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Friday, March 17, 2006

WHEN YOUR SON GOES TO WAR

I had long expected the call, but a chill went down me as I heard my youngest son Patrick’s voice on the phone. “Dad, I got confirmation today. I have some weapons refresher and other location specific training in March, and will be deployed to the Middle East in late April or early May. If all goes as expected, I should get a ten day leave before I ship out.”

Before I could ask, he volunteered that his deployment would be to Afghanistan, Iraq or Kuwait. As if he knew I was having trouble getting out a question, he continued that he did not have the specific dates yet, nor was he sure how long his deployment would last. Now I know, with frightening certainty, how my sister felt when her youngest son told her he was being deployed with his reserve unit to Afghanistan. A plethora of feelings all jumbled together, but with one overriding emotion. Fear. North Carolina and Iowa never seemed so far apart. I wanted to see his face, put my arm around his shoulder, tell him how proud I was, and that everything would be OK. But I couldn’t.

For 230 years, American parents have dealt with the reality of sending a child to war. For all that I have read about how a family copes, and all that I have written about the subject, I thought that I would be prepared to respond in a reasonable manner. But I was wrong. From the day he left for Basic Military Training, I knew this was a possibility. He had joined the military after the September 11th attacks, and after operations in Afghanistan had begun. We all understood that it was a perilous time, and would be so for many years to come. But somewhere inside me, I thought that he might draw an assignment in Europe or Asia, out of harms way. Perhaps, based on his education and experience, he might get a training post stateside. In other words, I avoided the possibility of his going to an area of conflict, and would remain in a safer environment.

In retrospect, I was a classic case of delusional avoidance. But now reality, and reality really does bite, has come to my household. I have several months to get used to the idea that my son will be in an area where people want to kill him. I have to learn how to talk about this with my wife, sons, daughters, and grandchildren. But mostly, I have to be able to talk to Patrick in a normal manner, so that he does not sense the fear in me. A fear that he does not share, and pray God, will never experience himself.

I should not be surprised at the choices he has made, because he has become the man he wanted to be. The problem is me. He is going where I can’t, and how can I be a proper parent if I am not there to protect him? As with all of my children, I have always been there when he needed me. Through Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, all the way to Eagle. I never missed a campout or high adventure trip. Little League, High School baseball and soccer, I seldom missed a practice, let alone a game. Whether a win or loss, through the inevitable injuries and occasional disappointing performance, Dad was never far away. College was an hour drive away, and I was there when he performed with his fraternity in the campus variety show, and when the frat house needed a fall cleaning.

Like all of my children, he is so much smarter than Dad. Four years on the honor roll attests to his intelligence. Spending his college Spring Break rebuilding a camp for children with disabilities is just one example of his humanity. Never shy with his family, always the first to hug his parents, brothers and sisters; his love of family is always visible. A leader born or made, he is nevertheless one who leads by example. In every respect, a better son than I was to my father. A better brother than I have been to my brothers and sisters. A better uncle than I am to my nephews and nieces. And a better example for others than I will ever be. And because of who he has become, he is going to a place I cannot go. To a place where people want to do him harm. A place where I can’t protect him.

So what do I do now? There is no manual for how a parent should act when sending a child off to a hostile place. There are no instructions on how you say goodbye to a child who has volunteered to do the things that most don’t have the courage or conviction to do. I can’t find a check off list on what a parent should do when you send a child off to war. We are on our own, and have to deal with the realities without any pre-determined action plan. So we do the best we can.

Instead of the twice a week phone calls, we will talk a bit more often before he leaves. My last words of every conversation have been “stay safe, and I love you”. I think we will find some extra opportunities to say “I love you”. I am proud of this young man, as I am of all my children. I am fortunate that my youngest daughter is outspoken enough to remind me that I don’t say that as often as I should. I will correct that with all five of them, as well as my son-in-law and daughter-in-law. I will make sure I never miss an opportunity to tell them I love them, and I am proud of them.

I will also continue to talk to anyone who will listen about the pride I have in the young men and women with whom my son and nephew serve. As they continue to honor us with their sacrifices, I will continue to be their advocate while the rest of my family is safe at home, always remembering that we are safe because of what they do. I will make sure that I understand what the implications are if we do not give these men and women the support they deserve. I will continue to give voice to the reasons they have chosen to do this necessary work. I will not hesitate to refute the scurrilous claims of those who make untrue accusations about our military men and women, demean their service, or doubt their resolve.

And I know that all of my family and friends will continue to pray for the safe return of my son, my nephew, former Scouts and Scout Leaders, schoolmates of my children, and all of the others who presently serve our nation. And I will take comfort in my son’s closing words during that phone call. “Don’t worry Dad; I have a lot of friends there.”

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