Originally published 11/11/15
I sent my eldest son to Wawa for a free coffee, which they're offering to all veterans and their families today. He paid for his, though, because no one asked him and he understandably felt foolish announcing, “My dad is a vet.” So he bought his own coffee. Makes sense.
Every year I attend our local Veteran’s Day Parade—and cry. When I was a young Marine Corps officer’s wife, I also cried at patriotic displays. I was moved by the tradition, the dedication, the bravery. I still feel all those things, but today’s tears are shed from eyes that have more of a sense of what sacrifice looks and feels like. I watch the veterans walk and ride down the street and weep to think of what they were exposed to. Knowing that while some feel proud on this day, others are remembering their past in a different way—feeling shame and regret and other things that I can’t imagine. Most, I’d imagine, feel some of each—which to me, seems the hardest—pride and regret, mixed with gratitude, mixed with survivor’s guilt—hard emotions to reconcile within oneself.
I watch the cadets march by and think of the young people I know who are now headed into their military service. These older and wiser eyes see their intently focused young faces and I have to pull myself away from the parade, because I want to tell them NO! If you see combat it will change you and everyone around you in ways that are impossible to predict yet guaranteed. It is guaranteed. Really.
Of course that is unrealistic because while my idealism seeks a world living in peace, that ’s not the world that I live in. We still need strong, dedicated young people to be ready to protect and defend. But they will sacrifice. Some with their lives, their limbs, their emotional well-being. Others with their relationships— with their partners, children, and selves.
For those who haven’t lived first-hand through sending a family member into combat, it is impossible to imagine. Of course, every experience is unique. Mine began when I was five months pregnant with the young man who today paid for his own coffee. Pat was told to pack his sea bag, it remained on base, and every day for the rest of my pregnancy I didn’t know if he was coming home. This was late 1990—leading to the Gulf War. Eventually, at the end of my pregnancy, they deployed. I was 40+ weeks pregnant and kissed my husband goodbye. I didn’t know if I would ever see him again, when or how I would hear from him. This was prior to cell phones, emailing and Skype. He was just gone. That experience changes a person.
Several days later, my son was born—barely alive. He was moved to another hospital; they told me he had a chance of getting better. A Red Cross telegram was sent to my husband on board ship in the Persian Gulf. I have it to this day. I think about how it must have felt, to learn of the birth and illness of one’s child through a barely legible piece of paper.
The waiting began. Family members stayed with Ryan at the NICU while I remained at the original hospital, having my own recovery challenges. The doctors would come in and tell me, “You aren’t doing well. Neither is your baby. Your husband needs to come home.” We waited and waited. It took more than a day for him to get the message. Days for them to release him. More days for him to get home to us.
Ryan and I recovered, and Pat had a bit of time with us before returning for the mid-January commencement of Operation Desert Storm. He came home when Ryan was six months old. I was so grateful to have him home intact, seemingly fine. It took decades to figure out how much he was impacted by the experience. Others showed signs of their trauma much faster—a friend tells me that her husband was different in very unsettling ways immediately. None of them came back the same. And of course, neither were those of us who waited.
There’s more to the story. And compared with other people, so much less. But this little pebble—in which everyone remained intact and alive—still had huge ripples that impact our family to this day. It’s what I think of when I see those young faces. It’s a knowledge that can only be acquired through experience. An experience I wish on no one.
It’s why I am headed to Wawa and getting myself a free coffee. And why my son should have one too.