I watch as a lovely young woman checks her makeup one last time while another tells her three young kids that “Daddy’s on his way!” An older couple readies their balloons; they even have a bottle of champagne to open. I nervously fumble for my phone to send a quick text to the family back home, “It won’t be long now!”

As folks are making their final preparations, it occurs to me this scene is as old as time itself. Many, if not most, have had long, hard trips to get to this place. All have been waiting for hours, but no one is complaining, just counting down the moments, the seconds! This scene has played out for as long as men and women have gone to war.

My thoughts are interrupted when a woman at the gym entrance calmly but urgently announces, “They’re coming!” All talking stops as everyone heads for the door and out into the night. It is pitch black, but almost as if by instinct people line up around the edges of the cold, wet parade ground. Not a word is spoken and not a sound can be heard but that of marching boots as they get louder and louder. Eyes strain to see in the blackness and then, like ghosts, I can see the silhouettes of men getting closer. Then, in perfect formation, they halt in front of the waiting crowd. Faceless and unidentifiable, yet only an arm’s length away. Time and breathing seemed to have stopped as one lone voice said, “At ease, men. Well done and welcome home. You are dismissed!”

The waiting crowd started making their way forward to find their loved ones. Some called out names, while others held up cell phones to see. As I waded into the crowd to start my search, I could faintly make out forms as they reunited and quietly slipped away. In the shadows I could see couples locked in embrace, oblivious to their surroundings, as if they were earth’s only inhabitants. I saw tall, straight, young, fighting men holding tiny babies for the first time, and whole families, holding each other, laughing, crying, as if one. I could hear children crying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” I felt almost as if I was on Holy ground as I wandered through these scenes looking for my son.

“Cooper, Coop, Sergeant Hampton!” I called over and over, each time a little louder until a faceless voice said, “He’s in here somewhere, sir, just saw him.”

“Thanks,” I said as I wandered on. Finally I stopped and stood but an arm’s length away from a silhouette that I knew that I knew. After what seemed like forever, a strong voice said, “Dad!” and my not so strong reply, “Coop, oh son, my son, you big, beautiful son of a bitch, God bless ya, welcome home!” I held his face in my hands, making sure this was not a dream. We hugged as men do, laughed, cried, slapped each other on the back – afraid to turn loose, as if this was not real and would all go away.

The circle was complete.

19 Responses

  1. Phyllis Nixon Hudson says:

    RW, you are such a great writer. I could picture every part, because of you words. When my son came back from Iraq, we were not able to go and meet him, but his fiance’ did. She posted a video that was the same scene that you described even though it was Army and a different place. The emotions are still the same, tears of pride, relief, and lots of love. So glad that your son is home safe. And I am happy to announce that my Army son and his wife are expecting our first grandchild. But of course since they are Army, we won’t get to see them as much as we want to, but we plan on doing a bit more traveling!

  2. Bob Kinford says:

    Glad to hear Cooper is home safe. We have a son in the Marines and the time drags when he is deployed; and such a relief when he comes safely home!

  3. Denver Darling says:

    RW and family,
    I must admit, reading this post takes me back a few years to when we first met in Monterey, CA. at the poet and music festvial. Standing at the hotel desk, you asked Lisa if she had seen Denver…Little did I know that the Denver you was asking about was your own young son who was celebrating his 12th birthday, not me. From that moment forward, I was ever to be a RW fan. As Phyllis so rightly states, your writing is much like a wonderful canvas, a caliedscope of activity that I can almost hear you reciting on stage, backed up by the soft melodious strumming of a fine guitar. While time seems to sometimes stand motionless, it never does. The ebb and flow of life forever etches its fingerprints in the trails we walk. I stand with all of the proud parents including you who have so valiantly defended the cause of freedom and the passion we have for God and Country. May God Bless and keep you, and your all of your family.

  4. Denver Darling says:

    Pardon me…”kaleidoscope”…

  5. John Edwards says:

    RW
    Thank you for your stirring account of the homecoming of the 2/9. I continue to fly the Marine Corp flag that you presented to me nearly three years ago in honor of Cooper and his fellow Marines. Thank God for Cooper’s safe return and Thank God for young men and women like Cooper who are willing to defend our nation. We will continue to keep Cooper in our prayers and celebrate his return to his loving family.

