Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day and Numbered Days

I wish, wish, wish that every American, old and young, had the opportunity to watch a squadron deploy and then watch them return.  To witness the anticipation, the tears, the tension, and the resolution on the faces of the families as the military beloved walks away.   The families breathe in bravery at that moment and begin life apart knowing that the road will be anything but easy.  I wish everyone could witness this event in real time, and not just the occasional five second clip on the evening news.

The tributes today, Veterans Day, will cause most of us to pause and thank those in uniform who have served us selflessly and silently.  My husband will proudly wear his uniform and travel around numerous events in Warrensburg, MO, shaking hands with veterans and personally expressing his own thanks for the battles they fought before his time and for humbly passing on the baton of freedom for him to carry.   His spirit will soften at their wrinkled eyes, their proud shoulders, and their own thanksgiving for the country that gave them the opportunity to serve. Somehow, they will make him feel as though this country gave them a great gift; the gift of fighting for freedom.  My husband will have more in common with many of these eighty-year-old men today than he has with some of his own peers, and he will treasure the stories they share with him.   He will pass on the conversations with our family tonight and we will, for this moment, feel so privileged to hear of their lives. I've seen these moments shared before and few images make me love my husband more...my tall beloved bending slightly to hear their words; allowing his own eyes to tear as they freely let theirs fall; his protective arm wrapped around their shoulders; and his strong hand that still has days left to fly a jet grasping a weakened hand that holds only a memory of such times.  The forty-year-old pilot connected to the eighty- year-old army private...a bond unexplainable to those of us who have never walked their road.  Side by side they will be, both soaking up one another's presence, encouraged by the other's strength.  The younger in awe of the journey traveled before his time and in awareness that the military too has numbered his own days; the elder in remembrance of wars fought long ago and in slight longing that there are still battles to be fought but they will be accomplished without his own hands.    My husband's thoughts often linger over the fact that what he's doing today, these "conflicts" in the forefront of his mind, will pass and become history; his actions will be one piece of a puzzle.  Lord willing he will live long enough to be the recipient of a handshake by the next wave of military members coming up behind.

Seven months ago, twelve A-10's and several hundred people from Whiteman AFB deployed to Afghanistan to fly close air support for our troops on the ground for our generation's war.
Can I just brag on the A-10 a bit?
The A-10 flies low, boasts an ugly, beastlike appearance, and exists to provide low air support for our ground troops.    When a soldier is on the ground being fired upon, there's no sweeter sound than the hum of the A-10 and the rumble of the Gatling gun as the A-10 does the magnificent job of protecting. This plane doesn't seem to have much time left in our Air Force fleet and for those of us intimately in love with this jet, we will be so sad to see it go.  The jet has spent almost as much time with my husband as I have. The pilots who fly the A-10 have committed to fly with the sole mission of keeping our people on the ground safe and bringing them home.   They could have flown fancier, faster planes, but they love this grassroots mission.  It's all about protecting the troops. Last time my husband was in Afghanistan, this sign hung boldly at Bagram Air Base: “The mission is the 18-year-old on the ground with the gun.  All else is support.”  The reminder to not forget why they were there.  I don't know if that sign still hangs, but its words seem to have made it a little easier for my husband to be away from his family.  The A-10 pilots would reach out and touch this sign every time they left the building for a combat mission.  They understood this thing they were doing was not for their glory; not simply to add ribbons and rankings to their own personal achievements.   The training...this deployment...this airplane...all came down to these missions and doing everything within their power to make sure that the 18-year-old on the ground got to come home to his or her family. Who wouldn't love an airplane with that mission?    I truly hope that if any of my sons are ever the ones on foreign soil fighting a ground war in a conflict I don't understand that someone like my husband will be flying overhead protecting them.

So, we drove to Whiteman AFB a couple weeks ago to watch the A-10's come home from combat. Seven months away doesn't sound long to an Army family, but for an Air Force reserve unit, seven months is a LIFETIME. Ten A-10's flew over the Air Force base as a unit and then one by one they peeled off to make their final descent and land back on Missouri soil for the first time in over half a year. The families waited.  Cheered.  Signs blew in the soft breeze and flags waved proudly.   T-shirts on the children read things like "Welcome Home!"  and "I'm going to get my dad back!" New babies dressed in red, white, and blue.  Life doesn't stop for the months someone is deployed.   It keeps going...important events happen...joyful moments exist...sorrowful times are missed...issues surface...trials braved...and these military families do their best to somehow stay connected, live life together, while thousands of miles apart.

