LEWISTON – The excitement is palpable. The air is electric with anticipation; you can even smell it. The huge room is packed with hundreds of people of all ages. Every person in this room is in a heightened emotional state. This is not like any other group of this size, unless the gathering is for the same reason as ours.

We are waiting for our men and women to return to us from Iraq.

We are crammed into the Lewiston High School gymnasium on this first Friday in March. The 133rd Engineer Battalion, Charlie Company, is about to walk through that door and into our midst. They are finally returning from their long year in a Middle Eastern war.

I could hardly get a parking space, and had to make one. I arrived to an already full gym, yet people are pouring into the room in a steady flow through both doors. Can this room hold us all? I’m watching for my husband, but that is about impossible with such a crowd.

There are people trying to entertain us with music, good music, but the crowd has a force of its own, and periodically bursts out in some song or foot stomping or group yell. The energy in the room is seeking an outlet as we wait.

Our guys are returning on a cold, sunny, snow-covered day, and I bet it looks like a million bucks to each of them. After the heat they have endured, I imagine they will never complain about the cold again. All our trees, rivers, lakes, hills, mountains, charming towns, shopping malls, great restaurants and kind people will be magical for them. Home will have never looked this good before.

Charlie Company lost three of its people in country and a fourth soon after he arrived in the United States, and those losses will live with every member of the unit for the rest of their lives. The spirits of the fallen heroes are with us here today.

Every person in the room is as grateful as possible for those who do return. We are so very proud of each and every one. They represent the strong, courageous and noble present and future of our country.

My husband’s nephew, Robert Martel, will walk through that door soon, and our family gathered here will scream, cry, hug him and send up many prayers of gratitude for his safe return. He, and everyone in the 133rd, is a hero to us all.

Rob’s wife, Lisa, came early to help decorate the gym for this festive day, only to find others had enthusiastically finished the task.

Wishes for the returnees

The 133rd’s task in Iraq was to build and repair roads, and then to create health clinics and other structures that will benefit the Iraqi people for a long time to come. They did not see front-line duty, but they were at risk every moment they were in country, as demonstrated by the company’s tragic losses.

All in our extended family know Rob has seen a lot, much of it very disturbing, and he is not the same man he was when he left. How could he be? But all indications point to this having been a positive experience for him overall.

I wish for every person coming through that door a loving and understanding family and set of friends, a really good job or a chance for higher education in a field of choice, and some true rest and relaxation before returning to the welcomed daily grind. For an adjustment period, it probably needs to be more about them than about us. If they need to talk, then let’s listen actively. If they choose not to talk about life over there, let’s accept that.

I’m honored to be a part of this excited group, all of us on the edge of our seats, ready any minute to explode into exhilarated pandemonium! This day forms a psychological bridge from a difficult and dutiful past to a brighter and self-determined future.

Dianne Russell Kidder is a writer, consultant and social worker, who is based in Lisbon. She is a regular contributor to this column. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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