“Daddy will be home SOON! YAAAY!” My mother invented this cheer to ward off the persistent question my brother and I lobbed at her. I was eight and my brother was three but we both wanted to know the same thing: When is Daddy coming home?
Her answer, “soon,” was neither lie nor truth, a tightrope walk of verisimilitude she could live with. Whenever we felt the weight of my Dad’s absence tugging, our tinny voices shouted her phrase throughout the apartment. It somehow made us kids feel better.
I don’t know if it did the same for my mother. The Army deployed my father to the Persian Gulf War around August 1990 and she understood, if we did not, that “soon” might never come. We were stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, which was the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) Headquarters. Anything US military-related that went down in the Middle East originates there and the entire base was on tenterhooks waiting for news of our soldiers.
I remember the day he returned. A matte olive green plane sat on a tarmac with the door tightly shut. The giant carrier appeared to ripple from the heat waves emanating from the runway. Countless other women and children surrounded my family; we were all cordoned off behind a white rope waiting for a signal. Mothers crouched to the height of their toddlers to forestall a mad dash toward the aircraft.
Without warning, the door lowered smoothly and a buzz sounded through the crowd. Someone screamed at the sight of the first fatigue-clad soldier on the steps. And just that quickly, the rope could not hold us. When I saw my Daddy, Army regulation sack on his shoulder, my feet ran, my eyes ran. The four of us met somewhere in the middle and huddled together, crying, with our arms clutching fabric or skin where we could find it.
Daddy hoisted my brother up on his neck. No Army officer would reprimand the servicemen for their show of affection in uniform. This was blessing. This was gratitude.
My Dad never went off to another war. But the thought of eight-year-olds tugging at their mothers’ skirts asking when Daddy will return hardens me against any war. America has seen too many machine guns planted in boots, folded triangles, and empty spots at dinner tables since Persian Gulf.
But difficult as it may be, we are not the only ones who lose. The majority of our military conflicts occur on foreign land where we cannot daily hear the aberrant normalcy of bomb explosions or witness bodies pile up faster than shovels can dig.
Not until September 11, 2001, did I understand the true impact of a war whose blood stains the soil in your homeland and not someone else’s. I watched the 9/11 Memorial Ceremony today bawling, again, for people I will never know, for the pain of those they left behind.
I watch the country threatening war on Syria and I wonder if our shoulders are strong enough. Not only strong enough to bear the burden of anticipating, then grieving loss, but strong enough carry the responsibility for inflicting this same agony on other people.
I pray to God that we are not.