When I went off to war I was in my early twenties, I was engaged to my wife, but kids were not in our immediate plans. It’s been 8 years since I left for Afghanistan and it was hard enough to board that airplane to leave the States. As a dad now, I don’t think I could have done it with children. There are so many parents with young children that serve, and I’m in awe of their strength.
When I look back at pictures of myself before deployment, I hardly recognize the face of the kid in uniform, and not just because I’ve put on a few pounds and a beard since then. My daughters, however, wouldn’t recognize the older version of me. I left the service a couple of years before my oldest daughter was born. She’s never seen me in uniform, except for in a picture or two, and she doesn’t really understand what it means when I tell her I was a soldier. As my daughters get older I’m sure they’ll have questions about that part of my life. Without getting into the gritty details, I hope I can help them to understand a few things. I hope they understand why someone would be willing to leave their family for a year to go off to a foreign country. I wish more people understood it.
Last year during a Veteran’s Day service someone asked me if I thought being a dad or going to war had a more influential change on my life. It’s an interesting question and really an impossible one to answer. There are certainly parts of me that changed for the worse after the war, but I also know there was a lot that changed for the better too. It caused me to grow up, and grow up fast. I like to think those experiences have made me a better husband and father in the long run. Anyone with children knows how much we’re changed by that experience. The moment you see your son or daughter come into this world your perspective shifts. You have a greater sense of purpose. Plus, changing the diaper of a screaming child during the middle of the night when you’re running on no sleep is fairly close to experiencing combat.
Having daughters softened me up a lot. I cry during some movies now. I cry when I see my kids accomplish a milestone. Sometimes I cry when Google makes a video compilation of my kids growing up over the years. I’m ok with this. I’m glad my kids won’t know the rougher post-war side of me. I hope that part of me stays gone forever. There’s nothing weak about compassion.
I hope my children and their generation never experience war. I hope war is just a memory of something that used to happen in the past for them. But I also hope my children understand there are some things worth fighting for. And as long as there are things worth fighting for, there’s going to be a need for people to serve. For me, I love this country, because I know what it can be. America can be a beacon of freedom and hope for oppressed people. America can be a place of refuge for those hoping to escape tyranny. It isn’t perfect. Its people aren’t perfect. But as long as its people are always working to make it better, then it’s worth fighting for.
I hope my children understand there are other children out there that don’t look like them or talk like them, but they deserve happiness just the same. It was the faces of those Afghan children that kept me going during the deployment. The kids we met as we traveled through Kandahar were great. All they wanted to do was go to school and learn and play with their friends. I learned so much about humanity from those kids. Telling myself that I was working to make their country and their future better kept me motivated.
I hope my children understand honor. I hope they understand that it’s special to serve a cause greater than yourself. The cause doesn’t have to be war. Prioritizing service over self, no matter the cause, is honorable. Looking at the world and asking the question “What can I do to make it better?” And then doing your part, however small, is honorable. I hope my children understand that their dad had the privilege of serving alongside some of the bravest men and women the world has to offer, and it was my damn honor to do so.