I have served in the U.S. Army for the past 22 years, and in that time I have deployed to Iraq twice and mobilized to Louisiana in support of relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I am used to saying goodbye to loved ones and getting on a plane to go do stuff for my country. I am saying goodbye again this week, only this time I’m not the one leaving.
We are still at war. We have soldiers deployed all over the world for various reasons, the most auspicious of which is the ongoing effort to defeat global terror. Our troops have been in Afghanistan for the last 15-plus years. We were in Iraq from 2003-11, but then left, only to return. There are many other places in this world our troops continue to serve in, including the place my wife is leaving for as you read this.
We attended a Yellow Ribbon Program event this past weekend, which provides soldiers and family members all the information needed to cope with difficulties of extended separation and deployment. The Army hosted the event at a hotel in our region, and all of the deploying soldiers wore their Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) while being accompanied by their spouses and children during the weekend of briefings. For the first time in my career, I was sitting in a room full of soldiers who were preparing to go do their thing in an operational environment, yet I was wearing khakis and a polo shirt.
I know the operational side of these things. You show up when you’re supposed to show up, you make sure you’re in the right uniform and that you have all of your gear ready to go, and you train for the environment and the mission that you are moving to. As a senior noncommissioned officer, I usually have the added responsibility of making sure the soldiers in my charge do all of the above and that they don’t get into trouble. I try to foster an environment that makes me accessible to them when they have emotional reactions to the separation from family and the fears about the job ahead. Yes, even the world’s most well-trained and battle-hardened warriors experience these emotions.
This time I could only sit helplessly and watch the range of emotions scroll across my wife’s face as each briefing passed this weekend and the seconds ticked away until she says goodbye to me and our children. I was sad, fearful and, honestly, a little mad even though I’ve done the same thing several times.
Mostly, though, I was proud of the strength and dignity that she has shown through this whole process. How hard she has worked to take care of her troops and get them prepared for what lies ahead. How they come to her with respect and depend on her to lead them.
When I returned home from the initial combat phase of Iraq in spring 2004, I was overwhelmed with expressions of gratitude for my service. My uncle gave me this huge speech about how he was treated when he returned from Vietnam and how he was actually grateful that we were being treated very differently.
I will admit that at times it got a little embarrassing, but after a while (and that stern speech from Uncle George) it became easier to appreciate the Thank Yous and Atta Boys that never seemed to stop.
Our troops certainly deserve our appreciation for all they do to serve our country and defend both it and our way of life. I have that perspective locked in firmly after all the trips I have had to take in this uniform.
However, this time I am gaining a whole new perspective on the sacrifice our nation calls on its citizens to make, because this time I am experiencing what this means to the families of the service members who have to go away to do their jobs.
If you make a point of thanking our troops for all that they do, please also remember the spouses and children who are sacrificing during that same time. If you see a service member out with his or her spouse, please remember to thank both of them for all they do.
It is easy to identify the heroes who wear combat boots. Please don’t forget the ones who don’t.