My husband didn't go on this deployment.   Left behind this time around, we saw things differently; kind of from the outside. I thought back years ago to a colonel shaking my older boys' hands as my husband left on a deployment just days before Christmas.  The colonel stated wistfully, "I wish I was going with them.  It's hard to stay behind."    I thought the comment mere words until my husband was the one left behind shaking the hands. I remember clearly the night last September when he came home with the news that this time his name wasn't on the list.   "But don't get your hopes up," he told me, "things change," as if I haven't lived this enough to know.  And things did change, but my husband's name remained absent from the list.  He would stay back this time around and we would simply observe.  Watch them leave, hear the stories of a world far away, and welcome them home.    I'm not sure my husband ever spoke the colonel's exact words, but I saw it in his eyes as he watched the A-10's deploy back in March, "I wish I was going with them.  It's so hard to stay behind."  It had nothing to do with him wanting to be away from his family, but everything to do with wanting to be with his squadron...to put into practice all the training and to protect the 18-year-old on the ground.  My husband loves his job, LOVES his job, and he loves the A-10.  

"The A-10's are flying back home Sunday at noon.  You don't have to come watch.  I'll be there escorting some families, but you and the kids don't need to come unless you want to."  My husband threw the return time of the jets carelessly into the discussion in the days preceding their return.  He reminded me, "You know they don't care if any of us are there.  They just want to see their families."    True.   They just want to hold their wives, touch their kids, and breathe in the relief of being back in America. So, I didn't enter the return date on my calendar.   A date like that doesn't need to be entered; it's known deep in the heart.  My husband wasn't even deployed and my soul was counting down every second until their return.      
"Why has daddy been working so hard?"  one of mine complained the weekend the jets returned.  "Why has he been so grumpy lately?"  another chirped.  Complain.  Bicker. Whine. Complain.  Bicker.  Whine. Oh, how my little ones needed to be reminded.   A little wake-up call.  We've obviously been a little too free lately. They haven't had to count the cost of all of their "blessings" in recent days.  They needed to remember what exactly it is that their daddy does and feel a little humbled at their own "needs."
"Get in the car, Kids.  We're going to welcome some soldiers back home." 

On the day of the return, I ran into a friend,who has five kids, in the squadron hall.   We exchanged a few quick tears of relief before she gathered her beautiful children to be escorted to the flight line.  I captured the moment in my mind of this family minus one walking toward the planes.   That one who was missing was preparing to land and I couldn't help but think, "Well done, Little Mama. You made it!"  My kids and I stood in the shadows of the hangars, cheered loudly, and I silently thanked God for the privilege of knowing these amazing, brave families.  For a moment, my kids were solemn, speechless, full of awe. Families reuniting...beautiful to behold.  Even my teenagers recognized the heaviness and lightness of the moment.  The lightness of joy, relief, and contentment in the reunion; the heaviness of the cost of this moment.

Years ago, at a friend's military farewell, the man retiring said to those young in their career, "The Air Force has numbered your days; you only get a short window to do this thing, so enjoy it."    The veterans can attest to those numbered days.  Even my husband feels the clock winding down on his days of flying; his turn at this job of protection changing as he gets older.   Maybe that's why he volunteered to visit with veterans this morning; to assure them that they are remembered, valuable, and appreciated; their service a piece in the puzzle of this nation's freedom that can never be replaced.

We will look forward to hearing the stories tonight told to him by those who have gone before.  There will come a day when our squadron's well-loved A-10's will merely be shells of the planes they once were resting on the desert sand in Tucson, Arizona.    My husband's strong hands that have throttled the jet through thousands of hours of flight time will be shaking the hand of a younger pilot who will lean in close to my aging husband and hear of his stories while he was in the service.   We will listen tonight to my husband talk of old tales with that future moment in mind knowing that in years to come there will be another young family who might hear of our tales around the dinner table.
And I so hope they take the time to listen.
Happy Veteran's Day.