The military child, especially the child of a parent who regularly deploys, has a slightly different view of the world than civilian children. Their reality is fraught with concern for the parent(s) they dearly miss, and yet they’re able to balance this with a set of coping skills that Family Service Centers throughout the military only wish they could teach. Still, there are those times when it’s clear that the military child’s perspective might be a little bit skewed.
My children have long known the heartache of missing their Marine father while he was away on numerous operations, attending professional schools, and deployed. Until his 20th year, he was gone no less than four months and as much as a year. His last few years before retirement found him in a “non-deploying” unit (the term doesn’t mean what it implies; only that the unit won’t deploy first), and he was gone for no more than 30 days at a time.
My children found it delightful to have him around so much because they’d grown so used to him being gone. He hadn’t realized just how accustomed they’d become to his absences until he arrived home one day from a two-week stint in Africa. He had no sooner set his bags down inside the front door than the children walked in from another room, looked at him and his bags, and asked, “Dad, where are you off to now?”
During the first year we were stationed in Germany, my then 18-year-old son needed surgery on his kneecap to keep it from slipping out of place. The surgery was performed at a city hospital in Boeblingen, just a few miles from the base where we were stationed. He woke in the middle of the night after surgery and was a little disoriented. As he tells it, he looked around the room and saw nothing familiar until he spied his portable CD player and CD case on the nightstand next to his bed. "…And like a good military kid, I thought to myself, 'Oh, right. That’s my stuff, so this must be my new home.'"
Last year, my then 20-year-old daughter was going on and on about an opportunity to study abroad. She was very excited about it because, she said, "It's something I’ve never done before." I reminded her she started college in Germany and studied there for two years before relocating back to the States. She said, "Oh, right. Well, that's different!"
Finally, my teenage daughter came home from school last month with a World History class assignment. She asked me for the address to Landstuhl hospital in Germany. We'd made many visits to the wounded while we were stationed there.
I asked her why she needed the address and she told me her World History teacher was having them mark Veterans Day by writing a letter of thanks to a veteran. I asked her why she wanted to go all the way to Landstuhl for names. In typical teen style, she looked at me as if I was the dumbest person ever born and said, "Because, mom, that's where the veterans are!"
I looked at her for a bit and said, "Well, your dad is a veteran." The realization only half washed across her face as she said "Oh, right. He's a veteran? He's just dad!"
She did write a letter to her father.
I never said thank you for going to Iraq. I was so happy when you came home in one piece that I actually cried. When mom told me the story of you and your friend taking a break on top of a big war vehicle and how you guys were going to sit up but didn't and then an RPG flew right over you, all I could think about was that you both were seconds from death, and I was seconds away from not having a dad anymore. Just think, if you had sat up when you had first wanted to, things would be completely different now. Just the fact that you are here with us is a miracle. I love you.