‘I want to join the Army,” my husband said.
I was standing in our apartment in Philadelphia in 2005. It was around five o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun poured through the windows that overlooked the Walnut Street Theater, the Philadelphia Eagles stadium on the horizon. I wrapped my hand around a nearby chair as if I were holding one of my children’s hands on a busy street. My husband’s sentence had just obliterated my idea of the “perfect” family life. I guess everyone has a different image, but in my ideal world, the kids would sit at our kitchen table and do homework with their backpacks slumped on the floor and later set plates out for dinner. Formality didn’t exist in my vision — just four plates, forks haphazardly laid on them, with mismatched mugs.
My 37-year-old husband was a lawyer — a graduate of Harvard Law School — who defended free-speech rights. As the war in Iraq raged unabated and the Army struggled to meet recruiting goals, he realized that he could no longer support the war in good conscience if he wasn’t willing to fight it. In the kitchen that day, I had a choice to make. Would I urge him to put our family over his sense of duty? That moment would shape our lives forever. But when I released my grip from that chair, I grabbed his hand. We’d walk through this together.
At the time, our kids were six and four. My older child, Camille, was attending first grade in a Philadelphia public school, and my younger child, Austin, believed that dressing up in his Spiderman costume actually made him the superhero. How would they understand an almost certain deployment?
Two years later, on Thanksgiving eve 2007, David flew to eastern Diyala province, Iraq, with the 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment — right into the teeth of the Iraqi insurgency and just a few miles from the Iranian border. The kids and I were left at home, which meant I was in charge of getting the kids to school on time, making sure they were at basketball practice, and even paying the bills. All four of us survived. I managed to keep us financially solvent, the kids managed through missed birthdays and recitals, and David managed to come back home.
The deployment was a life-changing experience, and we even wrote a book about it, Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War. But five years later, I can see it had long-term effects that surprise me to this day. Here are a few.
1. The deployment gave us an urgency and appreciation for life. By David’s count, between early February and early April, his relatively small squadron suffered about 20 percent of the total coalition casualties in Iraq. Some of them were good friends, which meant that, though he survived the deployment, he didn’t come back “whole.” When he was there, he said, he prayed every time he rolled outside the wire, “God, thank you for the life you’ve given me.” After the deployment, we were filled with questions. Why did so many good people die? Why was David spared? Yes, we have questions, but the gratitude still lingers. It’s a gift for my children to realize at such a young age the temporary nature of this world. With the proper theology, it leads them to live not more cautiously but more robustly.
2. Our family has a keener sense of sobriety now. When David came home, we were so thrilled to see him, even though he was incredibly grief-stricken. That’s when we began the sometimes-complicated business of walking alongside him in his sorrow and recovery. Every year, David makes a great effort to honor his fallen comrades, but he carries this grief in his heart all the time. He’s different, but the kids have learned that it is right and appropriate to mourn the loss of friends and to abhor the evil that attempts to steal, kill, and destroy so much of what is good about America.
3. Events in the news aren’t as distant. September 11 was the catalyst that caused David to join the Army. Though Austin was just an infant when those buildings fell, he and his sister certainly understand the connection between terrible events and the consequences for the men and women in uniform. Now they realize that events being discussed on the news could affect our family life, which gives the information a certain heft. This means I’m a little more cautious before turning on the news, unless I’m prepared to have a long discussion about North Korea.
4. It’s forced us to rely on God. There’s an old Stonewall Jackson quote that goes something like this: “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.”
Years have passed since that moment in the kitchen. Austin no longer believes he’s Spiderman and is now old enough to shoot hoops for his school’s basketball team and trap for his school’s gun team. Camille is old enough to get her driver’s-license permit at the end of this year. But walking through the deployment, and recovering from it, has taught us the necessity of trusting in God. When we came face to face with God’s sovereignty, it caused us to loosen the tight grip we believed we had on our lives. It allowed us to more freely live for something more than ourselves.
Which brings me to a lasting, wonderful effect of the deployment: After David returned, we started the process of adopting a little girl from Africa. When we got our referral photo, we saw the tiniest, most malnourished baby sitting on the floor of an orphanage half a world away. She was beautiful — her name in Amharic means “beautiful.” As we were going through the adoption documents for the hundredth time, David held up a piece of paper. “Look at this!” he said. On the line reserved for the day of her birth was scrawled “November 22, 2007.”
It suddenly dawned on us that somewhere in an African village, a baby was born on the very day David was flying into Iraq for the first time. I remember being apprehensive about our future on that day, hoping it would involve simply a warm homecoming after about a year. But God had plans for us, and was lovingly preparing a future greater than we could ever imagine.
My vision of the “perfect” family really had changed significantly since that day in the kitchen when David told me he wanted to join the Army. Instead of four plates set haphazardly on the kitchen table, we now have five.