I was three years old the first time my father went to war. It’s memorialized in letters. Here’s one from Friday, January 18, 1991:
Hey Big Girl,
I’m still alright. How are you? Are you being good? Well, keep being good for Mommy. Keep saying your prayers.
Be nice to everybody. Have fun playing.
I love you and Miss You!
Most of them were short like that, just a few lines. He often shared random tidbits from his day, like this one, from January 19:
I washed my clothes again today. We have to wash our own in buckets and hang them up to dry.
Every letter ended the same way: I love you and miss you! Underlined. Exclamation point. Often with random capitalization. Sometimes, like this one from January 29, they had instructions:
It looks like I won’t be home until the war is over so you have to keep being my good, big girl. You have to keep listening to and helping Mommy and Granny. Keep going to church and saying your prayers. Keep writing me and sending me pictures. That sounds like a lot but you can handle it.
Some, like this one, from February 6, a Wednesday, tried to explain things that no three year old could understand:
I know it’s hard for you to understand why I have to be in Saudi Arabia but there are a lot of Daddies here that miss their girls. Someday the war will be over and we’ll all come home.
I’ve always been proud of my dad. He’s been in the National Guard since before I was born. He’s been AGR, active guard and reserve, for most of that time. He was also my first best friend. I can remember spending Friday evenings playing hide and go seek. He’d always win…mostly because he was more than willing to climb into places more timid minds wouldn’t even consider.
Being a Guard family in a time when there was mostly peace meant that our family didn’t spend a ton of time apart, but the specter was always there. In 1997, my father participated in Task Force Eagle, a peacekeeping mission to Bosnia, and again, the letters came. One day in March when I’d been suffering from walking pneumonia for weeks he wrote:
I sure hope you’re feeling better. I wish I was there to baby you. We could make a bed on the floor and watch TV all day. You would have to eat soup and other yucky stuff but I’d have popcorn! (Ha Ha)
They’d often end with postscripts:
P.S. Help Mom! That’s an order!
Sometimes, they were addressed to me and my sisters all together:
It’s me, Daddy Booger. How’s it going? Not much going on here. It’s really hot and I have a sunburn. It’s not bad though. Well just wanted to write you a quick note to say I love you and miss you. Take care and be good! I’ll be home soon.
My dad is not a warrior. He’s a firefighter, and it makes perfect sense that he would have spent so many years saving lives, or attempting to.
In October 2004, my dad deployed again—this time to Iraq. This deployment was very different. Right from the start, we knew that it was far more dangerous than any of his prior deployments. This deployment involved large amounts of active fighting, something we hadn’t really encountered before when his job was to fight fires at airfields and other installations.
The reality of it hung over us. We avoided the evening news. We tried to stay upbeat. We had a strict rule about staying positive when we talked to him on the phone. We held it together no matter how scared we were, because that was our job—to hold it together until he got home and our family as whole again. Always, there was the underlying “what if”: What if he never came home?
On a day in April 2004, my father was part of a convoy struck by an IED attack outside of Mosul. He survived, but another soldier, one my father rendered aid to, died. My father was wounded. The experience would be enough to change anyone, and my father was no different. The man who came home from Iraq eight months later was not the same. It took a long time for me to understand that part of him never left that roadside. It took even longer to understand that part of him may never leave that roadside.
I have tried over the last twelve years to understand. It’s hard, because we don’t talk about it. It’s A Thing. I guess a lot of families have them—A Thing that you don’t talk about, A Thing that exists, A Thing that is just there, lurking, marking The Time Before A Thing from The Time After A Thing.
But I have found out some over the years. Like a sore spot, I’ve poked at it, finding the name of the young man that did not survive, and in some ways, I’ve come to understand my father in a new way. I am going to be purposefully vague, because I do not have the permission of that soldier’s family to talk about him (nor do I know how to get it), but I feel comfortable revealing that he was 23 years old at the time of his death.
The age stuck with me for a reason: it is almost the same age that my dad was when I was born.
I tried to imagine how my father had felt, watching this young man die, knowing everything he would miss out on. I wonder if my dad thought back over his life. If Dad saw himself walking down the aisle to marry the girl of his dreams, if he thought back to the day he came home from AIT at Ft. Sam Houston and held his two week old daughter for the first time. If he thought about the first words, the first steps, the moments. Those games of hide and go seek that changed into Friday night afternoon basketball games as we got older. I wonder if he remembered the time he was serving in Operation Desert Storm, and I sent him pixie dust so he could fly home, or if he thought about coming home and meeting his second daughter, born while he was still in the air flying back. I wonder if he saw the anniversaries he’d shared with my mom: five years, ten years, fifteen years. I wonder if he saw all of the moments he’d shared with her, from flirty moments in the kitchen, to fights, to finally sharing the experience of bringing their third daughter into the world. I wonder if he saw our first days of school. I wonder if he saw that time in sixth grade when he came to see me sing with the school chorus and I threw up all over the stage and he managed to convince me that it was no big deal and no one would even notice. I wonder if he thought of the time that my sister was so sick she had to have surgery, and he and my mom made it through together. I wonder if he thought of every moment, large and small, good and bad and scary, that has comprised a life full of love that we all shared.
I wonder if in that moment he saw everything this young man would never have, would never experience, and I wonder how that would change someone.
I wonder if he felt relief that he lived, and guilt that he was relieved. I wonder if he felt anger, and struggled to contain it, to remind himself that this war wasn’t being perpetuated by every person he met, but only by some. I wonder if he struggled to restrain himself from venting his anger on innocent people, and I wonder if he felt himself to be a lesser man, a lesser human, for having all of these complicated and complex feelings.
I don’t know. We don’t talk about it.
My father received a Purple Heart for his service that day. He didn’t want it. He wanted to turn it down.
This week, when Donald Trump stood in front of a crowd ofpeople and said, “I always wanted a Purple Heart,” I couldn’t stop the bile that rose in the back of my throat. I thought about the changes my dad has experienced. I thought about the very different man who came home. The man who played hide and go seek, who played basketball, who called us boogers, who we rushed out to meet at the end of the day when he came home—he became withdrawn. Sad. He would become unexpectedly angry, his moods would swing. He was affected by that day in unfathomable ways, ways we never would have imagined before it happened and that we may never fully understand no matter how we try.
These awards—they aren’t Pokemon. Nobody wants to catch them all.
I know that my dad didn’t. I think he would trade almost anything to have his life untouched, to have our lives untouched, to have that young man alive and well and with his family, to have that young man live the long full life my dad knew he could have.
No normal, compassionate person wants to receive a Purple Heart or any other award in that vein. For Trump to say something like this represents a fundamental flaw in his character, a flaw that I have never been more aware of than in hearing those words leave his mouth.
It’s an insult to my father. It’s an insult to my family. It shows a lack of understanding of the depth of sacrifice that these recipients make, not just physically, but emotionally, and that lack of understanding of sacrifice is emerging as a serious trend in Trump’s comments.
I’ll tell him what sacrifice is. It’s the young man that died on that road outside of Mosul. It’s his father and mother and widow, trying to move on afterwards. It’s my dad, grappling with emotions and changes that are so profound. It’s my family, loving and supporting him every day, knowing that he’s different, but also knowing that we are so amazingly fortunate to have him at all.
Donald Trump, I stand solidly with Khizr Khan and his family in saying that you have sacrificed nothing, and no one.
I don’t think you even know what that word means.