Being a combat soldier is a tough job, being a dad is a tough job, being a parent leaving a child for a combat deployment or returning to be a parent after combat to many is an impossible task and only those that has lived through it can understand. A few weeks ago I asked Micheal Brewer a good friend, military leader, and father to share his experiences with other dads that are facing or are experiencing the same situation.
“Where are you going, Daddy?”
“Where are you going, Daddy?” My son was pointing to the giant world map that hung on the wall of my modest home office. He was tiny standing in front of the 8-foot frame.
“Right here, buddy.” I pointed to the middle of the country, and not at the northern peaks of the Hindu Kush where I would actually be spending most of my time.
“What’s it called again?”
“Afghanistan. Can you say that?”
“Afghanistan.” He thought for a minute in silence, mouthing the word. Committing it to his young memory. “Why?”
“Why what, son?”
“Why do YOU have to go? Why can’t they send somebody else?” He looked up at me with a pleading look that still chokes me up to this day. I didn’t know how to explain it to him then, but I knew I couldn’t lie to him. He’d be a man someday, and his Daddy was by-God going to be an example of what that ought to look like.
“I have to go, Alex. I have to go, because it’s what I do. Your Daddy is an American, and a soldier. We have a duty, son. Duty? You know that word? It means a job that’s so important, you just have to do it no matter what. No matter how hard it is, and no matter what it costs you. Even if it means being away from the people you love the most in the whole wide world. If it makes you feel better, lots and lots of other people are going with me. People from all over the world.”
“Do they have a duty too?”
“They sure do, son. See, Daddy is going over there to fight against some really bad bullies.” My son had an innate understanding and loathing of bullies, having stood up for a weaker kid who’d been picked on at his school. “These bullies hurt people and they won’t let some of the kids go to school, and they pretend that God gives them the right to be mean and awful to others. Even to kill them if they want to.”
“That’s not right!” He was angry.
“No, it isn’t. And what do we have to do when we see people being mean to others? What do we have to do when we see bullies who won’t stop?”
“We have to say something. And if they won’t stop, we have to do something ourselves, like I did when I told the teachers.”
“That’s right. And why do we have to do something ourselves?” He waited, looking at me, trying hard to connect his own life experiences with mine.
“It’s our duty?” He said, finally.
“Because it’s our duty. That’s right.” I broke down and cried, despite promising myself I wouldn’t. I just hugged my son close to me, pride and a whole torrent of emotions swirling around in me all at once.
Over the course of my deployment to RC-North, I was fortunate enough to call my sons on Skype about once a week. Sometimes more, depending on where my own little slice of the war took me. Never a lot of time - but the marvels of technology made me one of the first generation to ever see home while at war. I sent letters and souvenirs when I could. Anytime the opportunity presented itself, I’d buy them things uniquely Afghan. Swords that I sent home for each of them, along with a brief history of Alexander the Great chasing Bessus through the same mountains I now flew through. Things like that. One day, standing out in the open on a satellite phone, I sneaked a call with them for just a few minutes. As we talked about school and playing on the swings and maybe joining Cub Scouts next year or the year after, I kicked up an old machinegun bullet from the dirt. Fifty caliber, maybe 12.7mm, depending who’d been shooting it at whom, but here I was, standing where the Russians had probably stood some decades before, talking across the world to my son, while kicking up an old bullet that some mujahedeen fired at old Ivan. I stuck it in my pocket and moved back to someplace less exposed, even though then and there, at Bagram Airfield, there was little danger of history repeating itself with me as the bullseye.
Deployment progressed as they do, day by day, until they suddenly come to that last frantic week of getting one’s shit together and getting ready to hop the next thing smoking back home. Surreal, that last week. Close out, hand everything off to the next guy. One last fly-around the country to make sure your replacement knows everyone he needs to know. and then, poof. It’s someone else’s job now. I’m sitting in Qatar on that moonscape of an airbase, waiting for my final ride back home. When I got off the plane at Dulles airport and made my way through customs, I felt like my mind tunneled into this blinder-wearing, only-one-thing-matters phase.
“Did you get all the bullies, Daddy?”
I saw people meeting their loved ones and hugging and kissing, but all I cared about was seeing those two little boys. Alex stood in front of mom and his infant brother, holding a homemade sign that said Welcome Home Daddy. I sat right down on the floor and hugged my kids for what seemed like an hour. I just didn’t want to let them go. And they didn’t want to let me go either. It was probably the happiest I remember being since watching them come into the world.
