Last month, the last remnants of the U.S. military left Iraq. It appears that military activity in Afghanistan will see a similar decline in the next few years. That means there will be a new surge, that of young military personnel coming home to wind down their enlistments and landing at their parents’ doorsteps in what their parents surely hope will be a transitory stage to the next phase of their lives.  I’d like to offer my thoughts from a parent’s perspective and the emotional see-saw I experienced when my son deployed and returned home from a combat tour in some of the worst places on earth.

My son Alex deployed with Third Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Washington, in mid-2006, just before he turned 21. He would mark his 22nd birthday as well while on deployment.   When Alex left Kuwait City for Mosul, Iraq in July of 2006, things were pretty quiet and his early e-mailed dispatches reflected that.  I kind of looked at it as a bit of an adventure for him, as it seemed like they weren’t going to get into anything really hairy. But almost right away, just before the Christmas of 2006, his unit was moved to Baghdad and that’s when I started getting jumpy. I had already bought every book that came out about the experience of soldiers and Marines on the ground in Iraq and a few on Afghanistan. I linked to numerous websites and had e-mail alerts set up with keywords “Mosul”, “Baghdad,” “Strykers,”, “5/20”, etc. I just couldn’t get enough information about what was going on.

Every morning when I hit my office I would bring up my e-mail, hoping that Alex had enough time during my nighttime to dash off some news. In kind of a perverse way, I felt quite excited and alive and engaged in the whole affair, watching events from afar but able to keep in pretty close contact with Alex through e-mails,  his blog postings on “Army of Dude”  and even the occasional phone call. When Alex would mention that he would be going offline for a few days for one mission or another, I got a little nervous but I had a great deal of confidence in his training, skill level and the ability of his fellow soldiers to take care of each other. I just checked my e-mail frequently until he finished his mission and dropped a quick note of news. Then I would breathe a big sigh of relief.

In the spring of 2007, Alex’s unit was told they would move into the city of Baqubah in Diyala Province.  Their mission was to be the point of the spear of what was being called the “Surge.” Their objective was to root out the dead-enders, the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq who had fled there from Baghdad. It got bad there as soon as he arrived. First he lost his good friend, Corporal Brian Chevalier, then his former team leader, Staff Sergeant Jesse Williams. I had been praying pretty often before, but after those losses I really stepped it up. Morning, noon, and night I asked God to watch over Alex and his buddies, to keep all of them safe and to send them home intact. Every night when I went to bed, I prayed that  a pair of Army officers wearing dress uniforms and bearing tragic news wouldn’t ring my doorbell before dawn. As spring turned to summer and the Surge got going hot and heavy, I remained calm when earlier I would have thought that I’d be frantic. I just had a feeling that it would all turn out well for Alex; that he’d soon be on his way home to his mother, his sister, and to me.

A little more than four years ago, on September 12th, 2007, the war was over for me.

Alex and his unit finally returned to Fort Lewis. It was the second greatest feeling of my life to hug him tight, only behind the time I first held him seconds after he was born. But soon a strange thing happened to me. I suddenly lost nearly all of my tightly focused interest in the war. I shut off all of my e-mail alerts and stopped looking at all the war-related websites. It was as if Alex—who represented my personal stake in the war—came home safe, then it was all wrapped up for me nice and neat. I’ve kept up with the news from Iraq and Afghanistan since then, but with nothing like the intensity I previously felt.

So now the departure of our troops from Iraq has been underway and the inexorable drawing down of our strength in Afghanistan leads me to think about what parents of those service members have begun to deal with.  Allow me to offer a few recommendations based on my own experiences when Alex came home.

Give your child some space and let them decompress. Alex’s mother and I left Seattle the day after his return, as we knew he needed some time to himself to readjust to life in the world. We would see him soon enough for the holidays and thereafter. I had eyeballed him pretty closely upon his return, looking for any overt signs of change, but I didn’t see anything significant.  I remember being a little surprised that he appeared to have put on a little weight while in transit from Iraq via Kuwait.  I had expected him to look somewhat gaunt and haggard after all he had been through.  But at least on the outside, in a physical sense, he looked just fine. But I knew from my extensive reading that the things he saw and did would forever mark him as different from the rest of us, in ways that not even I as his father could ever fully grasp. So, parents, you must accept the fact that even though your child is back home, they are not the same person whom you saw get on the plane to go to war. Hopefully they will not be greatly different afterwards. Be thankful above all that they have returned alive and in most cases, without physical injury. (I won’t attempt to speak to those parents whose child has suffered a traumatic injury to mind or body or both. I’m totally unqualified for that).

