As America celebrates Independence Day this weekend, it’s a good time to think of the men and women serving their country overseas. Kelsey Hubbard talks with WSJ contributor Dave Shiflett as his son is about to be deployed to Iraq.
What’s it like seeing a family member off to Iraq, and perhaps beyond?
The question comes up regularly these days as our 26-year-old son prepares to ship out. Kids in our middle-class world tend to head for college or for the sort of job that eventually convinces them that college isn’t such a bad idea after all. Some friends wonder how our son ended up a sergeant in the Army National Guard.
“Sarge” (as we call him now) didn’t volunteer because of family influence. We are Virginians and have served, but only when called. The Vietnam War ended before I got called up, but my father was a World War II navigator in the Naval Air Corps, transporting troops from Hawaii to Guam, and Sarge’s grandfather on the other side was in a front-line artillery unit in Korea. A century before, the man I was named after did some surveillance work for Robert E. Lee, and in something of that spirit, our son became an Army Scout.
He is, to be sure, a good demographic fit: Over two-thirds of our armed forces are white, most are male, and Southerners continue to be well-represented in the ranks. There was also his early fascination with soldiers and guns, but that’s true of many boys.
Sarge has always possessed one habit of mind seemingly at odds with military life, which many critics insist is fit only for drones. He possesses what we lovingly call a hard head, an independent streak that, as it happens, is an inherited characteristic.
After his enlistment I had to ask why he would join an organization where taking orders is a way of life. “It’s how you get to the big game,” he replied. Put another way, he’s a single young man looking for adventure—and perhaps meaning—and tends to believe that the people who man the office cubicles are the real drones.
He certainly chose an unusual path: Fewer than 1% of Americans wear the uniform these days. That, in turn, puts families of deployed soldiers in something of a world of their own.
For one thing, you’re unlikely to bump into someone at the local tavern to commiserate with (which is not an argument for avoiding taverns, tavern life being one of the traditions that our children cross the oceans to protect).
New acquaintances sometimes seem shocked to meet someone with a deployed family member. “I’m so sorry,” is their typical response. You’d almost think the lad was heading into rehab or entering the slave trade.
“‘When I’m out in the desert, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,’ our son said after returning home. Sometimes you have to travel 7,000 miles to find a sense of purpose.”
Others simply have no experience with the phenomenon of military service. At a Christmas party a few years ago, a colleague told me, very earnestly, that I was the only person he knew with someone in the military and that my son (whom he had never met) was his only link to that world.
Sheldon Kelly, an old family friend who served with the 82nd Airborne and whose own son has done multiple tours, recalls a lunch in Washington, D.C., with professional friends when the Iraq war was at a high point. “They were all war hawks,” he recalled, “but when I told them my son was in Iraq, they were stunned. It was like I was in a different class.” None, he added, had children in the military.
All of which can result in a feeling of isolation for some service families and an assumption of societal indifference. With so few people deployed, it’s almost as if these conflicts are not really happening.
One local couple, whose son earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, told me that while plenty of people are happy to “ribbon up”—attach those “Support Our Troops” stickers to their cars—that’s pretty much the extent of their outreach.
For the most part, however, the usual response when we tell people about Sarge is to say that we must be proud—which we are—and we must also be worried. Well, sure. We’re parents—worry is our fate. Yet we try to worry wisely. And thankfully, at this point in his life, Sarge is not leaving behind a family of his own.
His first deployment, in 2007, was supposed to take him to Baghdad, but he ended up in a much quieter area at the southern border. He did not like that, but my wife and I sure did. This time around his gun truck will be driving point on convoys taking troops out of Iraq.
While the Iraq war has wound down, there are still dangers. In June, 11 servicemen were killed, five in a single rocket attack. Death by improvised explosive device is a possibility for anyone riding those roads, and so visions of your son bleeding out as he screams for his mother can appear, unsolicited, in the middle of the night. Some level of apprehension is unavoidable.
Then again, why do we have children if not to give us plenty to think about at 3 a.m.?
Sarge shows few signs of coffin phobia, though he is not looking forward to dealing with intense heat, scorpions and camel spiders (which, he tells us, can grow to the size of your hand, hiss loudly, and sometimes charge in packs). As for other hazards: Sandstorms can be blinding, it’s not advisable to date the locals, and a cold beer can be very hard to come by.
And you never know where his service might eventually lead him. The U.S. is supposed to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, but that could change. With Sarge’s new deployment set at 400 days, we suspect a bonus trip to Afghanistan may be in the bargain. Who knows—maybe he’ll end up seeing wild, wonderful Tripoli!
There’s a saying that when one family member deploys, the entire family deploys. What often isn’t said is that, despite the definite downsides to military deployment (including the possibility of becoming a casualty and, at the very least, long separations), it has a strange knack for bringing people together and even making life better.
“There’s a saying that when one family member deploys, the entire family deploys.”
Sarge’s 2007 deployment had some positive health benefits for me, though for nonheroic reasons. Here’s why: If your soldier is killed (not a great possibility, though some parents lose sight of that), there will be a knock at your door. Accordingly, if you happen to be home in the afternoon when the FedEx guy drops by, you might experience an unwelcome cardiac jolt.
