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Come Back with Your Shield

Above All, Navy Fighter Jet

Above All, Navy Fighter Jet

In the time of Ancient Greece, Spartan women shouted to husbands and sons before they left for battle:
“Come back with your shield—or on it.”

“Ready?” I sit up in bed, watching my husband lace up his boots. He is all hero in his drab green flight suit, colorful squadron patches at his shoulders and chest.

“As ready as ever.” I feel the day’s urgency in his gentle squeeze of my shoulders as he kisses me goodbye. “See you at eleven?”

“We’ll be there.”

Down the hall, I hear the noisy love of my husband and sons, gathering each other into masculine bear hugs.

“This is it, guys, my last day as a cool naval aviator. You think I’m ready?”

“Do we get to come out to the airplane?” My older son asks.

“Yeah! Of course! See you there!”

“Bye, Dad!” they shout in tandem.

I hear his car pull away. I’ve spent nine years as a Navy wife, and on this cool, sunny April day, my husband is taking his last flight as a naval aviator. The thought of this swings me back into reality. I start our morning routine. I call the boys away from their intricate Lego projects to come to breakfast. They brim with questions about what Daddy’s doing right now. Will I pick them up early from school? What time? Before snack?

I answer with impatience and depart the room before I say something I regret. I am a ball of emotion: unease, excitement, sorrow, loss, euphoria. I find I cannot remain still. Every nerve is aware of the ticking of the clock, my beating heart, the clinking of my sons’ spoons on their cereal dishes.

My instincts cause me to slow down. I breathe. We leave the house with plenty of time to get to school. I embrace the boys tighter during my farewell to them, and remind them to stay out of the mud so they’ll look nice for Daddy’s fly-in. Back home minutes later, I decide a five-mile run is just what I need to occupy some of the next two hours before it’s time to depart the house again. My feet are light on the pavement as my body welcomes the breeze and sunshine. The unease I felt in the kitchen slides away.

Later, when the run is finished, I move through my home with intention, gathering my strength, conserving my energy, and making final preparations for the day. It is time to leave the house to pick up my sons. My hands shake and the insides of my body twist. I sit down and look out the window at the azaleas, hoping the soft pink flowers and the contrast of the dark green leaves will cool this burst of tension. I pause for a breath, but tears spring forth anyway. Cold hands pressed to my mouth, I attempt to restrain raw emotion. Stifling the tears, I blot black smudges with a tissue and bite my lip.

Willing calm to the knot in my stomach, I walk to the hall and pause in front of our wedding portrait: Pete’s in his dress whites, and I’m wearing a glittering champagne wedding gown. I inhale deeply, pushing back my shoulders, and smile away the oncoming tears. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” I whisper. “I am here for you.”

His last flight.

My sons and I arrive at the flight line with little time to spare before Pete’s fly-by and landing. Jets of numerous squadrons line the concrete expanse in even, measured intervals. The flight line is quiet, not much activity on this Friday. My dear friend Jennifer and her husband join our side in a selfless act of support to our family through this milestone. Pilots and navigators in flight suits stand in a drab green blur to my left. My husband trained or mentored many of these men and I can feel the significance of this day vibrating in their uncharacteristic, subdued whispers. Just as Pete bids farewell to this noble occupation, they too bid farewell to their respected friend and colleague.

Then, I hear the approach.

Fingers shoot to the sky, pointing out my husband’s jet. The sun glints bright white in my eyes as he executes a turn over our heads. The rush of the roar pulses in my chest. The energy coming off of the jet rivals the energy my husband has put into this honorable job, which included one deployment to the Middle East, one transition to a new aircraft, weeks away for training, and incalculable hours of squadron leadership. God, I love him. The kids wave their little American flags high in the air, jumping up and down.

After he lands, I hunger to get my sights on him, to run to him. To throw my arms around my warrior. It feels like hours pass before we see him taxi to the row of jets belonging to his squadron. He parks in the Skipper’s front row spot, an honor reserved for only the most special occasions.

The flight captains give him the hand signal to shut off the engines. The sharp whir winds down to a low rumble, and then stops. The cockpit opens. Pete rests his arm on the edge, smiling. His face and eyes radiate tranquil happiness. Pride. Satisfaction. Paused in the pilot’s seat, he appears to be tucking the memories of this essential day into a deep, sacred place.

When the Skipper waves permission to run to the jet, the boys and I take off in a practiced motion we’ve done many times before, to welcome him home from deployments and detachments over the years. Flags waving, sun shining, tears stream down my face. This is the final run across the flight line to join him beside his jet. We pause near the jet’s nose as Pete climbs down the side of his F-18 Super Hornet for the last time.

After he and I share a quick kiss, Pete’s colleagues motion me out of the way. It’s time for the tradition of “wetting down” the pilot on his final flight. This act is a baptism of sorts: the aviators act in conference to offer my husband a ceremony of cleansing, of rebirth. Grown men in flight suits, laughing and hollering, spray my husband with water and champagne. One man pulls the cord on Pete’s aviator’s life preserver, inflating it around his neck. The Skipper hands the water hose to my sons so they can participate in this time-honored ritual.

Evan and Thomas spray their dad. Their giggles are all that vibrate the air now. Pete lowers his head, inching closer to allow for a good soaking. Playing along, he waves his hands in the air and turns his face, never missing a splash.

Once the soaking ends, when I embrace him, my tears add to the sodden state of his flight suit. Tears of joy and sorrow have fallen over our years in the service: joy for homecomings and growth in our lives, sorrow for our loss of friends, and the constant fear of the unknown.

On this most bittersweet of days, my valiant warrior has come home with his shield.

I met a warrior in 1990 and married you, my warrior, in 2001. This journey together has been intense at every turn, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. You may be trading your flight suit for a business suit, but the skin you’re in is all yours and it’s all fighter. You come from a line of warriors, and you will remain one until the day you pass the Earth. Your vision, clarity, message, voice. Your strength. Therein lie your past, present, and future. The longest chapter of your adult life is closing, and a fresh chapter begins. Darling, now and forever, I stand with you, cheering to come back with your shield, or on it. I love you.
–April 23, 2010, my closing remarks on my husband’s farewell to the Navy

Christina Marie Speed

CHRISTINA MARIE SPEED lives with her husband and two sons in a sunny fourth-floor walkup in Brooklyn, New York. Christina has work at Vox Poetica, Moondance, and forthcoming in The View From Here. In her free time, she volunteers in her community, tests obscure recipes, and delights in random urban walks with her family. To learn more, visit her website.

1 comment to Come Back with Your Shield

  • Carol

    It doesn’t get any more spiritual, intense, loving, sublime, than this—those moments traced through to the end for all to know, all to become connected by sweet osmosis to this experience of a woman on the ground connected for so challenging a journey, to a man in the sky. What a lovely read. Thank you.

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