The Kevlar vest weighs a ton. At least 60 lbs. I wore it for 20 minutes before my shoulders and back started screaming in agony. The helmet and goggles impeded my range of vision. The HETS (Heavy Equipment Transporter Systems) I was riding in was not helping things either. It’s made for hauling M1 tanks and payloads of up to 80 tons through the desert and minefields of Iraq, so needless to say comfort is not a priority. As we bumped along as part of convoy training my mind started to wander. I thought about how uncomfortable I was. I thought about my leg that was starting to cramp up after half an hour in the HET. And the pain in my back and neck was second only to how much I missed MJ and Will after two days of not seeing them. But suddenly my mind was snapped back to the present.
While I was internally bitching and moaning about my out-of-shape body and missing my family, Army Sgt. Sousa from southeastern Mass. (first name and hometown withheld for safety reasons) had spotted a 155 mm artillery shell on the side of the road put there to simulate an Improvised Explosive Device, which is one of the leading causes of death for our soldiers in Iraq.
And just then I realized exactly how spoiled I am.
You see, Sgt. Sousa is younger than I am. And he’s got an 8-month-old son back home in Massachusetts. But for the last month he’s been training in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma to prepare for his deployment to Iraq. He’s gone a month without seeing his wife and child. And in early March he’ll be sent off to battle, at which point he won’t see any of his family for up to a year. Not to mention he’ll be traveling through hellish Iraqi desert while people shoot at him and try to blow him up.
Suddenly my bitching about a sore neck and two days without my family seemed very, very spoiled.
Look, I already have a very healthy appreciation for the soldiers in our nation’s armed forces. My godson has two parents who were both deployed to Iraq, and his father Vic missed much of the first year with his son. So I get it, really I do. But Vic is back with his family now, happy and healthy, and so I think I stopped thinking about it as much.
So I asked Sgt. Sousa some questions about his son. He smiled as he told me about the daily pictures and videos he receives from his wife. We talked about what a cool age 8 months is, as they perfect crawling and prepare to walk. I tell him about my blog and how, at that age, it felt like I had something new to write about everyday because Will was always hitting a new milestone.
“Yeah,” said Sgt. Sousa, still smiling but looking wistful. “That’s what I hear.”
And right then it hit me all over again — like a brick to the head — the extent of the sacrifice these men and women are making.
Sgt. Sousa is missing a full year of his son’s upbringing. A year!! He won’t be there to witness the first time his son takes his first steps or says “Dadda.” Yes, with technology such as Skype and e-mail he’ll be able to look at pictures and video. That’s definitely a silver lining. He’ll be able to video chat occasionally with his son, enough so that he won’t forget his dad’s face or voice. But he won’t be able to kiss him. To hold his hand. To feel the indescribable joy that occurs when those little arms wrap around your neck to hug and squeeze you with all their might. Or, more simply, he won’t be able to be there and witness the thousands of little things that make parenting so worth it.
And he’s missing all of it so people like you and I can enjoy those things. Because I’ll tell you right now, I couldn’t do it. Missing two days really bothered me, I can’t imagine missing an entire year. It would devastate me.
And as that emotion washed over me, I felt the urge to make a grand gesture to show my appreciation for what Sgt. Sousa and all of our soldiers do for us. But what could I possibly say or do that would be fitting? There isn’t a show of appreciation grand enough to reflect the sacrifice they make by putting themselves in harm’s way for us. I wanted to pay his mortgage or build him a house. I wanted to take care of his son’s future college tuition. I wished it was possible to set him and his family up for life. But I can’t do any of those things, yet I had to do something.
“Hey Sgt…I uh…well, thank you. Really. Thank you for all that you guys are doing.”
I felt like such a dick. I’m a writer for God’s sake, yet the best I could come up with was “thank you?” This guy is going to be away from his family and dodging bullets and suicide bombers, and the best I could offer was a friggin thank you?!? I immediately felt so stupid and my mind started racing in an attempt to think of something more fitting for the moment. But then Sgt. Sousa looked back and smiled.
“You’re welcome sir. Much appreciated.”
I learned a lot on my recent trip and gained a whole new found respect for our soldiers. Especially those with kids. Some would say it’s impossible to be an involved dad from halfway around the world. But that’s bullshit. There isn’t a more important fatherly duty on this planet than ensuring freedom for our kids.
So if you see a soldier in your travels, think of Sgt. Sousa. And tell him/her thanks. It’s the least we can do, but it really does mean more to them than you’ll ever know.