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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Prologue: 31JAN2013

I am terrified. Not of any physical danger but of the emotional hardship that is to come. There is some danger, to be sure, but I have about as much comprehension of what that might be as I would understand the moments before an Olympian tests their mettle on a grand stage.

I have worked with the army of years. I have listened to every story I could find, I have taken notes on army bureaucracy, culture, and beliefs. I have taught the Air Force corpsmen and studied the decision-making of experienced combat commanders... And I still have no idea what I don't know.

So I fear simple things: carrying 100 pounds of gear for a week; navigating the military air system to reach my destination unescorted and unassisted; having enough clothing, or too much; finding the boxes I mailed ahead; working 12 hour days, seven days a week; and finally, can i do the job I so confidently sold during this process?

I also fear bigger things, or to be more precise, smaller ones: my children are left to bear a burden they have less ability to comprehend than I do to understand being in a war zone. Arguably, their danger is much more real than mine. My daughter looks up to me, loves me with all her soul, and is as much a part of me as my arm or my heart. The question is not 'will she change while I am gone?' But 'how will she change?' Will the physical distance create an emotional wedge from which my cuddly, loving, compassionate toddler will forge a weapon to keep me away, lest she be hurt like this again? Have I destroyed the trust of an innocent? Will she be willing to forgive me and give me the girl I hugged this morning at least in some small way? Can I fault her if she doesn't?

My son is in some ways a little easier to frame in my mind, but a little darker as well. He knows me only by smell and rough muffled sounds, so he doesn't know trust, or frustration, or betrayal, or who I was versus who I will become. On one hand, we will meet for the first time when I return, and build from there. On the other, I haven't had two and a half years like I have with my daughter during which to form expectations, share joy, provide structure, model affection, and lay a foundation from which to build again.

When we made the decision for me to go, I was only thinking of myself in that things like his first step, first word, first everything mattered only to me and meant nothing to him. If I missed them, it was a sacrifice I could make. Maybe I was wrong in my thinking. Maybe it was not those benchmarks that were important to him, but the spaces between them where a parent gives back for all the singular moments the child provides.

A forgiving tone at spilled milk, laughter during a particularly bad diaper, a firm look to a test of boundaries, or a compassionate and effective response to injury all for the glue that the developmental steps rest within to hold them together and form the person beneath.
And I will not be there for those moments.

I am blessed to have my wife there to carry my banners into the war of parenthood, to wave them for me on occasion and to show my children that she is not alone, though I am far away. Through the wonders of technology I hope to see my family, watch them change, help them where I can, and show through my actions the values I hope they one day understand (even if they don't agree).

There has been a lot of change, but I still believe no change is bad. What we call bad change is merely choice with a greater opportunity to strengthen ourselves and build different people than those created along parallel paths. We'll see if I still believe that when I awake for the 309th time in a strange place, and my family is left carrying the heavy load no matter how many pounds of luggage I must haul on this path.

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