Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Great Military Debate, Answered

Everyone gets to experience taxes and death, but the one thing that the military can also assure you is the prospect of deployments. Along with that comes (for most active duty only here) the prospect of moving around every few years.

Deployments engender countless discussions and debates that have fueled late-night bull sessions for years -- the appropriateness of certain awards, good and bad leadership, the highs and lows of being a war zone (or quasi-war zone), or, perhaps most poignant of all, what toll deployments take on families and other loved ones.

Way too often, married folks blurt out things like, "Man, I wish I were single. You single guys have it easy. Nothing to worry about back home...If I were single I would just volunteer for back-to-back-to-back stints out here."

Well, not only is that not true, it quickly brings to my mind an Ogden Nash quote often used by my friend, neighbor, and fellow blogger Kad Barma: "People who have what they want are very fond of telling people who haven't what they want that they really don't want it."

The obvious application of this quote are the well-off who tell others that "money doesn't really matter anyway" (like air, it only matters when it's not there, right?) but I think it could apply just as well to people who have large, stable support structures around to support them through deployments.

Here's a quick vignette:

Just after commissioning via Officer Candidate School, I spent two months working in a recruiting office with an officer recruiter who had formerly been an enlisted SEAL in the 1980s and 1990s. I brought this issue up with him, and I'll never forget what he said:

"I got back from Panama just after the 1989 invasion, where I was on the airfield where the PDF [Panamanian Defense Forces] had just shot and killed four of my best friends and wounded a bunch of other guys from my platoon. After going through all of that, I was suddenly on a 130 [military transport plane] and back in Norfolk, VA. There we were, a few platoons' worth of guys just standing around with all our gear, all our bags, etc. and one-by-one, everyone's wives and families came to pick them up. There were lots of tears and hugs, and as the hours went by the crowd of us got thinner and thinner, until I realized I was the only one standing there. There I was, just surrounded by my sea bags and my gear, no one else there. I had to call the duty driver to come get me and let me into the command where I spent that first night back. Right then and there, I said, 'that's it' I'm going to find the right woman, settle down, get married, and not look back. And that's what I went and did."

Obviously, leaving a wife (and especially a wife and young kids behind) when you go overseas must be an absolutely gut-wrenching process. I can't even pretend to imagine that I know what it feels like. But I definitely know what it feels like to come back from nine emotionally-draining months overseas to a loud "echo" when you move around a mostly-empty apartment sandwiched between strip malls and subdivisions.

And if you're curious, the answer is no, I don't recommend you try.

So to come back to the original idea behind this blog, and the original couple of posts about establishing yourself somewhere, building a community around yourself, and falling in love/starting a family, I think it comes from a natural human desire to want to belong to some kind of support structure that you can come back to, even if it means you have to leave it from time to time.

And that's why I told my XO at my last command, when I explained that no, I didn't feel like doing several more tours on active duty, constantly bouncing around with no *roots* anywhere, "Sir, I didn't mind being 26 and playing football on the beach with someone else's kids at the command picnic. But if I can help it, I'd prefer to be playing football with my own kids by 36." And that was the only time that I can remember seeing one of the quickest-witted and most sarcastic officers I've ever met speechless.

So now that I'm starting to imagine how things might look from the other side -- I have found a community that I love, I'm throwing myself into it headfirst at flank speed, and through that community have found a soulmate who I hope to someday start my own family with (for many reasons I'd be happy to talk about in person but won't elaborate on here on the blog) -- I can state pretty clearly that on a million levels, tangible and intangible, the *full* and rooted existence that I can see and feel coming into fruition beats the pants off an empty and peripatetic one.

More deployments will come.

I get that.

I get that I'm a year away from moving towards Civil Affairs, who are the guys that both McCain and Obama talk about keeping overseas in order to repair and rebuild struggling democracies long after the Infantry, Armor, and Artillery have gone home.

Deployments will bring tears and hugs both before and after the ride in the big C-17.

It will be hard, but there will be an enormous support structure back stateside.

That's better than the alternative.

You wouldn't tell a homeless person that money doesn't really matter. You wouldn't tell a starving person your pasta was too cold, or that your portion was too small. In that same vein, then, you probably should think twice before you tell someone how *lucky* they are for not having the things you value most: your family, your partner, and your community.


Shannon said...

Absolutely, and well said!

The New Englander said...


Glad you liked the post! Thanks for your comment...sorry I've been so out of touch, yahoo access is very limited but I am trying to fix that this week..


Shannon said...

Hey, thanks for letting me know, I appreciate that. No worries! Also, the article about your mayor is good news!Even better because he was humble about the incident.