    Semper Fi,

    John Edwards

  6. Barbara Randles says:

    What a beautiful story. You words were so fine. Hope the day come when we can experience the same thing with our grandson. He has no way of communicating with right now. It is going to be a long year.

  7. Mr. Hampton, I am so proud to say I live in a country where young men like your son provide us with our liberties… You and your blog have shown me how great people in this country think and most act to protect our privlages when we go to war. My brother is a Marine, and you have shown us by letting us get a little closer to you and yours that we are very blessed to have men in combat like your son and so many others. I watched a movie recently called “Hurt Locker”. I believe that it shows so much reality in this war. I felt like I was there and afraid for our men. Keep updating us with your wisdom and articles. You have a knack for this.!

  8. Jan Bippes says:

    I remember when my son came home. He was in the Army- 82nd Airborne. I cried harder at the relief when he got out of the army than I did for any of his deployments or home comings during his service. He’s been home now for 2 years.

  9. Bill Meador says:

    Sgt. Cooper Hampton, Welcome home Marine! We are so proud of you all for your service. I know there is none more proud than your Dad. Hope to be able to see you & the family again sometime soon and shake your hand. Semper Fi!!!!!

  10. Matt McCormick says:

    RW, thank you for writing about Coop’s return. It brought me right back to when my wife and I were waiting at Camp Lejeune for our son, Tim, to return with the 5/10 in February of last year and the joy when we finally saw him. God Bless the United States Marines Corp and all Marines.

  11. Eula Keese says:

    I, too, Have waited for 3 brothers, 2 nephews and my precious son to return. The story was great!!

  12. A A Crocker says:

    RW,
    As a serving Soldier and a Platoon Sergeant, I was blessed by your words of encouragement from a father’s point of view. You gave me in your words a view I never was able to hear from my father on the numerous time I have deployed over my twenty plus years of the Army career. He was of a generation that you don’t explain or share your feelings. But I know that he was proud of my service to our great Country as you are of your son’s. I know this by the look in his eyes when he saw me in uniform. Thank you for sharing your time with your son coming home. It is a blessing.
    Sincerely,
    A A Crocker
    HQ PLT SGT
    779 EN CO(H)

  13. David Jesseph says:

    Cooper-
    Many thanks for your service and your willingness to face up to all you have come up against in your few short years… My condolences on your losses.

  14. Kirk Sours says:

    RW,
    Semper Fi from one Marine dad to another. I saw this blog on WR and wanted to check out your website. I saw a stat somewhere that said something like 79% of those currently in Armed Forces come from small town and rural America. Of those most come from an ag influenced home, America’s farms and ranches. We raise these kids with an inborn patriotism, and appreciation for freedom that seems to draw them into service of country.

    I’m very happy for you with your son’s homecoming and I hope you pass on to him my “Welcome Home” and “Thank You”. My son is currently at Lejeune, training for deployment to Afghanistan later this summer. I look forward to sharing your experience at homecoming.

  15. Mark says:

    Welcome home Sgt. Hampton and thank you for your service !!

  16. Marcia Jolley says:

    I just welcomed my son home, Homecoming of the 3/9, from Marjah. Your son made it safer for my son. Thank you! Your words put it beautifully; am so grateful that you were able to put into words what I could not.

  17. Roy Bale says:

    R.W, great story, well written. If you ever lose your singing voice (Heaven forbid) you could take up writing. I’ve talked to you only a couple times, at Abilene and Elko, but feel like I’m your friend. You and Don Edwards are two of the nicest entertainers I have ever spoken with. May the Good Lord continue to bless you richly.
    Roy Bale
    Linden, Texas

  18. Kirk Brock says:

    Interesting that I come across this post looking up, as you did, several things about the region my son is deploying. The most ironic thing is that he is also in 2/9 in Camp Lejeune… It will be his first deployment, and the unknown is frustrating as I know it is much different than my Navy service and deployments. I’m just glad he is with the best group he could be with. Thanks for shedding light on the conditions that he may be spending his time. Great story!!! I thank your son and others serving for their unselfish service…

  19. lisa m says:

    thank you so much for writing this. our young man is also with 2/9 and as we getting closer to the date of his long-awaited return i find myself also feeling like i did when i was awaiting the birth of my kids. the emotions are very close….god bless every one of our boys and may they all return home to us!

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