On the plane on his way home to the U.S., Bartle realizes that he feels like he has left a part of himself in Iraq. To him, home has become an undefined image, shaken by the long months he spent in a foreign land. When he wakes up from a nap, he reaches for his rifle before realizing that it is not there. He then looks around the plane and counts the number of soldiers missing, including Murph, listing their ranks, and concluding that the number might be somewhere between twenty and thirty. As Bartle admires the landscape, he realizes that he has been forming a thought in his mind: he wants to go home.
Bartle’s combined realization that his time in Iraq has impacted his very sense of being and that he wants to go home highlights the tragic irony of his situation, since Iraq has changed him so much that his understanding of home has changed, and his American home will no longer give him the comfort he so desperately seeks. To feel at home again anywhere, Bartle will have to confront the impact of his time in Iraq: his painful memories and grief. Otherwise, he will keep on feeling lost and displaced, yearning for a mental peace he cannot find.
When the plane lands in the U.S., a sign thanking the soldiers for their service welcomes them and the lieutenant gives them a short speech reminding them not to drink and drive or hit their girlfriends. When the soldiers are dismissed, many look confused and wonder what their lives will be like now. Bartle, who also feels lost and confused, goes to the airport bar. He notices that the bar is extremely clean but wants to clean the dust his boots have left on the floor. When he asks the janitor if he can use the man’s mop, however, the man tells him there is nothing on the floor and pats Bartle’s shoulder to reassure him.
The lieutenant’s speech is laughably simplistic, since it handles potential issues of alcoholism and violence in such a simplistic way, failing to recognize the complex ways in which they might represent the soldiers’ trauma. The disintegration of the group of soldiers, as each person heads to the plane that will take them home, anticipates the isolation that Bartle will feel at home, where he is no longer surrounded by people who have lived through the same experiences as he.
Bartle drinks a few beers and has a brief chat with the airport bartender, who tells him that he finds it a shame young people like Bartle have to go fight in Iraq and that they should simply annihilate “those sand niggers.” When he asks Bartle if Iraq is filled with “savages,” as he has heard, Bartle replies that it is “something like that.” When Bartle then hears his flight announced, he wants to pay for the beers but the bartender insists on giving them to him for free, showing a yellow ribbon as an explanation. However, Bartle, who is annoyed to be treated with deference for his role in the war, where he feels all he did was survive, insists and gives the bartender his money before he leaves.
The bartender’s perspective on the war is hateful and overly simplistic, and his use of a racial slur reflects the racist, violently disrespectful attitude he has toward the Iraqis. Bartle, who has more often felt compassion for the Iraqi enemy than hatred, avoids contradicting the bartender but cannot fully agree with him, as he knows that not all Iraqis are savages in the same way that not all Americans are noble. Bartle’s growing anger suggests that this kind of civilian support of the war is misinformed and inadequate, as it does not actually reflect soldiers’ experiences.
On the plane to Virginia, the pilot makes an announcement expressing his honor to be taking an American hero home. Bartle feels annoyed and embarrassed but is given a seat with more legroom on the plane and drinks four Jack and Cokes. He imagines what other soldiers in other planes must be feeling, as they return to girlfriends and friends with the impression that the world is slipping away from them, unable to get rid of a loneliness that has become impressed into their very bones.
The fact that civilian celebration of veteran soldiers makes Bartle uncomfortable suggests that, instead of making him feel part of a welcoming group, these expressions of gratitude emphasize his difference from ordinary civilians, as well as his inability to actually communicate to others how harrowing Iraq was, far from the idealized conception of war as a noble enterprise.
Bartle falls asleep and soon finds himself in Virginia. His mom welcomes him at the airport, her hands pressing against his face and uniform, as though she were afraid he could fade away. She begins to cry, repeating his name over and over and slapping him in the face when he tries to keep her hands from pressing against his cheeks. She tells him that he is home and, although he feels protected by her embrace as he lays his head against her chest, he finds that he cannot believe her.
Bartle’s inability to feel at home is a sign of the detachment between his mind and his body: although his body is physically in America, his mind is elsewhere, still haunted by Iraq. The striking similarity between this dissociation and what Murph felt in Iraq (where his mind was home but his body was not) presages danger and, as in Murph’s case, the threatening possibility of death.
On the drive home, Bartle looks out at the landscape and, when he sees the valley below, imagines himself patrolling and taking cover in the fields, examining which positions would allow him to take cover. His mother asks him if he is okay, startling him, and he says that he is fine. When they arrive home, Bartle says that all he wants to do is shower and sleep. He shuts the blinds in his room and concludes that he has reached emptiness instead of a much-awaited home. When he takes off his clothes, he feels that he is disappearing and might vanish at any moment. Feeling tired, he lies in bed and falls asleep, dreaming of Murph and the war, as he does every night.
The mental invasion of memories in a physically peaceful place will become an ordinary part of Bartle’s life after the war, as he struggles to readjust to an entirely new setting: civilian life. Bartle’s feeling that he might disappear suggests that death is a possible threat, but also that he has lost a feeling of internal unity. Since he feels so torn between the desire for home and his time of Iraq, which has defined his sense of identity, he no longer knows who he is. In this sense, part of him has already vanished.