Family, community welcome soldier
By Jon Pic, Times Staff Reporter
Published: Tuesday, July 24, 2007 7:05 PM CDT
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Brueggeman hugs his son as he accepts the welcome from the Riders. The Air Force Staff Sergeant was stationed at the Baghdad International Airport for six months. This was his third trip to the Middle East since 2001. - photo by Jon Pic
Though they were only apart for seven months, for self-proclaimed soulmates Alma and Paul Brueggeman, their separation must have seemed like a lifetime.
A U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant, Paul spent the last six months stationed at the Baghdad International Airport base. Last Saturday morning, he returned home to his family.
This was Paul's third trip to the Middle East since joining the Air Force in February 1997. His two previous tours - to Saudi Arabia in 2001 and Kuwait in 2003 - were both three-month temporary duty assignments.
On this occasion, Paul left the states on January 10 and arrived in Qatar two days later. From there, he moved over to Baghdad to work on Humvees as a vehicle maintenance specialist.
Like many young people, Paul said he initially signed up with the service to help pay for college, but had been interested in joining for a while.
“I've always wanted to go into the Air Force,” Paul said. “It's the feeling of camaraderie, the patriotism. You feel like a family when you're in the service.”
On Saturday morning, however, Paul was warmly greeted by his own family as his plane touched down in Wichita. Alma and their four children - all from previous marriages - met Paul on arrival and brought him home in a limousine.
“I felt every emotion that a person could feel except for sadness,” Alma said. “That is the most overwhelming, exhausting experience. Words can't describe the emotions.”
“When you're gone for six months on long deployments, you don't know if they're forgetting about you,” Paul said.
Though it was necessary to form a routine to manage her daily life and the kids while Paul was gone, she said, “I lived for the day that he came home and messed it up.”
“It was nice to have a touch of freedom again,” Paul said of his return home. “Everything changes. The weather changes. You've got cement barriers protecting everything [in Iraq]; the helicopters. Worrying about whether or not missiles or mortars or something's going to get a hold of you.
“A lot of folks take for granted being able to do whatever they want to do.”
“They go over there, they lose everything,” Alma said. “All of their freedoms . What they're fighting for, for us. Something just as small as going to QuikTrip to get a Coke.”
Married on Oct. 6, 2006, the couple had a short time to get settled before his deployment - which is even shorter when considering the swift progression of their relationship.
Having met via the Internet on June 18, 2006 the couple closed on a house on August 25. Paul and Alma agree there was an instant connection.
“We met online and just knew,” Alma said.
A Stillman Valley, Ill. native, Paul requested a transfer to McConnell Air Force Base. After only five months together, Paul found out in September that he might be leaving for Iraq.
“We knew he could possibly be deployed when we got married,” Alma said.
With Paul on his way to Baghdad, Alma would be doubling her parenting efforts. While she had been raising Johnnie, 9, and Jarrett, 6, she now would be caring for Paul's two children, Tyler, 6, and Alexis, 4.
“The kids, they blended together,” Alma said. “They got me through it; I got them through it. I'd give my life for [Paul's children] just like I would my own children.”
Alma said she was fortunate that her employer was so understanding.
“My boss was absolutely awesome with the kids,” Alma said. “He was totally supportive. I took off a lot of work because the kids were sick during the winter.”
Living nine hours ahead of his wife, when Paul would make his evening calls, Alma would be nearing her lunch hour. The couple communicated daily on a schedule with the assistance of a wireless Internet connection, Yahoo Messenger and a webcam.
“Anyone can tell you, my life revolved around that computer,” Alma said.
“That's how we stayed connected,” Paul said. “Other assignments that I went to before that time, you didn't have wireless internet.”
Paul said private Internet service providers have begun supplying wireless web-surfing to increase troop morale abroad.
“It's nice that there are companies that are trying to set it up better for troops over there,” he said.
Even with the copious communication, the pair agree that the time apart was trying.
“It was emotional. It was the hardest thing I've ever experienced. I've never loved anyone like I love Paul,” Alma said. “We did everything together.
“We're soul mates. We found in each other what people look a lifetime for. It was very hard to be separated.”
Upon his arrival to El Dorado, Paul was treated to lunch with his family at J. Brian's Pub and got to visit with some of the American Legion Riders.
On Sunday afternoon, however, the riders arrived at a surprise party at The Brueggemans' house to officially thank him for his service. Paul has also been asked to throw the first ball at Wednesday's Broncos baseball game.
“The support from the community has been unreal,” Alma said.
In contrast to the Vietnam veterans celebrating at the lake this weekend, Paul said he recognizes the positive response being shown to him upon his return home.
“I think everyone still remembers 9-11,” Paul said. “I think people realize now, things can actually hit us at any time. We didn't have that in Vietnam. Everything was going on overseas.
“Now we've got people who are coming into the United States and threatening us. I think they're more supportive of us because of that.”
Now that he's back, Paul will return to duty at McConnell and begin to readjust to his home life. Despite the time apart, the Brueggemans feel like they've been able to grow closer.
“We couldn't imagine being closer than when he left,” Alma said. “We're closer now. Nothing can break him and I apart.”