STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
If not for the American flags and signs reading, “Land of the free because of the brave,” people at the Durango-La Plata County Airport on Saturday might have thought Justin Bieber just stepped off the plane.
The tiny airport was suddenly abuzz as a crowd clapped, cheered, waved, jumped and teared up, completely engulfing the object of their adoration to the point that he was distinguishable only by a military haircut and an Army-issued backpack.
After a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan, Durango local and U.S. Army Spc. Michael Tonge was home, and his family, including his brother and sister-in-law who drove from Fort Wainwright in Kansas for his arrival, was ecstatic.
Muffled amid a cluster of bear hugs and hand shakes, Tonge said simply, “I love you guys.”
A 22-year-old Durango High School graduate, Tonge comes from a long line of military personnel, with various family members having served in the Army, the Air Force and the National Guard. That fact did not make it any easier for his mother, Chrissie Tonge, to hear that her son wanted to join the Army, but she eventually conceded.
“When he first told me I said, ‘No you can’t!’ But two days later, I said, ‘I can’t say that because I used to want to go into the Air Force,’” she said.
Chrissie Tonge dealt with her son’s absence in a number of ways. She joined the local support group, Blue Star Mothers, kept up weekly communication with Tonge, and she wore a special necklace throughout his deployment, she said.
She pulled the necklace, a string of silver beads with a turquoise starburst pendant in the middle, out from under her husband Bob Tonge’s shirt collar and over his neck to demonstrate its use.
“I would rub this and say, ‘stay safe, stay safe, stay safe,’” she said.
Frequent opportunities to speak to her son also helped. No longer dependent on the occasional hand-written letter, communication for military families has come a long way in the age of social media.
The Tonges communicated mostly through weekly phone conversations and emails, Chrissie Tonge said. Her son’s unit also set up a Facebook page, where friends and family could see photos of their loved ones.
Locally, Chrissie Tonge found additional support through Blue Star Mothers, a national network of military mothers who support other military families by organizing meetings and sending care packages to soldiers abroad.
In cases where a soldier flies home from deployment, they even join families to greet soldiers at the airport. Jill Coddington, the president of Durango Blue Star Mothers, along with several other members of the local chapter, joined Tonge’s family Saturday morning, passing out small American flags and taking turns shaking Tonge’s hand and saying, “Welcome home, Michael. Thank you.”
As family members gathered their emotions and slowly made their way to the airport parking lot, continuing to hug and laugh and hug some more, Tonge become focused on a single mission, repeating: “I want a Texas taco.”
“There’s a funny story behind that,” he later said. “Me and my friend, we enlisted together, and the last thing we ate before we deployed was a Serious Texas taco, so now every time we come back we get one.”
After a few hundred more hugs and a Texas taco, Tonge is looking forward to spending his time home camping and hiking with his family. They plan to head to Utah on Tuesday and camp at Arches National Park, he said.
It was difficult for Tonge to describe what it’s like to come home after spending a year at war on the other side of the planet.
“That’s a hard one to explain,” he said. “There’s a lot of different emotions that go into that. It’s good to be home. It feels like butterflies, I’m kind of all over.”
Tonge is currently serving his third year in the Army and will head to Fort Wainwright outside Fairbanks, Alaska, on June 17, which just happens to be Father’s Day this year.
If he gets the chance, he would like to be deployed to Afghanistan again, he said.
As for Chrissie Tonge, deployment a second time around would not be any easier, she said.
“I don’t think it ever gets easier,” she said.