Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In Absentia

*Retold with permission.

Not long ago, I sat down and wrote my daughter a letter. She’s only seven months old right now, but there’s going to be a point when she’s older and notices that all the photos and videos of her as an infant and toddler don’t have me in them. When she took her first step, I was in Iraq. The same thing when she said her first word. In a few months, I’m going to miss her first birthday. Eventually, she’s going to wonder where Daddy was when she was a baby. Hopefully, the letter I wrote will help answer her questions.

Basically, I wrote down everything to explain why I’m in the military, and why I was in Iraq while she was little. As for why I’m in the Army, I wrote that I wanted to do something greater than myself and to serve my country. For lack of a better way to put it, I wanted to live an honorable life. Military service seemed like an ideal way to do that.

I also wrote that, for now, the Army has taken me to Iraq. It’s not because I WANTED to be here, because I didn’t. I would have loved to be with her every step of the way, from the moment she was born onwards through adulthood. But, for good or ill, this is where the Army needs me to be. I need to finish what my brothers before me started. Unfortunately, it takes me far from home, from my wife, and from her. As much as I don’t like it or what it does to my family, I’m doing a job that others wouldn’t do.

I have no idea if she’ll understand all this. I think a great deal of that depends on what age she is when reads the letter. But I’m hopeful that it’ll pique her interest. And rather than reaching conclusions based off the media’s slanted coverage of the war, I’m hoping that this will encourage a dialog between the two of us. Maybe she’ll ask me questions about it, and maybe she’ll actually listen to the answers. Maybe she’ll understand. Even if she doesn’t, I’m not apologizing. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat if I had to.

I suppose it’s possible that she’ll be interested in joining the military herself. If she’s 18 years old and announces that she wants to follow in my footsteps, I’ll probably try to talk her out of it. And if she’s her father’s daughter, she’ll also completely ignore me. I might try advising her to join the Air Force. I don’t wish this life on her.

In many ways, I also did this so there’s no need for her to serve. Years ago, my grandfather said something which still holds meaning to me: “you always want a better life for your children.” He’s right. I’m serving in the hopes that she won’t have to. One family member is enough. I also don’t wish this on her family, and I don’t personally want to ever worry about my daughter serving in a combat zone. My service is enough.

While I certainly want her to grasp why I did this, she may never get it, but that’s okay. None of this is intended to vindicate myself. I wrote the letter to start her asking questions, to help her realize that I’d be glad to talk about it, and also to know that my absence wasn’t by choice, but by necessity. And hopefully this will permit her to make informed decisions based not off of whatever she reads and hears in school or from friends, but from her own father, who she loves and trusts.

And, God willing, this is the last war we have for awhile. I’ll have already missed the most pivotal landmarks of her early childhood; I don’t need to miss anymore. I’m hoping this is the last time. I want to watch her grow up in person, not write more letters to explain my absence.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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