I spent the first part of my military career on active duty, single and without children. Time spent deployed was an opportunity to set aside cash that would have been otherwise spent on vodka and rent (in that order), so I viewed it as a kind of positive thing. The deployment itself almost always sucked, but I did not have anything waiting for me at home except for my two pups, and I could always be sure that they would be happy as hell when I got home and forgive me for ever leaving them at my mother’s place for so long (note: this is a tall order. If someone ever left me at the mercy of my mother for that long I would dis-own/embowel them, and it would probably be followed by a rash of structure fires). I knew that it must have been hard for the fathers and mothers with whom I was serving to leave their families at home, but I could never fathom just how difficult something like that could be until I started a little family of my own.
I’m a Reservist now, a barrel-chested, freedom-fighting, terrifyingly mediocre weekend-warrior. I get to spend most of my time at home, and I am extremely grateful for that. Sometimes, though, I actually have to play Army and travel.
I’ve only been away for just shy of a month, on a training rotation to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, but this month has been really trying. Never mind not being able to shower or clean my clothes for over two weeks (if you know me, you know that I shower at a minimum of once a day) or sleeping in the sand and dirt alongside the rattlesnakes and scorpions, or eating MREs three times a day; the hardest part of all of it was wondering what novel words my daughter may have learned, or how interactive my baby boy might have become. That, and knowing that I missed it all.
Although, that being said, the MRE thing really does blow. It’s way up there on my list of things that suck. I’ll be happy to go back to eating food that is actually perishable. In the beginning of this exercise, the MREs sat in my stomach like lead diving weights, but towards the end I think my body adapted to their contents. I am pretty sure that I developed a chemical dependency on preservatives and plastic packets of cheese-food. I tried to eat something a little more real, a slice of pizza and some cheese sticks, and my body almost seized. I quickly scarfed down some silicone moisture absorbing packets and my body calmed itself. Heaven forbid I eat a salad or some fresh fruit. I’ll likely shoot straight into anaphylaxis and die, I think.
Yes, I volunteered for this. Yes, I’m doing it because someone has to, and the vast majority of people either won’t or can’t. As for the heroics and selfless service and the “for God and country” stuff, that’s all better left to my other blog, the one to which I very seldom add anything and keep my thoughts to myself. Suffice to write, though, that I am well aware that I chose this job.
But knowing that you chose to do something is not enough to erase how difficult it can be. I know now how hard it must have been for every mother and father to spend a year, sometimes more, deployed to a combat zone. Trying to survive warfare on the one hand, and separation from family on the other? That would tear me apart. Maybe that makes me a snowflake, maybe I haven’t got the kind of emotional fortitude that everyone else has, but damn it I would miss my family something fierce. Birthdays, holidays, snow days, rainy days, all that shit that is supposed to leave indelible marks on a man’s soul, the stuff that actually gets carried all the way to the grave, the stuff that is loaded with meaning and significance- all of it is left in emails for me to read whenever I have enough connectivity to catch up on what I missed. You just can’t replace the experience itself with some ones and zeros, though. Being digitally there for it all, well after the fact, just doesn’t cut it.
I made it back to civilization yesterday, and my phone just about exploded with the influx of data from pictures and videos and texts, loads and loads of stuff about the kiddos. Funny, my wife and I rarely talk about each other or ourselves anymore, all of that chatter has been supplanted by these two little monkeys we call our kids. If the kids are happy and healthy, then so are we. Not much more needs to be said about it.
This is not the first time I’ve had to go away for some training, and it certainly won’t be the last. Hopefully it gets easier with time, but I’m not holding my breath. If I get called up to deploy again… well, you’ll have ringside seats from which to watch me unravel.