As a member of the Army, I have been deployed many times over the years into war zones and fought, sometimes intense battles. As a result of that service, I have been the fortunate recipient of numerous public displays of thanks from a grateful American public, received offers of dinner from total strangers, and been shown other acts of kindness and support. We in uniform are commonly lauded and praised as sacrificing servants of the nation, for which I have always been particularly grateful. But something happened to me recently that exposed an imbalance in that adoration that frankly left me humbled and a bit ashamed. I hope through the power of the written word to perhaps make a dent in that imbalance.
I recently traveled from Fort Riley, Kan., through Baltimore-Washington International Airport on my way to Iraq. This trip would only last 10 days, but was designed to set the stage for a successful year-long mission I’ll undertake beginning in a few months with a team of 10 other officers and men. Because my wife Natasha and two fabulous, young boys live in the Washington metro area, I was given the privilege of spending a couple of hours with them between flights at BWI. When my six-year-old saw me at a distance, he came sprinting through the terminal and leapt in my arms; his one-year-old brother was following after him, waddling as fast as his little legs would carry him. Behind them was their lovely mother - a sight that would thrill any soldier. After a few enjoyable hours together, however, the inevitable time of anxious separation arrived for Natashia: her husband was about to get on a plane heading for a war zone. Holding back the tears, she took the two boys in tow and walked to the car for the long, lonely drive back home where soon she would have to begin a 16-month voyage as a single parent - again. At the end of my tour in Iraq, we will have been separated because of Army deployments 43 out of the previous 60 months.
Shortly after my wife left the airport, I sat waiting for the next leg of our flight contemplating what lay ahead. I remembered the very genuine and enthusiastic applause our group of 15 uniform-clad soldiers had been given aboard the Southwest Airlines flight from Kansas City and felt a bit buoyed. But then my thoughts returned to my wife who was still on the road heading home. She had been given no applause. No one had offered to buy her a meal. No one told her how much they appreciated her sacrifice. Instead, while we in uniform get all the public accolades, unbelievable support from organizations like the USO, and are taken care of in the war zone by our government better than any army in the history of armed struggle, my wife gets only endless days of loneliness, anxiety, and the burdens of single parenthood.
She has her own full time job as a nurse. She has to take the kids to school and daycare every day. She has to come home at night and give them the attention they deserve (and demand). She has to be a compassionate mother, a disciplinarian dad and fix the leaky faucet. She has to do everything, by herself, alone, all the time. She gets no days off. She has no intimate confidant, no family living nearby, and has none of the emotional support a woman needs (and deserves). The more these thoughts permeated my mind, the more I began to squirm in my seat at the growing realization of the imbalance in how equal sacrifice is not being equally recognized.
As I began to share these thoughts with some of my fellow military travelers, I discovered that my situation was quite common, at least among the people I talked with. Only one was making his first deployment to a war zone. They all recounted the sacrifices and suffering their loved ones have made over the years. Those left behind to fight the battle of the home-front live every day with the realization that their husband or wife serving in a war zone could be killed or wounded.
It is sobering for me to realize that since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has lost more than 600 soldiers in Afghanistan and nearing 4,200 in Iraq. The total wounded are well over 45,000. Have you ever stopped to consider the anguish, the mental turmoil suffered by the wives, husbands, and children of those nearly 50,000 total casualties - or the hundreds of thousands of others that wonder every day if their deployed service member will be next? I have heard many leading politicians over the years proclaim, “I understand what the families of our service members go through,” but with all due respect, they don’t. I don’t.
Until you live in their shoes every day for the duration of a combat deployment, none of us can truly understand the full measure of what they suffer. At least we in the military get the pat on the back. But what notoriety do our family members receive for the silent sacrifice they make? Other than comments that are frankly mostly rhetoric (“Army families are a top priority to us!”), there is virtually no recognition.
And yet I can tell you without reservation - as, I dare say most other deploying service members would - without the heroic sacrifice my wife makes at home while I’m in the war zone, I wouldn’t be as effective on the front lines. Therefore, I suggest that this unfair imbalance of recognition cease immediately. Toward that end, I respectfully request the following of both the American government and people: First, that the president of the United States commemorate a special, unprecedented medal for the husbands and wives of American service members who have deployed into war zones in recognition of the invaluable service to this nation they have provided; second, that Congress pass a joint resolution recognizing the silent sacrifice and extolling the indispensable support those family members have provided to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have served abroad in time of war; and third, that the government of the United States host a grand and glorious parade for the wife or husband (along with children, of course) of every American service member who has deployed in support of a war zone. This parade route should start at the Pentagon and wind its way down the National Mall, past the Lincoln Memorial and the White House, culminating on the steps of the Capitol. Once there, the president would give a speech extolling the immeasurable contribution to the American way of life these family members have made and then he would symbolically present them their medals in one mass presentation.
The parade would take place on Sunday, 7 June 2009 - roughly half way between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Such an undertaking would no doubt prove to be a planning and logistical nightmare, and I genuinely appreciate that complexity. But many of these wives and husbands suffer years of privation and complexity. A little recognition from the people and government of the United States is certainly in order.
While I request our government leaders honor our service members’ wives and husbands and agree to be the host of the parade, I call on the people of America to participate as well. It has been said that no one ever asked the people of the United States to sacrifice in support of the war effort; let me now change that.
I call on Americans to expend some time, energy, and money in finding the wife or husband of a service member who has deployed into a war zone in support of our country. Maybe it’s a family member, maybe it’s a neighbor, maybe the friend of a friend. Seek out that man or woman. Tell them how much you appreciate their sacrifice on our behalf. Take them to dinner. Offer them free child-care once a month so the spouse gets a chance to breathe, or take them a home-cooked meal so, at least once, they don’t have to eat drive-through because there wasn’t time to cook between baseball and dance practices.
I’d like to see major corporations like Exxon/Mobil or Shell provide the gas necessary for the wives or husbands to drive to Washington to attend the parade, Coke and Pepsi to provide drinks during the parade, McDonalds and Burger King the food and for American Airlines and Delta to provide free or discounted travel so those outside driving distance could come to the party. These are but a few ideas. I’d like to see some of our nation’s movers and shakers use their considerable talents in figuring out how they could make even a one-time sacrifice to honor those who have paid so much on behalf of all of us during this time of war.
The wives, husbands, sons, and daughters of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have carried the water for this nation - and for the deployed service members themselves - for seven years and counting. They continue to pay what no price tag could ever measure, have suffered mostly invisible emotional torment struggling to be everything and everywhere at once, and undergone night after night of pained loneliness that few could imagine. I think the things I’ve requested are actually the least we could do to recognize their heroic sacrifice.
Maj. Daniel L. Davis is a cavalry officer in the United States Army who has fought in Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.