I was just an eighteen-year-old kid, as many are when they sign their life away to the machines of United States defense. I’m not sure why I did it, other than it was something I wanted to do since I was learning to tie my own shoes. I remember the day I told my parents; to say it went well would be an outrageous overstatement. My dad, being a veteran himself, wasn’t extremely upset with me. Deep down I don’t think he was very surprised either.
My mother on the other hand, was devastated. And she had every right to be. After all, I was joining the Marines during a time of war, and I was going into the infantry, no less. Needless to say, there were more than a few shouting matches; I would usually spout off something about how I was eighteen and an adult now, and she would argue that I could get hurt, and then we would both stomp off, I to smolder in anger somewhere, and her to sop up the tumult of tears that streamed from her eyes. I knew what it was doing to her, and I didn’t care. I was a man, and I was going to do what I thought all men should do, and that is to serve their country.
I didn’t understand, then. It didn’t matter if I was one of her babies, one of the few loves of her life that she had poured her heart and soul into for eighteen years. It didn’t matter that I could be seriously injured, maimed, or even worse, gone forever. I always knew that those things could happen, and deep down in my heart I felt that they were incredibly heroic and sad, one of the beautiful epics of human existence. I have always had so much respect for those who give life and limb for their country, and we all should; but the toll it takes on those oppressed and those loved ones affected is immense. To have a part of your soul ripped out and fed to the demons is debilitating, mostly because those demons are never satisfied; they will forever return to feed.
Looking back now, I doubt that I would have relented to my mother, sadly. I’m glad that I joined and had the amount of life experiences that I did. I only wish that I hadn’t caused her so much pain; but since I’m sitting here writing this, it could have been worse, and it is for many. I didn’t truly understand how my mother and father felt, and I didn’t think I would until later in life.
I was wrong.
My girlfriend (and I) became pregnant in January of ’07, while I was in the thick of infantry school. I was just a kid myself. I had no idea how to feel or what to expect. Once I got to my unit it was easy for me to put it out of my mind since I was busy training and goofing off in the barracks or out in town. She lived so far away that I rarely witnessed the emotional giants that she was facing. A phone call here and there would usually consist of arguments followed by a silent me listening to her cry because I had no words to ease her pain or the guilt that I was feeling. Young love is incredibly naïve.
That summer I asked her to marry me. She said yes (thank God) and we were hitched in September; I was leaving for Iraq the very next week. I remember being so happy, and she glowed in her wedding dress, with her baby belly that looked ripe enough to burst at any moment. She was just as beautiful as the day I had met her, but in one new way: she was a mother carrying my child, and to me there is nothing more beautiful in this world.
Deployment came, and I lived every day not knowing what was going to happen the next minute, the next second. I can honestly say I didn’t experience a lot of fear, or the fear of death; I was doing my job and that was all that I could do. What I did fear was leaving my new wife and soon-arriving daughter to face the pressures and trials of life without me. It was something I had never felt before, and it scared me more than anything. Every step I took, every house I entered, every mile I drove, it weighed on me in the depths of my mind, clawing and scraping its way up to the surface.
I remember the myriad of kids we would see every day while we were on patrol. They would be out running in the streets or kicking a ball around in a dirt field. They never failed to bum rush us or our trucks, laughing and waving and yelling things like “pencil” or “chocolate.” Sometimes we had things to give, sometimes we just talked to them, and sometimes we told them to scram. We could tell that they had learned things from the other soldiers who had been coming to their neighborhoods for years. They knew quite a few phrases in English, and curse words even. They were always trying to impress us or make us laugh so that they could get a free piece of candy or American souvenir. I even saw boys start all-out brawls in the dirt, throwing punches and pulling hair and drawing blood, all for some worthless trinkets that we may or may not give to them. It was sad, really. But not quite as sad as another thing I noticed.
In most Islamic cultures, women are treated very poorly. The amount of respect shown to a woman by men is not much higher than that shown to animals. I could see that horrible norm already manifesting itself among the children. It isn’t their fault, they are just reenacting what their elders perform every day.
The little girls were always pushed aside by the boys, treated as second best, and even robbed of what we had given them. I grew very fond of these unfortunate dolls. With my mind constantly dwelling on the little girl that waited for me at home, in the arms of my wife, I formed a special connection with these girls. I always went to them first to talk or high five or shake hands. I passed by the crowd of assaulting boys and went straight to the girls who stood behind the mob, quiet and still. I always made sure they got whatever treat I had to give, and I made sure they took it or ate it before the boys were able to steal it. I stood up for the girls, knowing that I had one of my one. I protected the girls, realizing that I would be doing the same for my own. I worried about them, as I figured I would about my own.
It was during this deployment that I began to graze the surface of what my mother had felt. Of course, it paled in comparison since I hadn’t even met my own daughter, but it was the first time that I began to think this way.
It all made the homecoming arrival that much sweeter; getting off the plane and walking through the airport until I saw my love waiting there for me, a bundle of life in her arms. I took my daughter and held her for the first time, extremely unsure of how to act or feel or even how to hold her without breaking her; but in my heart I knew that that moment was the beginning of my life, not some random, unimportant day in the middle. Every day after that moment mattered more than all of the ones before it.