And finally, don’t ask a lot of questions. When they want to talk, it will come tumbling out until they’ve had their say. But expect them to be mostly quiet about what happened over there. It’s kind of a sad thing to have a very significant part of your child’s life mostly walled off from you as a caring and loving parent. But that’s part of what we as parents had to give up just as our children gave  up something precious out of their own lives when they signed up to serve. They’ll carry the secret with them for the rest of their days, a secret known only to them and their fellow soldiers alongside of whom they fought.

Encourage them to keep in touch with their former buddies, for it will only be by spending time with them on visits or reunions will your child be able to fully open up and express the feelings that by necessity they must keep walled off from the rest of us non-warriors.

Jeff Horton served as a supply officer in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserve. He deployed in support of Operation Urgent Fury in 1983. His son, Alex Horton, served as an Army infantryman in Iraq in 2006-2007.

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Published on Jan. 10, 2012

Estimated reading time is 6.4 min.

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25 Comments

  1. nathan January 19, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    as a soldier that served in that same area and returned,,,it had never ended for me, I had brought the war home with me to my family, and now years later I finally understand the help they were trying to offer, just give your soldier time, and listen, it took me a long time to process what had happened, in truth I am still working on alot of it,

  2. Christina Finn January 18, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Having had a Husband that served in Vietnam, PH recipient and our son deployed to both OIF / OEF we felt the concern and knew the realities of War. We are Blessed so many struggle since having experienced the hardships and reality of loss of Battle Buddies, exposures and injuries. I knew first hand what the weapons of war could and did do to those Brave Men & Women, having visited Bethesda & or WRAMC from Chicago to DC 23 times in less than 6 & 1/2 yrs. My husband and I also too traveled to Landstuhl Germany & Balboa, not all our injured have a family support network. Supporting them and our Gold Star Families has become my life long mission. This is truly the “Strongest Generation” having sustained multiple deployments and surviving cataclysmic injuries. We must make sure they are Never Forgotten.
    Our son decompressed in his space, and focused on his regime of disciplined physical exercise MMA training and has been taught to nurture himself from a loving family. We will continue to care for and about our Military, Veterans and Gold Star Families every day. God Bless each of them for choosing to Serve, we are Honored to Serve them and be advocates for this portion of the population of the USA. You ALL are why “I Breathe!”
    The “Pillow Mom!”

  3. Bill January 17, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Jeff,

    Your comments and advice is spot on. My son was very active in Iraq on a special operations “capture” team. H and I e mailed as much as his schedule would allow (on a private e mail that his mom did not read) this was helpful for both of us during his deployment. As a parent, I was pleased to have received letters from the Army prior to and as my son returned. They provided similar advice and it was exactly what we needed. He was still “living the stress” when he returned. Space and time is what he needed, with the knowledge that his family was here for him when he was ready. Eventually, he shared some deep thoughts and emotions with me and I’m pleased to know that he has stayed in touch with his deployment team. He is currently in Afghanistan doing similar work and I’m sure that we’ll need to go through the same process all over again.

    Our kids are a special group of young adult volunteers. Never forget about all of those in service.

    Let’s get them home.

  4. Rae January 16, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    Thanks for sharing your family’s experience as your son was in the war. My son served a tour of duty in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. Everyday was a nightmare, not knowing if your were going to receive that dreaded phone call or see 2 officers walking up to your front door. My son served bravely, earning 14 awards, as many other soldiers dedicated themselves to defend our country and improve the situation for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. He gave four years of his life, and he returned home safely, only to be killed in a traffic accident several weeks later. The same is true of those returning soldiers with PTSD and those commiting suicide. We lose more young soldiers on our dangerous highways and to suicide than from enemy fire on the battleground.

  5. Pearl January 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Wow! Dad writes as well as son. Nice bit of writing, Dad! BTW, where is Alex these days? He hasn’t blogged in his “Army of Dude” blog since March of 2011. I miss reading his stuff.

  6. Carol January 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Reading this was like reading my own thoughts. I will share this with my huge network of other military parents, and thank you for being able to put OUR experience into words. My son returned from his first deployment about a month ago, and like you I have suddenly stopped my endless researching, digging, and email alerts from Helmand Province. At least for a little while…

    • Justin January 13, 2012 at 4:25 am

      Glad to hear he made it home from that place, was there myself 09-10, the road to a ‘new normal’ is a sometimes dayly struggle. The wonderful people and organizations out there, not that all need it, are amazing at what they do, but if I could give you and everyone else one piece of advise because it can be frustrating for all involved give him/her the benifit of the doubt, and not too quick to judge. Be there and support what ever they choose to do. Oh and one more seeking solitude does not always mean that something is wrong or bothering them. That I think is is one of the most common among the vets I know.

