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.