Every year we Americans remember Memorial Day. Okay, so some of us just grill out, go camping or spend the day on the beach, but most of us remember what this day is about. We remember the lives that were given to ensure the safety and freedom of our country. We remember that not every soldier agreed with every war, but you went anyway, you enlisted anyway, and you sacrificed anyway.
But not every soldier’s sacrifice ended in giving his life, though it is the highest price you could pay. Being the sister of a military veteran, I know intimately what our men and women give up to serve their country. My brother entered the Army shortly after high school. I was very saddened to have my big brother leave home for the first time. We’d never been apart for more than a week. He was my friend, sometimes my enemy, but my ally in a broken home. When he left, I felt alone and somehow abandoned. But this isn’t about me, and my brother has never been good at communicating his feelings, so I don’t even know how he felt at that time. Maybe he was scared, or lonely, or maybe he just saw it as another adventure: his first chance to venture out on his own and see what the world held for him.
Well, the world had a lot in store. He met his wife in Tacoma, WA, about as far from our hometown as you could get in the continental U.S. He married, completed a tour in Saudi Arabia in 1994, and then they called to say they were expecting. This child would be the first grandchild in our family and we were all excited for the birth, even though my brother, his wife and expected child were all the way across the country. We would have to be satisfied with pictures rather than holding that baby in our arms. Then we got another call: my brother was being deployed. This time it was South Korea. Safer than the Middle East at least, but he was there for almost a full year. He would miss the birth of his first child.
My nephew was born, my brother was able to come home shortly after to greet his child, missing the birth by a mere twelve hours, then back to Korea. Time passed, he returned, and life went on. We still didn’t see much of him. None of us back home could afford the airfare to make it out west, and my brother certainly couldn’t on military pay. Cards and pictures through the mail, the occasional phone call, were all we had to go on. When we received the call that they were expecting again, we all joked, “When are you getting deployed?” Turns out, it wasn’t a joke. In 2001 my brother was off to the upheaval in Kosovo.
Once again, he missed the birth of his child, a daughter this time. He was able to come home for a short while after the birth, but then it was back to Kosovo.
When the call came in 2003 to say they were expecting again, we didn’t even joke. We knew he would be deployed. The Iraq War had begun. My niece was born in October, and my brother was able to come home a few weeks later for leave, then back to Iraq.
I think of the births of my own children and know what my brother missed. When the pain is over and the task complete, the euphoria and joy wash over you at the first cries echoing through the sterile delivery room. I remember the moment of crushing affection that envelops you when your tiny infant is placed on your chest. The thought that you could never feel so much love, and the joy of the moment is almost painful in its intensity. I know he experienced moments like this, but never those first breaths, first cries, eyes peeping open at a new world for the first time.
Over the years, my brother and his family did what every military family must do, traveling from base to base wherever they are assigned. They changed houses and schools, made new friends and kept in touch with the old. My sister-in-law raised three children by herself while my brother was on his many deployments and my brother missed so much while he was away: first steps, first smiles, first teeth. He wasn’t always there, though I know he wished he could be, so he wasn’t able to see school plays and band concerts or sing happy birthday or watch them blow out their candles. He wasn’t always able to say goodnight or get a hug good morning, things many of us take for granted.
And it wasn’t just his kids he missed, though that was the most important loss for him. Even when he was in the U.S. the distance was usually insurmountable for us to get together as a family. Rare were the holidays when we could all be together, opening presents on Christmas or enjoying my grandfather’s amazing dinner on Thanksgiving. He missed countless pool parties at my uncle’s pool, but we all thought of him as we enjoyed Fourth of July barbecues and Memorial Day swims. But it wasn’t the same.
So, dear soldier, thank you. Thank you for the lost days, the missing smiles, the absent hugs. Thank you for the time you spent sleeping outside, baking in the desert sun or drowning in the incessant rain. Thank you for all that you’ve given, all that you give, and all that you will give in the future. Thank you.
A grateful American Citizen