Editor’s Note: Nick Willard is the pen name of a service member heading to Afghanistan on one of the final deployments in the closing days of America’s longest war. He will write what he sees in an ongoing feature for The Daily Beast that will appear as regularly as his schedule allows. Biographical details have been changed to protect his identity.
I’d known about the deployment to Afghanistan for three months, but made a deal with my wife to not tell the kids until after the holidays. No reason to burden our daughter, the oldest, and boys any sooner than necessary. So we shielded our kids from the impending separation.
No public discussions about the deployment. Stern looks and mini-head shakes to Nana when she brought it up during her Christmas visit. No explanations during my spin-up for combat skills training. Intermittent over-the-shoulder checks to ensure lurking kids didn’t steal a glimpse of words like “Afghanistan,” “war,” “deploy,” or “casualty,” during internet searches and e-mails. New gear stashed away at the office to prevent curious questions.
My co-workers said I should’ve told my kids as soon as I knew, but with all the chatter of drawdown and a potential Bilateral Security Agreement, I wondered if the war would end before it drew me in again.
The current rhetoric says we’re staying after 2014 with at least 10,000 troops or going completely to zero. So far, my orders haven’t changed, and I feel war’s pull strengthen everyday. I think of how waves build… slow and unnoticeable at first, rising and accelerating in the shallows, reaching sublime heights and speeds, only to explode on the rocks. Or, maybe a satellite in an oblong orbit around earth—the closer it gets, the faster it flies.
An approaching deployment starts as something in the atmosphere; then you reach a point where it’s tangible and there’s no escaping the gravitational pull. The truth ambushed me a few weeks ago as I packed for my pre-deployment training.
In the days before leaving, life becomes focused on signing off the massive checklist in the “Reporting Instructions” outlining everything required for going to war: travel, uniforms, weapons, equipment, security clearance, medical, and training. The specificity of the reporting instructions are strangely comforting… follow these steps exactly, and you will live.
But reporting instructions, despite their details, don’t layout how to help families cope with impending separation; there are other checklists for that. Reporting instructions largely serve the institution to ensure an individual meets the minimum requirements to enter a warzone. There’s nothing in the checklist items about “breaking the news to kids,” or “reassuring wife that she’ll be able to handle everything,” or “ensure loved ones know final wishes in the worst case scenario.” The military has resources to help, but in the end every family has to navigate this on their own.
You’d think it would get easier for someone like me, who’s been in the military long enough to have left my family before, but these invisible battles, get harder every time.
We’d wanted to tell our kids about the deployment shortly after the New Year, but life sabotaged each attempt. After long work days, softball practice, Cub Scouts, or homework… broaching the subject occasionally crossed my mind, but it was never quite right. It would be 9 p.m. and I just wanted to enjoy a quiet moment with my children before they went to bed.
My wife and I agreed to tell our kids on a day trip to a nearby beach. But, as we breathed the Pacific air and gazed at the breakers from cliffs, I chickened out. My children wanted to peer over the cliff’s edge, to stare into the rock and whitewater chaos one- hundred feet below. I said, “no closer to the edge than here,” as I stood waving five feet from the precipice and felt my father’s fears rattle within me.
It finally happened on a recent Friday night at the local Applebee’s. After we placed our orders, I paused our kids’ menu tic-tac-toe and dot games. I looked at my wife, took a deep breath and said: “Are you guys wondering why I have to go away for a few weeks?”
“Not really,” said our daughter. The boys glanced at me, one shook his head no.
“Do you remember when I went to Iraq for a long time?”
A small chorus of “yes,” some nods, and six staring eyes.
“Well, I have to go away for a long time again.”
“How long will you be gone?” they asked almost in unison.
“Probably about six months.”
“I’m really sorry guys.”
“Where are you going?”
“Will you miss my birthday again?” asked our daughter. I’d missed her birthdays the last three years for overseas trips.
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
“You’re okay,” she said. Looking back, I think this was a brilliant answer, in essence: you’re okay, but this situation is definitely not okay.
“My birthday too?” asked one of the boys. They’d fared better than our daughter. I’d only missed one of their birthdays during an Iraq deployment.
“Don’t worry guys; he’s missing our twelfth anniversary too,” said my wife.
I missed our ninth, also during the Iraq deployment.
“Are you guys okay?”
“So, what are we doing this weekend?” asked our son.
And, with that, the notification was over. I’d prepared to answer all types of questions but the conversation shifted back to weekend plans.
Over the years, as my trips away stack up, the kids have become more and more vigilant. These days, they want to know exactly what time I’ll be home from work, how long the grocery store trip will take, why my holidays aren’t always the same as theirs. They demand reasons on days I’m home late.
The Saturday night before I left for training, I heard my son crying in his bed:
“What’s going on, buddy?”
“My crab is going to die,” he said.
The $2.37 Red Clawed crab—which my boys have chosen to keep nameless—is the fourth in a succession of hapless crustaceans to call the tank home. He’s lived with us for six months and every week, my son and I change its water. My wife has not been interested in crab tank maintenance.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re leaving and Mom won’t clean his cage and he’s going to die.”
“No way, buddy, I’ll show Mom how to do it, and you and her will take good care of him while I’m gone.”
“No she won’t. She thinks it’s gross. He’s going to die. Thanks a lot.”
So, just before midnight before I left, my wife and I cleaned our son’s crab tank together. I asked our son if he wanted to help, but he stayed in bed. I grasped the small tank, gently held the crab’s plant and house and tilted his world to dump the dirty water. I watched the crab scramble for shelter as everything he knows turned on its side.
Nick Willard is a military officer deploying to Afghanistan. He’s previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or United States government.