Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 5/22/12
ST. LOUIS A family reunited sits behind home plate at Busch Stadium, eager for life to return to normal. Bob Wendell looks toward the field with his wife, Dena, and son, Jon, seated close by. It's about two hours before the first pitch of the St. Louis Cardinals' eventual 4-3 victory over the San Diego Padres on Monday, and the night presents another chance to bond. The past two weeks have been about valuing time together. Bob, a first sergeant in the St. Louis-based 1138th Transportation Company, returned home May 5 after a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan. Last September, he surprised Dena by wishing her a happy 50th birthday during a Cardinals game over a satellite link from Bagram Airfield in the FOX Sports Midwest broadcast. She held a sign that read, "WE LOVE & MISS YOU BOB." She cried and called it her best birthday. "She has learned over the last few years that she can handle a situation," Bob says, the Padres stretching near their dugout behind him. "What she does is ask, 'What's wrong? What needs to be fixed and how do we fix it?' She can handle it without any problems." Perhaps so, but baseball brought them together again. One day before celebrating their 19th wedding anniversary, the couple returned to Busch Stadium for the first time since Bob completed his third deployment overseas in 21 years. The past 10 months strengthened the couple's resolve. Their love grew deeper despite more than 7,000 miles between them. Above all, they discovered their lives are not complete without each other. "Nothing really surprises me, because he can do anything that he wants to do or needs to do," Dena says. "Nothing about him surprises me. Nothing does. I know there is nothing in this world he can't do." The reunion began with a phone call. Bob dialed Dena early in the afternoon on May 5, shortly before he and most of the rest of the 165-man company were scheduled to attend a "welcome home" ceremony at a church in Manchester, Mo. The event followed a brief stay at Fort Bliss, Texas, after they left Afghanistan. "We just landed," Bob told Dena at the time. Those words marked the end of a trying, exhausting journey. Bob, 57, was part of a group that ran more than 90 convoy operations missions across the rugged terrain. They also escorted more than 4,900 Afghan national trucks carrying supplies and vehicles that supported units throughout eastern Afghanistan. Bob and his fellow soldiers were praised for their service, but challenges were overcome at home as well. Dena learned practical lessons during Bob's time away, such as how to repair the wax ring on a toilet and change a tire on the family's 54-inch riding lawn mower at their home in Holts Summit, Mo. She also learned to trust herself. Of course, Bob's absence was hard. Sometimes she cried in the shower so no one would see her pain. But there was unexpected discovery with the hurt: Dena surprised herself during his months away. With time, she became more independent without the love of her life. "It was just emotional finding out that I could do things I didn't think I could do but I can actually do if I think about it or ask enough questions," Dena says. Bob learned heart-felt lessons too. There were moments that triggered emotions when talking to Dena over the phone: How's Jon? What am I missing? I'm far away, but what can I do? Days in Afghanistan developed a rhythm as life carried on back home. He awoke some days as early as 2 a.m. to comfort soldiers in a nearby hospital. He kept a focus that allowed him to win a Bronze Star. "She's had the worst job of everyone, because people tell me where to go to sleep. They tell me where to eat. They tell me what to do," Bob says of Dena. "They give me a paycheck, and I just continue on whereas she's got to take care of all the home-front stuff." But all the anxiety, uncertainty and time spent wondering what the future would hold had ended by the time the Wendell family entered a suite along the third-base line before the first pitch Monday. They were happy. They were together. And as game-time approached, that was all that mattered. Jon walks past Dena in the suite shortly before Cardinals pitcher Jaime Garcia takes the mound. Nearby, fans in red T-shirts file in from the concourses. Organ music plays. The boy seems content. "This is pretty cool, isn't it?" says Jon, 14. Soon, a youth choir sings the national anthem from behind home plate. Bob stands near a railing with his right palm over his heart. He'll try to settle into life in the upcoming weeks. He and Dena plan to return to their native Kansas for Memorial Day. He wants to take Jon on a motorcycle trip with his 2009 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic later this summer. He wants to enjoy life. The end of Bob's latest deployment has given him a chance to consider his future. He has hopes on the horizon: He and Dena plan to take a trip to Hawaii for their 20th anniversary in 2013, and he envisions retiring in two years. He has served his country. Now, he wants to reward himself. What's next? "A year's worth of honey-do's," he says with a smile. Bob claps when the anthem ends. He steps back and grabs a black Budweiser Select can from a counter. He turns toward the front row of seats in the suite and gestures toward Jon to move closer to him. "Jon, I think that's yours," Bob says, pointing toward a middle spot. "Go ahead." Bob slides next to his son and wife. Seats around them fill. A breeze is cool. The setting is perfect. A PA announcer booms over the loudspeakers, "Here come your St. Louis Cardinals!" At that moment, the family's former worries seem much more than half a world away.
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