“Did you get all the bullies, Daddy?”
“Not all of them buddy. But a whole bunch.”
Happiness turned into that weird kind of anxiety over the next several months. As a counterterrorism officer fresh off deployment, my job became targeting and writing lots of time sensitive briefings, and training the next crop of deploying CT targeters heading over on the most relevant new intel I’d learned from my own deployment. Most vets who come home experience some form of this anxiety. You want to go get back into the fight - not just tell others how to go do the job. But that IS the job. Nobody is a one man army, and the job - our Duty - is to make damned sure our whole force is capable and knowledgeable and sharp. Still, anxiety sometimes molds and grows darker. It turns sour, becoming some fermented, ruined form of itself. Depression, maybe. Or PTSD. The darker thoughts of war, the sounds and the shocks and the smells and the sights of war come back in unexpected ways, and at unexpected times. You find yourself tensing up when you drive past junk on the side of the road. Dreams have you jumping for bunkers when the walls bow in from rocket or mortar explosions that aren’t really happening. Your instincts go haywire at times they shouldn’t. Why are there three guys in a car together just sitting there with line of sight on my parking place? What gives? And you know who notices all of that stuff? Your sons.
“Daddy, are you ok?”
“Yeah, buddy. Why?” I shook off the tempest of thoughts in my head about suicide bombers in Balkh and focused on his voice.
“Mommy said you were stressed from work. Sometimes when I’m stressed at school, it helps to ride my bike.”
It’s strange - when you’re caught up in all that stuff, it never occurs to you that everyone else is stuck watching it all happen at whatever distance you manage to keep them. But realizing my five year-old son had not only noticed my stress, but had also had a discussion about it with his mommy and figured out how to come help me deal with it? That was kind of a gut punch. We talked about stress and how to deal with it in ways that make sense to five year olds. It was a good thing - I needed to simplify it myself, I think. The next several months, we took up a new hobby, Alex and I. Model rockets. We built kits and improvised rockets, learned all about the science behind them, and test flew radical designs, like the one he built out of a miniature football and a pool noodle. His little brother, only now a year old, got my time with books. We read the classics together. Mythology and heroes. To this day, Theseus is still his favorite. We got into Cub Scouts, and I took the spot as the assistant Den Leader, backing up a veteran A-10 pilot who led us. We focused on our community, our kids, and making our little slice of America as good as we could make it. And that’s when it happened. That’s when I finally got it, and the anxiety let go of me.
One day, Alex and I were canvassing a neighborhood, collecting canned food for the needy and hungry. The generosity of our little town and our neighbors was unbelievable. As I lugged bags upon bags of canned foods, Alex dropped a truth bomb on me bigger than anything the Taliban ever even thought about.
“Hey Dad, this is really cool. Know why?” He positively beamed with joy. He was that unrestrained and unselfconscious kind of happy only kids are fearless enough to feel. It was infectious, and I felt myself smiling broadly with him.
“Why’s that, kiddo?”
“Because this is how I can do MY duty. It’s like when you went to fight the bullies in Afghanistan. Only this way, you can stay here and help me!”
How right he was.
Since then, I’ve made it a point to be as involved as I can be - with my kids if it’s at all appropriate to do so - in that sort of duty here at home. Helping those who need help. Hurricane relief, wildfire relief, food for the homeless. Anything and everything that we can do on a personal level to make sure that our America is the kind of place we want it to be. I’d always tried to be involved before, to volunteer when and where I could and so on. But Alex really helped me bring it into focus. I realized something important, too. You know who does that sort of thing? People with a sense of duty. People who care about their country and their community. People who are willing to give of themselves for others. Exactly the kinds of people we need to be around when we come home. Exactly the sort of support network and sense of purpose we need in order to feel like we’re still part of something important.
It’s funny. Maybe not funny - maybe ironic is a better word. You go help people whose homes have been wiped off the face of the earth by a hurricane, or you deliver food and fresh water to a homeless shelter, and the people there will walk up and thank you. They thank YOU. It’s a bit like when civilians thank you for your service when they see you in uniform. I never really knew how to take that kind of thing. It always felt a bit awkward. It was like they didn’t realize how much those things helped me. They didn’t realize that the opportunity to go and do my duty, to help those in need of it, was what kept me “Ok” and functional in the world. I could see it in my sons’ eyes, though. They felt humbled at being thanked. It made them want to do more, to be better men and better citizens. It made me feel like I’d at least managed to get that part of fatherhood right.
Maybe thats part of “Duty” too.