By the end of the month, the last of our troops will have returned home from Iraq for the last time. Each veteran has a unique view of the war and perspective it has had on their lives.
Some troops have deployed multiple times, having spent years of their lives in the hostile combat zone. My combat experience was limited to one tour which encompassed the invasion in 2003. Yet, the war remains a defining event in my life.
As I reflect on the war, I can't help but think of my son, Brandon, who I left behind when I deployed. On his birthday every year, I am reminded that he is as old as the Iraq War. Each year, I've wondered how old my son would be when the war is finally over.
Brandon turned nine years old last week.
In December of 2002, my unit was ordered to deploy to Kuwait in what would lead to the invasion of Iraq. The call came on the day after Christmas, three weeks after my son was born. I spent less than two months with him before deploying to Kuwait. On the day I got on the plane, I kissed Brandon goodbye not knowing if I'd ever see him again.
That was one of the worst days of my life.
At two months old, Brandon wouldn't remember me kissing him goodbye. This is what made it so difficult for me as I saw him fade away in the distance. We barely got to spend time together and the lack of bonding time continued to weigh on me when my unit arrived in Kuwait.
While waiting in the Kuwaiti desert, I wrote letters to my son as if they might serve as a way for him of understanding why I went to war. For me, writing the letters was a coping mechanism for dealing with the separation. Admittedly, I was scared that I wouldn't make it home to be a dad. But in combat, I knew that I needed to let go of my fears so that I could focus on the mission.
My biggest concern was that I would be unable to pass on life lessons that I believed Brandon would need from me if I was killed in combat. I worried that he would have a void in his life which no one else would be able to fill. The only memory he'd have were my pictures and personal possessions. So, I wanted my son to have something personally addressed to him.
In my letters, I tried to make up for my absence:
March 6, 2003
How are you doing? I hope you are healthy and getting stronger each day. Anyway, I figure you won't understand much of this letter or others for a while. I want you to know that I think of you every day.
I wonder what sort of man you will be. What virtues will you seek to embody? I can't wait to see you grow. It is unfortunate and out of my control that I am on the other side of the world. I wish I could be over there with you... believe me...
One lesson in life, you have to open the door of opportunity... and when presented with the opening, you have to take the chance... you risk failure and disappointment. Nothing worthwhile is without that potential. The key is to know how to bounce back and move on. Sometimes your dreams will come true and you will feel on top of the world.
One day you may ask me why I joined the Army... and why the Infantry... I'm still not sure. However, I've always thrived for challenge... I initially decided that West Point was the best college for me. I knew that for me, to go to West Point would set me up for success throughout my life. Attending and graduating from West Point requires Army commitment. I chose Infantry because it is the heart of the Army. Plus, it left me with more options... One lesson you can apply throughout your live is to leave your options open. You also have to define what path in life you are going to choose for yourself. That is internal.
I hope you remember me when I finally get home. You probably won't, but that is OK... I was just remembering the day you were born. You were very alert once you were delivered. We got to look at each other...
Well, your Dad (that's me!) has to go to some rehearsals and briefings... I think about you every day. I miss you very much.
I wrote the letters in between different activities and rambled on in a stream of consciousness. Part of the process was reflective, in that, one of my biggest dreams in life was to be a father and I was not able to be there for my son. In supporting that dream, I had joined the Army not fully appreciating the fact that I might jeopardize my ability to fill that parental role. But writing the letters helped in mentally preparing for combat. It allowed me to focus on my assigned missions.
I still have my handwritten letters from the war.
By the time I returned home, Brandon was ten months old and did not recognize me. After fighting during the ground campaign to Baghdad, witnessing the carnage of war along the way, I realized that it would be a long road home for American troops. Still, I don't think many people would have planned nor mentally prepared for a nine year war.
Tragically, there are sons and daughters who have grown up not knowing their mothers and fathers -- and they aren't just American. This tragedy has been shared by people of many nations, including the Iraqis themselves.
We should honor our troops who have sacrificed so much and include their families in expressing our appreciation. Furthermore, we should remember that our troops will continue to sacrifice in Afghanistan and in other regions of the world. Their families continue to wait for them to come home.
For now, though, I celebrate the end of this war and appreciate the lessons it has provided.
In going to war, I learned to better appreciate the basic things that life offers more than I did before, such as holding my son. Hopefully, our leaders of this and subsequent generations will learn that wars always require more sacrifice than expected and that the human costs continue even after the troops come home. Perhaps we will avoid the next Iraq War. History suggests that the odds are stacked against us.
For our children, who have known only wars that do not end, they will soon learn that wars can and do end.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ryan McDermott.