As a military wife, I used to think I understood the fear that accompanies troop deployments to the war zones.
My life is filled with the faces of those on whom that fear has left its mark. Sometimes it’s etched deeply in lines of new worries furrowing the anxious brows of those recently promoted to command. Other times, it’s a faint quavering tinge in the intrepid voice speaking of duty, honor and country. It’s the wistful shine in a soldier’s glance westward toward the mainland, toward home, as the notes of Retreat marking the day’s end hover in the air. It’s the uncertain wiggling of a child’s pudgy fingers reaching for a parent’s hand as crowded personnel transport vehicles rumble past.
Every morning when I drive my son to preschool on the Marine Corps base, the guards at the front gate stand waiting, rain or shine, their thousand-yard stares examining the oncoming line of cars. They look so young. I wonder how their slender shoulders can bear the weight of the guns they carry. How can a grown man’s courage be trapped in the body of a boy barely old enough to shave? They snap a salute as I pass, but the firm resolve on their smooth-skinned jaws refuses to admit the fear hovering in the depths of their eyes.
I walk my little boy into his classroom and kiss his soft cheek, then he runs off to join his classmates for story time. I hope by the time they are grown there are no more gates needing guards.
In the Commissary, mothers push infants propped in the grocery cart’s seat while another child or two wanders in their wake. Maternal, yet warriors in their own right, they speak in gently nurturing voices at odds with the grim, haunted pinch of their lips. Laden with diapers, cereal bars and juice boxes, their carts are filled with their private burden of fear, the fact they wrestle with so their children won’t have to: Daddy’s not coming home, and nobody knows if — or when — he is.
Although I smile, I can’t look in their eyes as I creep past. My cart is filled with the steaks my husband wants for dinner, and my heart is filled with the comfort of knowing he’ll be home to enjoy them. It’s a strange guilt, being married to a soldier who is home while so many others are not. Sometimes, I wonder whether if he ever feels the same odd guilt, too, but I’ll never ask. I’m afraid that merely speaking of it would set in motion a chain of events that would call him away.
Six months ago, I sat with my husband and his best friend, Tony, while they talked about people they knew in common who’d been sent to Iraq. As both are Army officers solidly in their forties, relief mixed with guilt and colored the edges of their conversation. I thought nothing of it at the time, content to believe my husband’s assurance that his duty position and rank would most likely preclude deployment. I reasoned that the same held true for Tony as well. I should have known better.
We’ve known Tony almost as long as we’ve been married. That entire time, he and my husband shared an office and taught at CGSC and for years, their duties required travelling around the country to train various combat brigades. My daughter played with his sons when we got together for a Saturday BBQ. At my husband’s promotion ceremony it was Tony — who’d been promoted two months earlier — who read the orders. At the party afterward, Tony surprised us all by having their C.O. read orders promoting me… with moment of rank. When our son was born, Tony’s wife was the only person we trusted to watch our baby and it is to her I turned most often for parenting advice. My husband, who has two sisters, had always wanted a brother. He found what he was looking for in Tony. When we moved to Hawaii, Tony and his wife remained in Kansas. Being near them again is one of the reasons we’re moving back.
But Tony won’t be there when we arrive. Tony has been deployed to Iraq. Six months ago, both his and my husband’s retirements seemed imminent, and we talked about deployments like something that happened only to other people. Tony confessed a slight envy that at least soldiers fighting in the war will know they’ve done what soldiers are trained to do. There’s no way to decipher that for non-military folks — it barely makes sense to me. To their fellow soldiers it’s perfectly understandable. Theirs is a warrior’s creed, and warriors are trained for war.
Tony is a warrior now.
I have always known that the fear accompanying deployment is dwarfed by the valor of those who, like the young guards at the gate, greet it with a thousand-yard stare. Tony has valour. But I didn’t get to tell him these things before he left. I didn’t get the chance to tell him “goodbye, I’ll see you soon,” and I pray that I’m granted the chance to see him sitting with my husband again, the two of them talking over cold beers. I hope Tony keeps his head down and I wish him a safe, swift return home.
Please join me in wishing him Godspeed.