As my plane touched down in Albany last weekend, I arrived with a message for my dad: Osama Bin Laden was dead. Shot in the face by Navy SEALs. Revenge was ours. I could finally tell him our family’s sacrifice was worth it. Too bad he didn’t want to hear it.
Ten years earlier, only weeks after 9/11, my know-it-all 17 year-old self, informed my mom and dad that I was going to join the Army Reserves. I had it all figured out: graduate high school, go to basic training, come home, and enroll in community college. I would be all that I could be—and the Army would be mine. While I believed the plan was indestructible. My mom issued a warning.
“Katie, you realize what just happened, right?” she asked. “There’s a chance you could go to war.”
“Yes, mom,” I said, brushing off her comment as if she’d just asked me to take the dog for a walk.
That was my mom’s attempt to let me know that the world outside of suburbia wasn’t going to be forgiving; that war was inevitable. War, however, was not a deterrent. The word “war” itself was foreign to me. My only memory of war was at the age of six. I sat fixated on the television as the First Gulf War began. A news special captivated me, showing soldiers moving in a sea of night vision. But then my mom scooped me into her arms and turned off the TV. I didn’t know how to digest war when I had been so sheltered from it.
Almost three years later, in the late in the summer of 2004, I got a phone call while waiting tables at The Fountain in Albany. It was a sergeant from my unit in Schenectady, telling me I was being deployed to Iraq. I stood there for a minute, debating whether or not to call my parents.
“Hi Mom,” I said.
“Katie, your sergeant just called here,” she replied.
“I know, I just talked to him,” I said. “I’m being deployed with a unit from New York City.”
There was an awkward moment of silence. My plan didn’t seem so indestructible anymore. My parents were soon going to become the unwilling accomplices of my war and there was nothing I could say to reassure them that this—whatever it was we were about to be thrown into—would have a happy ending.
Six months into my deployment, as I took photographs of cheering Iraqi kids and blood-stained hospital floors for The Anaconda Times, my base’s local newspaper, a call from my mom catapulted me back into the world I had left thousands of miles away. Through her shaky voice, she mumbled the words, “Dad is in the hospital.” My then 72 year-old father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Unable to resist the temptations of alcohol, my dad relapsed, spinning into a cycle of malnutrition and feelings of worthlessness; he dropped 60 pounds and left my mom to fend for herself.
The war my mom had warned me about seemed to transcend the Atlantic. Instead of worrying about mortars and IEDs, she found herself in an empty home unsure of what would happen next. The difference was she never received any training for this. She was never told what to expect or how to deal with it. She was never told her life as she knew it would be a casualty of war.
Home wasn’t how I remembered it. My dad was now a permanent resident of a local nursing home. He was convinced I had spent the last year of my life in Germany where he was stationed during the Korean War. When I mentioned Iraq he looked baffled, almost as if September 11 had never happened; almost as if my mom’s heartbreak wasn’t his to claim.
Deployment seemed like the gift that kept on giving. We lost our home. My mom couldn’t keep up with the payments after my dad was unable to work. I packed everything I could into cardboard boxes and watched as our bank put a lock on our front door. “Keep out” we were told. We didn’t belong here anymore.
The one thing the Army taught me was to “drive on” and that is what we did. My mom found a cozy apartment in Albany and began to put her life back together. Slowly but surely, we realized we were the lucky ones. Death had not plagued our family and we refused to give way to another tragic tale.
At the age of 27, I now wish I had issued my parents a warning. It would’ve gone something like this:
The next year or so of your life is going to suck. In fact, you’ll probably find yourselves mad at me for joining the Army. My war is your war and war is hell. . .on both fronts. There will be times when you’ll have no one else to turn to but each other. Embrace it and be thankful that at least one other person gets it. Go to therapy, you’ll need the support.
Recently, as I walked into my dad’s nursing home, I carried with me the Time magazine declaring the end of Bin Laden. I wanted him to see the big red X across Bin Laden’s face. This was my mission accomplished banner. When I opened the door to my dad’s room I blurted out, “Dad! Guess what? We killed Bin Laden.” As I flipped through the magazine pointing to photographs, I wanted to reassure him that it was all worth it. The Alzheimer’s; losing our home; watching my mom struggle without her husband. . .but he just shrugged.
I realized reassurance wasn’t what mattered. I leaned over, kissed my dad on his head and said thank you. Military parents and family are sometimes forgotten, their sacrifices during wartime ignored and support for them can be miniscule. My family, and many others, will forever be changed by the ongoing conflicts, and to them I say thank you.