Thursday, June 28, 2007

Home Fires: Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life

June 27, 2007, 8:55 pm
The Other Side of the Desk
By Lee Kelley

I will always remember that day in 2004 when I sat on the business side of a Lieutenant Colonel’s desk as he “invited” me to go to Iraq with his battalion. Now, as a company commander in the Utah National Guard, one of my duties has been to send others to fight the war in Iraq.

Nor will I forget the day I sat on the other side of the desk and told my soldiers they were being deployed. It was a recent drill weekend, and a sister battalion from Utah had received their deployment alert. My commander issued me a written order to provide soldiers to complement that battalion. Suggestions were made to hold a formation, and simply make the announcement, calling out the names of those who would be deploying.

I chose instead to notify each soldier individually. It took most of the day. Some were young and eager: “Roger that, sir. No problem.” They simply acknowledged that their chance to serve was at hand, and they did so with a smile and a certain eager look in their eyes. These kids joined the Army after this war started. They were ready and willing participants. Others were family men, working on their master’s degrees or running their own businesses, and dealing with a multitude of personal issues. Some were close to retirement. I wanted to notify them all of this massive adventure they would be undertaking, this guaranteed change of perspective, one on one, giving each a chance to ask questions, get angry, cry, or express whatever they wished in private.

As each soldier left my office I stood up and shook their hands, wished them luck, and told them not to hesitate to call me day or night if they needed anything. I also dismissed them for the rest of the day. It was a small gesture, but a clear statement that I understood the nature of the sacrifices they were about to make. “Take this time to get home and let your family know, O.K.? And I appreciate all your work here in headquarters,” I’d say. I think they could tell by my look that I understood exactly how they felt.

They left last week. The send-off was at the exact airbase here in Salt Lake City where I landed one year ago. There was a battalion of about 450 soldiers leaving that morning for a one-year deployment, and some of them were from my unit. Over 1000 family members turned out. As you might expect, there were speeches, banners, and lots of hugs and tears. I spent the morning shaking hands, giving words of encouragement, and saying to my buddies who have already been to Iraq once before, “You know what to do. So just do it and bring them all back, O.K.?”

As I stood there on the tarmac watching these soldiers pick up their bags and wave before climbing the stairs into the plane, I looked at the huge crowd of spouses, parents, brothers, and sisters crying. I could see sadness mixed with pride. And I saw little children sitting on shoulders, crying intensely as their Daddy grew smaller in the distance, or teenagers bending their heads into a loved one’s chest. Their tears were not easy for me to endure, and I was glad to be wearing sunglasses. As the planes taxied away, the Commanding General stood on the flight line and saluted them.

I am still in the Army today, but like many others I have made a personal decision to enter “inactive status.” I’ll be out in the next couple of months. My superior officers are aware of my decision. The choice took me most of a year to make, but after careful deliberation it is an easy one. I’m proud to join the ranks of American combat veterans. And yet I know that I would never leave my kids again. This fact is at the heart of my decision and I must say that I am very excited. All I need now is a job.

These stories of mine have been deliberately personal. I wanted to portray an honest glimpse into what one American experienced in his travels back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean six times in one year as a soldier in the Iraq war, gracefully lifting from these high Utah deserts, and then flying in low and fast across Ramadi in a blacked out attack helicopter. But these stories hardly illuminate the complexity my life has yielded. They are personal, yes, but only in the way a Polaroid picture of my family at a park one particular afternoon — when the last of the light broke through the trees in shafts, creating dusty colliding ecosystems with the pollen in the air — conveys a moment in time, a wonderful unmatchable moment.

I’d like to personally thank you all for reading, and for the supportive comments. I’d also like to thank my fellow Home Fires bloggers for their service, their sacrifices, and their insights. And finally I want to extend my sincere thanks to all the military families who are dealing with deployments, making huge personal sacrifices, and trying to keep it all together. You are a special breed and you must know it. Please continue to check my blog for information on upcoming projects, to include but not limited to, a non-fiction book about my experiences in Iraq, the authorized biography of Brigadier General Richard Fisher, and a novel.

Lee Kelley wrote for the TimesSelect column Frontlines in 2006 during his deployment as an Army signal officer in Al Anbar Province, where he maintained the blog, Wordsmith at War. He has been a frequent contributor to Doonesbury's "The Sandbox," and lives in Salt Lake City with his two children, where he is working on a non-fiction book about his experiences in Iraq.


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