Back in 2003, Bryan Bailey was new to the Army and freshly deployed to Afghanistan. He decided to keep a journal of his experiences.
Somehow, he lost track of the colorful little book and soon forgot about it.
Eleven years later, he has come to learn that an Arab, Ala., woman found the book in a second-hand store in 2004 and had been trying to track him down ever since.
“I was just a young soldier, first year in the Army on my first deployment and just trying to keep an account of what I did to share with my family down the road,” now Sgt. First Class Bailey said Friday morning as he waited to meet Kerri Clemons in front of the National Infantry Museum. “It was kind of surreal. The first thing that popped into my mind was how could they have gotten it?”
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He figures that the journal got mixed in with books that had been sent to his unit and were being shipped back when his deployment was over. But somehow, it made its way to Mike’s Merchandise, a Huntsville second-hand store, where Clemons came across it.
“There were books everywhere and I just happened to find this one,” Clemons said. “I picked it up and turned to my friends and said, ‘Guys, this belongs to a soldier who’s been deployed to Afghanistan. I’m going to buy this.’ They said, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to find this guy.’”
After an initial unsuccessful attempt to locate Bailey, Clemons put the journal away, but would revisit the search periodically, she said. Then a few weeks ago, she had an idea. She called an old friend, WAFF-Huntsville news anchor Mark Thornhill, and asked him to put the story on his Facebook page. Thornhill instead did a story on Clemons’ search that aired March 31.
“Mark called me the next day and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. We found him,’” Clemons said. “Then I got a call from Bryan. It was unreal.”
Several people emailed Bailey after seeing the story, asking if he was the journal’s owner. Bailey clicked on a link to the story and knew right away he was.
“I said, that’s me, and that’s mine,” Bailey said. “I contacted the news station and sent them a message and said it was me. Later on, the reporter called me back to do an interview on the phone. He gave me a number for Mrs. Clemons, so I called her and we spoke for a half-hour or 45 minutes, kind of relived the whole thing.”
Clemons said she felt like she’d made a connection with Bailey through his writings and her search.
“There was a part about children and how thirsty they were,” she said. “They would be in their trucks and children would run along behind them begging them for water and you guys would give them water. I remember pouring tears when I read that. I remember thinking there’s something special about this guy.”
During her 10-year search, it would sometimes cross Clemons’ mind that Bailey might not have survived his deployment.
“I was a little worried about whether he’d made it back,” Clemons said with a hitch in her voice. “That worried me because I didn’t want to have to hand it to his mom.”