“Okay, son. Well…you be careful now, take care of your guys, and we’ll stay in touch with both of you. Okay? We love you guys.”
With that, we signed off from our 45-minute chat on Skype. And as the video of Robert and Erin faded from our computer screen, we just stared at it for a few long seconds and then at each other. “He’ll be okay,” I told my wife. “They all survived the last deployment.” She nodded, her jaw slightly clenched.
Three days later, he was again on his way to Afghanistan, heading for a Combat Outpost, a COP in military jargon, somewhere in northern Helmand Province. His second tour, he told us, wouldn’t have the “amenities”, such as they are, of his first. No PX, no mess hall, no post office at this little gem of a base, out on the fringe of the desert. It took six days for him and his advance team to get there this time. The Air Force was a bit fussy about letting half a dozen Marines on a military aircraft without orders. Different branches, different protocol. It all works in the end.
We had two e-mails from him last week – probably the only two we’ll get for a few months. We also had one from his wife, with details of the first leg of his trip. She’s staying behind at Camp LeJeune, coping as all military spouses do when their husbands and wives head for war in the Middle East.
On an active military base, when troops deploy, they don’t get the fanfare of a National Guard or Reserve unit who all leave their home state together, usually with a big send-off from the community. By contrast, in the regular services, it’s often a quiet, very early bus ride for the troops to an Air Force or Navy base. Then a hop to Germany, another to Kurgistan, and, with any luck, only two or three stops inside Afghanistan before arriving at their “home” for the next seven months. Just another day in the life, for folks who do this all the time. I can only pretend to imagine their stress.
At the stroke of midnight two days ago, I was awakened from a sound sleep by the telephone. With ill parents and a deployed kid, I hate those midnight calls. At first, I thought it was my nephew, who’s on vacation and prone, these days, to pranks on me. I kid him a lot, payback can be tough…
But our midnight caller turned out to be my son calling at 8:30 a.m., bright and early on a Saturday morning, from Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, after his own good night’s sleep. After my sleep fog lifted – and I realized who was calling – I woke my wife from her good night’s sleep. And we all chatted together for a half hour. A conversation by satellite phone that was clear as a bell, across 6,500 miles.
And that was it. Same level of conversation that families all over this country go through every time a family member deploys. Nothing big. No earth-shattering news. Just comforting contact that has to be initiated by the person who’s deployed, because you have no idea where your son or daughter, sister or brother, mother or father really is over there. And their time belongs to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard in the war zone. Or the Taliban or Al Qaeda.
While there might be a political “end date” to this war, that means nothing to those who will still deploy to Afghanistan over the next two years. So you take those calls whenever they come in.
And you thank God each and every time.
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