2015 was the year I came off active duty. On the day I came home, my flight was scheduled to land at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. This homecoming wasn’t filled with the presence of loved ones or sunshine; instead, I stepped off a three-hour flight from Washington into the late hours of an empty airport.
On the way to baggage claim I could hear the occasional echo of solitary footsteps, and the metal from shutting gates, a sound that was amplified by the emptiness of the airport. It felt lonesome without no one around but a few strangers. Walking past the shops as they were shutting down, I felt like I was being shunned. For a moment I imagined myself as the fictional character Rambo who had portrayed the isolation and social rejection veterans face.
As I made my way out to the street, I called my father, who hadn’t expected my unannounced arrival. When I asked him to pick me up, he was almost hesitant and suggested that I might prefer to be with friends. But I insisted I’d rather be with family.
I claimed my bag and walked outside, into what almost resembled the flight deck of an aircraft carrier: dimmed amber lights, concrete buildings all around, and a clear dark sky. To my right was the entrance to the USO. The light coming from the doorway reminded me of the light that came from the open hatch leading to the flight deck control tower at night. Stepping inside I felt like I was in a cabin; the room was warm and welcoming. A woman was working behind the desk, and another was assigned to two unaccompanied minors. Both women immediately acknowledged me; I noticed one of the boys was focusing on his coloring book and the other was enjoying a snack.
While I waited inside for my father to arrive, I listened to the conversation between the four, learning that both boys were brothers waiting to be picked up, like me. When I glanced over to the boys, I noticed each wore a different expression: one boy’s face was filled with joy and the other with confusion or maybe sadness. I felt both.
The few minutes in the USO felt like hours. I was glad to be home in Southern California again. However, the phone call with my father continued to bother me. Was my return going to be a burden on my family? Was it punishment for the spotty way I communicated with them while I was deployed? I suddenly felt uncomfortable and I started to pack my bags. As I was heading out, the woman at the front desk stopped me; she insisted that I’d take something to eat. I respectfully declined, thanked her and walked out into the amber-lit night.
I didn’t realize then, as I do now, that my homecoming was a foreshadowing of the many challenges I would face as I reintegrated back into my family and society. On the ride back home, I discovered that my father’s distraction was propelled by the burdens of our family: the household bills were accumulating, his work shifts were extending, and my mother had fallen into depression. Sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s truck, I felt the heaviness of the situation and a new weight of guilt.
Gerardo “Jerry” Romero is currently pursuing a degree in Political Science with an emphasis in international relations at UC San Diego. He spent five years in the United States Navy, serving two years on the East coast and two years in South East Asia. He enjoys fast runs on a cold beach.