The Fear of Farewell

By Clifford Brownstein
Sunday, May 27, 2007

Is fear of the unknown really worse than fear of the known?

I ask myself this question as the father of a U.S. soldier who will soon redeploy to Iraq. My son Alex served one tour of duty, from 2005 to 2006. It caused me, as well as many family members and friends, constant anxiety and worry. But back then, it was new territory for all of us. No one had had a loved one participate actively in a war before. We didn't know what to expect. And we didn't know how we'd react.

But now we know. And that's why our fears may be even greater when Alex heads back to Iraq in July.

There's no basic training course for parents of deployed troops. I know of no guidebook, no manual, no conference one can attend to learn how to cope with what a son or daughter is about to embark upon.

In October 2004, at age 18, Alex -- having quit high school, received his GED and attended community college for a year -- walked into the Army recruitment office in Rockville. My guess is that the recruiter nearly fell off his government-contracted chair. It's not often that a kid from the affluent D.C. suburb of Potomac tells a recruiter that he wants to enlist in the middle of a war -- for eight years. But that's my boy. Tell him to zig and he zags. Despite the concerns of nearly everyone on both sides of the family, he was determined to blaze his own trail. It was his duty to himself and, ultimately, to his country.

So off he went to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for basic training followed by Military Police training, his chosen specialty. His mother, sister and I visited him there twice -- once during training, and then for his graduation. The first time I saw my son in his dress uniform and beret, I cried. Not tears of joy or pride, but tears of remorse, angst and worry. I didn't let him see that.

After training, Alex was transferred to his base at Fort Lewis, Wash. In May 2005, he was deployed to western Baghdad. He called me in the middle of the night from Germany, where his plane was refueling. I was glad to hear his voice, but my anxiety grew as he got closer to Iraq. It felt like a bad dream. A day later, he phoned from Kuwait, the drop-off point for most soldiers. From there, they are taken by C-17 transport planes to various parts of Iraq. I knew then that this wasn't a dream and that my son was now in the middle of the Iraq war. And there wasn't a thing I could do to protect him.

It was several days before I heard from Alex again. Through the wonders of modern technology, I was able to communicate with him in real time via instant message and webcam. This proved to be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I wanted to hear, as often as possible, that he was all right. On the other, frequent contact provided me with a level of detail that sometimes was just too much to bear.

The first few weeks were rather nondescript. But then he began telling me that he was going on missions and that I wouldn't hear from him for several days, or a week, or sometimes longer. That's all he could tell me. Anything else was classified. After hearing from him almost daily, not receiving frequent reports was disquieting.

Alex's mother and I had divorced several years before his deployment. We were still co-parenting our daughter, Kate. And while we had, in many respects, a better relationship than a lot of divorced couples, we had the usual ups and downs. Alex's deployment changed that. We found ourselves commiserating regularly. After all, nobody else could feel what we were feeling about our son's being at war.

My ex-wife learned about an Internet mailing list called the Brave, a means for parents of soldiers to support and comfort one another, learn about Army initiatives and send care packages to troops. She reached out to her large network of friends and garnered prayers from families, congregations and other groups. Similarly, I reached out to anyone I could find, including relatives, friends, clients and even my motorcycle buddies across the country, who are some of the most respectful, supportive and, in many cases, empathetic people I know.

As the war raged on and the year dragged by, the reports from Alex became more graphic and foreboding. At one point, he told me that he'd continue to convey information about how he was doing unless I told him that it was too much to handle. He also expected that I would filter much of it for his mother, sister, brother and other relatives, providing them with as much detail as I deemed they could stomach. This included many pictures of war-torn Iraqi neighborhoods, displaced and homeless families, robotic bomb detectors and weary yet dedicated comrades. The realities of war never felt so real.

Alex's primary role was to serve as a gunner in an armored security vehicle. His truck, along with others, would patrol designated areas in search of roadside bombs and camouflaged snipers. Sometimes he would man his turret in 125-degree summertime heat for 12 hours and find nothing. Other times, he would end up in battles with insurgents, as well as with civilians whom the insurgents had coerced or convinced to join their cause. His convoys came under attack. Soldiers he was close to were killed. When his mother and I asked how he was dealing with the deaths of people he knew, he said he didn't want to talk about it. As for me, I thanked God for each day Alex continued to live.

I would periodically ask Alex about his opinion of the war. He would always tell me that he has no opinion, that most soldiers don't pay attention to the politics back home, and that they see their roles as simply doing their jobs and watching one another's backs. Wavering from that stance could have disastrous results. I could understand the need to focus, but I found it difficult to comprehend that so many soldiers would have no opinions about the conflict, or were, at the least, suppressing their thoughts about it.

I once asked him what it felt like to kill someone. His answer was both chilling and pragmatic. "Dad," he said, "if they're aiming a gun at me from behind a window shade on the seventh floor of an apartment building, it's either them or me. I don't want it to be me."

I think that was the moment I realized that my son was doing a job that neither I nor, I dare say, most of the American public would have the stomach or the courage to do. I couldn't have been prouder of him -- or more scared for him.

Alex returned stateside in mid-January 2006 and came home for a month a few weeks later. We had a rollicking welcome-home party for him, and he regaled friends and relatives with stories and pictures of his experiences. He was invited to speak at his high school, Winston Churchill. He gave a talk, using many of the photos he had sent me, to more than 400 students and 30 teachers and administrators. It was a well-structured, informative and eloquent presentation. The ironic part, though, was that Alex had quit that same high school three years earlier, despite good grades and exemplary SAT scores, because he yearned for something different, something more. And now, the prodigal son had returned to the place he had left so innocently, yet so turbulently, when he was barely 16.

My son is a professional soldier. It has taken me a long time to realize and accept that. While he has other career aspirations, this is his job for the next five-plus years. Now a sergeant, he commands others. He is a war veteran at the ripe old age of 21. He has seen death, and he has killed. He has seen his colleagues die. He has seen children die. His high school buddies will be entering their senior year of college soon. I sometimes wonder who is receiving the more important education.

I love my son and am very proud of him. His is a noble pursuit. He has set his sights on an eventual career with the U.S. Marshals Service, or perhaps the FBI or CIA. He is growing up faster than I ever imagined. My family and I have breathed much easier this last year, knowing that he is safe. But our breathing has quickened, two months before his expected redeployment. After that, it's going to be a very long 15 months.

Clifford Brownstein is the owner of the consulting firm Practical Strategies.

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