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How Army Deployments Affect Daddies
The uniform can't camoflage the Daddy in a soldier
In 1990 my family was settling into our new home in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an American Army family. My husband was to be part of an effort to modernize the Saudi army. At the same time, 500,000 U.S. troops were settling into much less comfortable quarters in a deployment known as Desert Shield.
While my family had been briefed the previous spring on what to expect from life in the capital of the Moslem faith, no one could foresee the advent of Desert Storm and the atropine syringes we would be given to keep in our refrigerators, ready to stick into our children in the event of a chemical attack; or the signs outside the post exchange shopping center reminding soldiers to clear their weapons of ammunition before entering; or the machine gun-equipped Humvees with alert squads of marksmen stationed at the front gates of that PX instead of just a bored employee asking to see your ID.
And then there were the soldiers, just like the many being sent far from home today and for the past decade. There were so many of them: young, gung-ho, all dressed in their new chocolate chip uniforms, as we called the desert camouflage fatigues they all wore. These were quite a change from the "pickle" battle dress uniform my husband had been wearing for the previous fifteen years. We saw the soldiers mainly in the PX and commissary when they came in from the desert on leave, which averaged about once a month. Shopping seemed to be a much-looked-forward-to event in their lives. Some said their brigades were not even allowed to use the ice that was available to cool their drinking water. This directive was supposed to get them aclimated to the 110-degree heat.
They told tales of tents full of homemade-goodie-laden tables as far as the eye could see, shipments of Game Boys and Walkmans for "any soldier," and mailbag after mailbag of letters, cards and videos from schoolchildren, old folks, and young women. Our commanding general's son actually married a girl who wrote to "any soldier" in 1990. They met in person after the war and married the following year. Mail "to any soldier" is no longer allowed for the security issues resulting from September 11, 2001. You have to have a soldier's name to send mail to the war zones, which isn't so easy to acquire for the 98 percent of Americans who don't serve in the military.
One Saudi weekend (Thursday and Friday, as dictated by Islam, instead of our western Saturday and Sunday), my 5-year-old son and I were shopping, and the PX was particularly crowded with troops from the nearby U.S. base. Jacob had been pestered for several days with his first loose tooth. Scavenging for the latest Nintendo game was taking his mind off it.
Suddenly, speechless, he ran up to me and offered me his outstretched little hand, on which lay a blood-tinged bit of a baby tooth. I couldn't tell if he was amazed or terrified. But before I could say a word, he was surrounded by chocolate chip-clad GIs patting him on the back, asking to see the tooth, telling him, "Way to go, buddy, you lost a tooth!"
Jacob was bewildered to be the center of attention and instinctively reached for the nearest in-uniform leg for comfort, expecting it to be his own father. He looked up to find he was clinging to the leg of a perfect stranger. The stranger fell instinctively into Daddy-mode and rumpled Jacob's hair. At that moment, those men weren't soldiers far from home on a dangerous mission for their country. They were lonely daddies enjoying, for just a moment, an experience they had to know they were probably missing out on with their own little boys.
Twenty-four years later, we're still at risk, and our troops are on watch in every corner of the world. It is the duty they signed up for voluntarily. But it takes a hero actually to do it. Many of those heroes are also Daddies, missing things like their 5-year-old losing his first tooth.