What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life? If you ask the question, you will get as many answers as people. Some will tell you of enduring a tragic loss or hardship. Others may describe putting themselves through college as a single parent, others earning an advanced degree. I can tell you the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my 42 years is to live one year of my life away from my wife and children.
Deployed servicemembers sleep in the mud, endure the heat without any respite and fight in heavy combat to keep our country safe. Some returned home permanently injured, while others have given the ultimate sacrifice. Others, like me, manned a desk and enjoyed all the amenities the Army has worked so hard to continually improve, therefore I can’t compare my life to those who sacrificed so much. But one thing we all have in common is while we were there, our families were here.
When I deployed, I was just like other Soldiers: eager to do my part and contribute to the effort of bringing freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people. But I never knew how hard it would be to be away from my family and watch my four children grow up one picture at time.
The first time it hit me was the day before Father’s Day 2008. My son, Jonathan, was celebrating his fourth birthday and I wanted to surprise him with a phone call at his birthday party. Well, as you might expect, a table full of presents is a much higher priority for a 4-year-old than anyone on the telephone.
While disappointed, I shrugged it off, understanding the attention span of a young birthday boy. I decided to talk to my wife, but due to her sister departing, I had only enough time to tell her I loved her, which added to my disappointment.
I chose to compete for my son’s attention with his birthday cake and presents, and hands down, l lost. And yes, I was a sore loser. So while communicating my frustrations to my wife via e-mail, a coworker put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Happy Father’s Day.” Until that moment, I had forgotten what day it was.
I had to step outside to contain my emotions.
After I returned, he told me that a man’s only true wealth is his children. He couldn’t be more right.
How poor I felt that day.
But life goes on, and we continued our routines, both here and at home. Part of that routine consisted of the “guess what you missed” updates. I missed my 18-month-old daughter Kiera’s first words and her first steps. Though my wife relayed them to me, I’d missed some of my children’s first epiphanies and words of wisdom. Some were very funny, while others were touching and tender.
My son came to this conclusion: “When I get really big, I will be too big for Papa to hold, but when he gets home I won’t be too big for Papa to hold, because Papa is really big!”
My wife said to Kiera, “Give me those feet!” My 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, scolded my wife, saying, “No, those are her feet! They’re stuck on. You have your own feet on, and I have my own feet!”
Ariana once told my wife adamantly, “When my Papa comes home, I am going to hug him and kiss him and never let go!” It may sound like something simple or even silly, but while you’re separated these little phrases mean so much to a deployed dad. While the affections ran high upon my return, she did let go.
I think vicariously best describes it, this way I experienced my children’s lives through e-mails and letters from my wife. Sometimes it was an e-mail with photos, other times it was a phone call. At my children’s ages, no person on the other end of the phone could keep their attention for long.
However, I was fortunate enough to be home for the arrival of my fourth child, a daughter, and reacquaint myself with the rest of my family. From the moment my family met me at the airport, my third child, Kiera, a little more than 1 year old at the time, wouldn’t let me hold her for more than a moment. She just started letting me hold her again, but not until it was almost time to go back.
Back in Iraq, I connected with family again by video chats at a Morale, Welfare and Recreation Internet café. Most of the time, my children would spend more time making faces at the camera, but at least I got to see those faces. I got to see the silliness of my children in grainy and choppy video and hear the sounds of their voices. While the eldest two were stretching the sides of their mouths with their fingers, I heard something new: Kiera remembered me and spoke my name to me for the first time. She leaned out of her mother’s arms excitedly pointed at my image on the screen and repeated “Papa, Papa, Papa.” Just like Father’s Day I was overwhelmed with emotion. This time it was all positive emotions. It has been a year and a half since that moment and I can still see her face on that computer screen.
Children are indeed your only true wealth. So no matter how much you have amassed, guard them like a treasure, share them like a gift, and love them like you’re deployed.