As the year began, news was emerging from China about something called a coronavirus. At the same time, nearly 3,000 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team left Fort Bragg on a short-notice deployment.
They were being sent to the Middle East in response to unrest in the region.
The pandemic delayed their return, but now the soldiers are coming back to a changed nation and a changed military – starting with their homecoming.
At Fort Bragg it’s almost routine to celebrate the return of large units back from combat zones. And redeployment, as it's called, usually starts with a happy ritual: The soldiers fly back to Pike Field on base, file off the planes, then stand in formation for a brief ceremony as a crowd of friends and family look on.
Then, finally, they’re released into a crowd of family and friends.
But social distancing orders have made that scene impossible. Family members aren’t allowed at the airfield, and many haven’t even come onto the base because of restrictions on visitors and travel. A handful, though, have started a new ritual for waves of troops returning almost daily now: They gather in a small parking lot near the airfield and wait for the busloads of soldiers to drive past.
The buses aren’t allowed to stop, so both sides just wave and shout.
Among about 30 carloads of friends and family members in the parking lot on a recent afternoon were Carolyn Fitzwater, her two grown daughters and teenage son.
Fitzwater said she comes every time a planeful lands, no matter that her husband won’t be on one of those planes for at least a few more days.
“So today is the third kind of installment of I think we're dubbing it the 'Pike Field parades,'” she said. “We're just welcoming home the buses. We've got all our ready-made signs. Some of us have Christmas lights, not me because I wasn't cool enough to figure out how to plug them in.”
Soldiers who normally live nearby with family go to a drop-off site where one family member is allowed to pick them up. Then they head home for a two-week quarantine. The rest are taken to a tent camp on base or designated barracks for their quarantine. None of the soldiers has tested positive, but the precaution has become standard for returning troops.
Fitzwater says it’s important to come out for every plane so soldiers have at least have some kind of warm homecoming ritual.
“The first night I don't think they knew. It was dark, and I think they were a little confused,” she said. “We did one two nights ago, I think. That one was amazing because they were out the windows hollering back and you could tell that they were excited it was happening.
She said that the makeshift welcome was different in ways that she didn’t expect.
“Sometimes it's even harder, I think, to leave without a paratrooper in your car after you're welcoming them home, but it is what we do,” she said. “This is our way of life.”
It’s not just being the wife of a paratrooper that’s driving her, she said, but also being mother to another: her 20-year-old daughter Houstyn, who’s standing beside her, is in the 82nd.
Houstyn just got notice she’ll be deploying soon for the Middle East. She said coming out to the parking lot celebrations, just like going to the bigger homecomings before the pandemic, was part of being in a military family and something that she could appreciate now even more.
“Since I was a little girl, I always was here supporting my dad and his units,” she said. “So now being a paratrooper, it's kind of nice to know that there are people out that still support you, there's always going to be somebody welcoming you home whether your family can be here or not.”
Her sister Dallis — and yes, the family are proud Texans, her mother said — has news of her own… she’s engaged to a sergeant who’ll be on one of those buses in the next few days.
“We decided when he gets home we don't really want to wait any longer. So that was that. We're just gonna get married as soon as this is over, and he's home,” Dallis said.
He won’t be home immediately though, because first he has to do that two-week stint in the tent camp.
At the parking lot, it isn’t just families showing up. At one end, Capt. Kevin Scruggs and his wife, Noreen attach a string of flags to their SUV above a homemade welcome sign so big it nearly hid the truck.
Some of the Army engineers Scruggs commands were part of the deployment and had been assigned to a host of units for the mission.
“I have all my guys scattered across the brigade,” he said. “So we're out here every time they come back to make sure they all get home safely and get a happy face."
Four of his soldiers were on the buses this time, and he had their names on a hand-lettered sign.
As people finished taping up signs and banners, a pickup truck turned into the parking lot, followed by a line of white buses.
As they rolled through the parking lot, the supporters blew their horns and screamed and waved. Soldiers waved back from open bus windows and held out cell phones for photos.
Then in the time it took the seven buses to roll past, just a couple of minutes, it was over.
Major Rich Foote, a spokesman for the brigade, watched the families cheerfully take photos of each other in front of their signs and start packing up to leave.
He said that obviously the welcome wasn’t ideal, but that it was important for the soldiers and their families, especially important given the nature of the mission this time.
“It's the first time that anybody's ever deployed like this, the Immediate Response Force, the first aircraft wheels up 18 hours after the alert, it's literally never happened before," he said. “And so the ability for us to adapt to get out of here as quickly as we did, and now to adapt again to offer them some sort of comfort and recognition and a little bit of passing fun once they hit the ground, that's the point.”
He said it also represented the kind of resilience that will get Army families through the pandemic.
“I think there's going to be a lot of adaptations that we're going to have to get comfortable with,” he said. “It’s not what we're used to, but it's what we have to do”