  7. Lois D Sturgis, RN January 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Dear Mr. Horton, Thank you for sharing your story with us so that we may know how to relate to our sons and daughters returning from combat. I found your blog very helpful. As I read this blog, my eyes welled-up with tears because I am still mourning the loss of one of our own. This past Sunday, January 8, 2012, I attended the memorial service for Spc. Kurt William Kern (age 24). I can still recall the day when he and my daughter went to Homecoming at Memorial High School. It seems like it was only yesterday, and now this handsome, gentle young man, who was loved by everyone who knew him, is no longer with us. The region gave our fallen soldier a hero’s farewell, as it should be. I can not even remotely imagine the pain his parents and siblings are going through, not to mention thousands of other parents and family members with fallen soldiers. May these children rest in peace and may the light of God’s hope continue to shine for those who have suffered traumatic injuries, physical and mental. Indeed war IS hell. Thank you again for sharing.

  8. H Lindstrom January 12, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Good advice. War often never ends for those who participate. It is a maturing experience for most, and a confidence builder (“I handled this successfully, now I know I can handle anything”). For some, it becomes the high point in their life, good or bad, to the point the rest of life seems mundane by comparison. Most adjust to civilian life, others need support along the way. Thank you, all VA employees.

  9. April Lyn January 12, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Your son wrote “Army of Dude” !!!!! Wow ! Many, many thanks to Army of Dude and Unlikely Soldier for their blogs……They will never know how they helped me live each day my son was in Iraq….my most heartfelt gratitude….

  10. Kathy Esquibel January 12, 2012 at 2:57 am

    I can fully understand what this Dad is saying about his son. My daughter, Celeste, served in Iraq and the day she came home we were all there on a beautiful New Mexico November day 2006–Vietnam Vets led the motorcade with their flags flying from the Albuquerque Airport–Blue Star Mothers–the girls from Wells Fargo (my daughters employees)–my sister with husband, my daughter with her family, my son-in-law–us–Someone kept announcing that the Blue Star Mothers would greet our soldier 1st. The van drove up, I saw my baby–she looked confused, angry, bewildered–I ran past everyone and grabbed her–we cried. As parents we had been holding our “finger in the dike” telling ourselves for 18 months “she’ll come back safe” “she will come back to us” trusting her Army training, trusting the Army–but this day was a very hard day–a happy day, but also hard. We cried somemore. Since that day she has experienced some very difficult days–mostly days we know very little about and understand less. Patiently I’ve tried to be there for her as all of us have, especially her precious husband–I am grateful every day for the gift of her presence in my life, I am grateful for her service to this country and I am so very proud to be her mother.

  11. mom2corps January 11, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    When my son returned after 3 deployments to Iraq, I never stopped sending care packages to the other deployed soldiers and Marines. All who are currently deployed are “our” kids, and they need to know we support them. I can never express my gratitude for their service enough, so I will support the ones I can until they all come home.
    We must never forget those who are serving just as we must support all who have served. We need to remember those who paid the ultimate price and support their families whenever possible, as well as our wounded warriors. Just because your family member came home and is no longer active, doesn’t mean the war is over. It just means you can now help someone else’s son or daughter or mother or father, etc.

    • mom2corps January 11, 2012 at 11:49 pm

      BTW, thank you, Mr Horton for your service, and thank you for raising a Stryker. Please tell your son we are all proud of him.
      God bless you both.

  12. Deniz January 11, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Coming from personal experience, family support plays a key part of successfully transitioning home from a combat zone. Just being able to breathe a little, and knowing you have someone there that supports you unconditionally is beyond reassuring. One of the biggest mistakes that parents can make is to try and pry information out of their child who has just returned from war. Letting them be, and making sure that they know that you’ll be there for them is really the best thing you can do. Eventually as time goes by, although they will never forget what they have seen, civilian life will begin to become a bit more “normal.” I applaud you for your supportive parenting and wish you the best, and I am sure your son is very proud.
    SemperFi

  13. Charles T. Cauthen- Combat Vet January 11, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    Mr. Horton,
    My father did everything he could possibly do to keep me from joining the Army. I was 17 years old. He was a WW2 Navy man. He saw action in the pacific on an aircraft carrier. When I deployed to Vietnam, combat soldier, I could see in his face how worried and hurt he was. I’d never seen him act that way. My mother said he wore that face until I came home. One nite 10 yrs later we were having a few beers and the war came up, for the first and only time I ever told anybody, I spilled my guts in detail about what I had been thru in Vietnam. About half way thru he started crying, I had never seen him cry. From that moment on I was closer to my dad than I have ever been with anyone. He watched over me till the day he died. I have never been closer to anyone as I was with my dad. He’s still with me today, watching over me and I do talk to him. I have 1 son who I absolutely refused to allow him to join the military, thank God he listened. War is a terrible thing to experiance. It leaves some deep scars, we need our fathers to help us heal.