To avoid that experience I took up walking, often logging 30 to 40 miles per week. Not quite boot camp, but the exercise probably added a few years to my life.
There are also moments that simply would not have happened were it not for deployment. I remember a call from our son (via cellphone) who said he was out in the middle of the desert under a bright canopy of stars. Despite a short voice delay, the reception was incredible.
“You out there by yourself?” I asked.
“No, Dad. I have my machine gun.”
It was a strange, intense moment of bonding, even though he was probably 7,000 miles away.
Deployment also cured me of a lingering cable-TV habit. Whatever patience I once had for the chattering class—make that the braying class—disappeared. I don’t know what is worse: raving about how our soldiers are “mercenaries” or hearing a parlor patriot (go get ’em, boys!) suggest that because recent conflicts are “low-casualty” (compared with Vietnam, Korea and the world wars), they are nothing to get worked up about. As my friend Sheldon pointed out, it does seem that the people with the biggest heart for war never seem to have any blood on the line.
It is undoubtedly true that war is good not only for munitions makers but also for what a friend calls the “prayer life.” In the run-up to Sarge’s 2007 deployment, a celestial petition entered my mind so effortlessly and naturally that I assumed the same has been true for soldiers’ parents through the ages: If a life must be taken, take mine and spare his.
Deployment can also be a positive experience for soldiers. After returning home, our son said that “when I’m out in the desert, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.” Sometimes you have to travel 7,000 miles to find a sense of purpose, and many men, I suspect, may come to wish they had made a similar journey.
It’s my impression that men like me, who never served, often feel that we’ve missed out on an important part of life. We don’t know what it’s like to be young and far away from home, vulnerable to instant personal extinction but also part of the comradeship that such danger creates. In this sense my son’s service is a far greater thing than I have ever done.
Back home from deployments, soldiers can experience a vast array of problems, from nervousness while driving under an overpass (ambush?) or in traffic (since cars in today’s war zones can carry bombs) to the more serious manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder. The military offers some support. A Department of Defense service called MilitaryHomefront provides support for those suffering from various maladies, including combat stress, domestic abuse and suicide prevention.
For families whose soldiers didn’t make it home, of course, there is an unfathomable depth of sorrow.
On a happier note, the one area in which deployment is nearly unsurpassed lies in its ability to bring people together for a grand sendoff.
We held Sarge’s farewell party just before June 1, his official deployment date (he won’t arrive in Iraq until this month), so grilling burgers on July 4th will be tame by comparison.
This was definitely not a Norman Rockwell scene, though one suspects Norman would have had a rocking time. A smoky cooking fire (my idea to roast an octopus was vetoed; our oldest son flew in from San Francisco to butcher and cook a pig) cast a rich haze over 100 or so friends, relatives and a few thirsty strangers, some bearing musical instruments while many others, including soldiers with hard combat experience, came armed with a host of jugs.
When soldiers and musicians gather, the alcohol deities smile broadly. Thirsts worthy of condemned pirates were slaked with passion, and as the smoke and noise levels rose, neighbors could be forgiven for thinking the Vikings had landed (though none sounded the alarm down at the local sheriff’s office, for which we are thankful). One senses that many serious head wounds required treatment the next morning, but there was the solace of knowing that the damage was sustained in the line of duty.
This party was not as raucous as the one for Sarge’s first deployment, where lights-out came around 5 a.m. This time, all was quiet by 2. The last departure was also officially marked by a ceremony in which Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine traveled to Portsmouth to shake the hands of the hundreds of soldiers departing with my son’s unit. Families appreciated that. This time, the current governor didn’t show up at the sendoff, which was held in downtown Richmond.
For now, memories of Sarge’s sendoff will keep us smiling as we ride out the 400-day deployment.
Grandmother: “Will the vehicle you’re riding around in have any weapons?”
Sarge: “Yes, Grandma. We’ll be taking along a .50-cal.”
While Sarge is away, we’re likely to see the local boys who have completed their tours and sometimes gather in a home-built “speakeasy,” bedecked with the flags of their respective services: Army, Marines, Navy.
I recall a conversation with them one night about an American flag that has accompanied them on various deployments, sometimes tucked under their battle armor to keep it—and perhaps themselves—safe. The cable TV brayers would scoff at this as “gaudy patriotism,” but to my eye this level of communal devotion is another thing soldiers have that most of us don’t.
“Despite the definite downsides to deployment, it has a strange knack for bringing people together.”
These vets—young in years but in some cases having witnessed profound horrors—were in full hoot at the send-off, singing along to woozily brilliant renditions of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” a deeply fractured rendition of the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon,” and the Grateful Dead’s “Dire Wolf,” with its resoundingly appropriate chorus, “Don’t murder me!”
There was also a glorious “Over the Rainbow,” sung by a woman whose voice brought hope for better days, and then the farewell toast:
Know that you will be constantly in our thoughts and prayers.
We look forward to gathering together again to welcome you home.
Until then, don’t mess with the women.
Keep your head down, and
Now, off he goes.
—Mr. Shiflett posts his writing and original music at www.daveshiflett.com.
While My Son Serves in Iraq – WSJ.com.