I remember the night.
A group of friends stood around my husband David’s laptop, looking at photos he had taken during the first half of his deployment with the Third Armored Cav. Regiment in Diyala province, Iraq. He was on his twelve-day leave, and we’d gone to Boston to be with his dear friends from Harvard Law School. They came, with their families, for dinner. Soon, everyone gathered around him to hear the stories of war – the things he had seen, the soldiers he’d befriended, the al-Qaeda members who had vomited on him.
Yes, he had some stories. Since his regiment suffered more casualties during “the surge” than any other in that time frame, his voice occasionally broke with emotion.
We had only twelve days with him before he went back to war, but we thought it was important to be with friends.
Our kids hovered hesitantly near the cozy group listening with rapt attention. My son gripped a Batman figurine in his hand as he stared at his dad whom he hadn’t seen for months. David was talking about things – terrorists, bombs, IEDs, tanks – that he hadn’t talked about before he’d deployed. We weren’t a “military family,” so they didn’t grow up with talk of war. David was a lawyer who decided to serve his nation after 9/11. Suddenly, we moved from our penthouse in Center City Philadelphia back home to the south to be near family during the deployment.
This “new dad” was unfamiliar to them.
I wondered for a moment if this was good – we were at a party, for goodness sakes. Did our well-heeled friends really want to hear about the war? My friend Jean pulled me aside and said, “This is amazing. You never get to hear from people who’ve seen the front lines.”
Her reassurance comforted me, but I wondered if I should let the kids hear what he was saying. They were eight and ten years old. When is this the age-appropriate time to introduce them to genocide? Beheadings? Just weeks prior to that moment, I’d covered their eyes during the scary scene in one of the Chronicles of Narnia movies.
The deployment made things real with our family. From those early ages, the kids began to contemplate unmitigated evil, the responsibilities of freedom, the high cost of war – on families, on soldiers, on nations.
I thought of this today as I drove them to school. They’re teenagers now, no longer hovering hesitantly on the sidelines of adult conversations. Their views – political, moral, philosophical, theological – have been shaped over the years by conversations, stories, and books. We were listening to an NPR interview about Mark Harris’s new book on World War II filmmakers, and discussing the government’s role in telling the story, balancing “propaganda” with actual patriotism.
As I listened to their thoughts, I was suddenly thankful David made the decision to serve his country. I’m also thankful that he chose to tell the children the hard, horrifying stories of war.
I am different than I would’ve been had he not chosen to serve, and the kids are different than they would’ve been had he not chosen to serve.
When my husband left in 2007, that man would never really return. But, I’m thankful that his voice still breaks when he tells the stories.