    • Jeff Horrton January 14, 2012 at 8:39 pm

      That you were able to share such intimacy with your father was a great and rare thing. Most sons and dads never have that kind of opportunity. It was born in pain for both of you, but there it was, laying in front of you, and you both picked it up and did the right thing.

  14. soldiermom11 January 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    I really empathize with this dad. My son left just before his 18th birthday. He went straight from boot camp to Iraq. He has had 3 one year plus tours. Later, as a tank commander I took solace in the fact that he was in a big honking machine for protection but the military moved to meet and greet and it got a little scarier. Each time he came home for a visit it was very hard not to ask about Iraq. He did tell me a couple of funny stories though. I mostly put my faith in God, my faith in the Army that he is well trained, and my faith in him as a solid, well balanced, head in the right place kind of young man. And I just smile to myself. I saw a mom driving a car the other day that said “If you think I’m weak, I raised a U.S.Marine”. Well I raised an abrams tank commander and a pretty cool kid. Keep the faith moms and dads!

  15. Graybeard January 11, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    My son also was in a Stryker brigage with the 2nd ID, but post-surge. Nonetheless, he too came back changed.

    I cannot say that the war ended for me when he came back. Too many of my former Scouts and Venturers are still on active service in harms’ way. There are men and women I’ve never met yet for whom I pray as well.

    But I agree – your child will come back different. He or she will have some struggles they would not have otherwise had. They may have issues sleeping or other symptoms of the stress they’ve been through. Let them talk without offering solutions (hard for a father to do, but it seems equally hard for a mother with her child). Let them have their space, have their peace and their untold stories. If, like myself, you’ve never been in combat there are things you cannot understand even if they do tell you about them.

    One thing that has helped our son laugh about his experiences is a 2-vol set of Bill Mauldin’s WWII cartoons. The cartoons from the time of his grandfather’s service in Europe speak to him about his service in Iraq, and let him laugh about it.

  16. Carla Felsted January 11, 2012 at 10:52 am

    An honest and eloquent contribution to VAntage Point.

  17. Grumpy January 10, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    Any time a person goes to war, you watch him/her go, with a great deal of pride and concern. While they are gone, you create this picture of who they are. But this is not just when they go to war, there are whole host of reasons, seen and unseen, but change imposes itself on all of us. The best thing you can do is this, take that beloved image of normal and put it on the shelf. As hard as this on all of us, it is much harder on the Vet. As they come home, let them show you, in their own way, about this “new normal.” Take your image of “normal” and remember it. You’ll be glad you did. Jeff, this is what you did and it took great courage, with Alex. Observe and learn.

    • Ralph Moerschbacher January 17, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      I served 2 tours in Vietnam, but no one in the country contact or cared how my Mother and father felt. People have been coming home from war for over 200 years. The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are no better than my Father who was wounded 2 times in WWII. Those serving today are just GIs. Ralph Moerschbacher, Captain, USAF Retired Vietnam Veteran

      • Michael Beck January 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm

        Thank you for your service. If not for your generation, mine would not enjoy the recognition we get today. OEF/OIF veterans realize that the countries mistakes made in Vietnam have allowed them not to be made today. Hopefully, this post can somehow ease your obvious bitterness and help you once again appreciate the brotherhood of war.

        M. Beck, USMC OEF Veteran

      • Maria January 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm

        Dear Mr. Moerschbacher,

        It is unfortunate you experienced such an awful reception to your return from Vietnam. PTSD has been around since the beginning of time, and as you point out “people have been coming home from war for over 200 years.” Your anger is justified that you and vets of your era were not treated with love and care. But it is from YOUR experiences that our generation has learned a great lesson in humanity. There is little that we can do to heal your anger or undo your pain. What we can do to honor you, yours and those before you is to move forward and work to prevent or treat our newer generations of great soldiers from suffering the lasting effects that plague so many of our loved ones.

        Peace and respect for your service,
        Maria

      • Nilda January 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm

        I served stateside during the Vietnam War. I witnessed the hedious welcome of our troops during that time. When my son signed up for with the Marine Corps, something welled up inside this momma and it was not pride. It was the feeling that what happened to my vet brothers decades ago, would not happen to my son and his brothers and now, sisters, in arms. So yes, prarents are now part of the veteran experience. I would have it no other way. Where as no one stood for you and your brothers, this is not gonna happen to my son or to any one else again if I can help it. “Never again!”

        • Nilda January 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm

          …parents..not prarents. My son served from 2003-2008 with two tours in Iraq. He came home differently, of course. But he is still my son (with his humor intact). Me, I too changed. And I wonder, Capt. if your parents could have used some help to deal with their fears for their son.

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