I was four when my brother went off to the United States Air Force Academy. Although I don’t remember much about his decision to go there, I do know that one of his biggest concerns that he expressed to my parents was that I would grow up not knowing him. He and I wouldn’t have a relationship. The logistics were just against it; he would have very little vacation time while in school, and then he would be deployed, frequently, for long periods of time.
He was right.
For years, my brother was the one that would swoop in at holiday times, and I was thrilled to see him, as a little kid. We would travel to the Academy, and then we would travel to where he was stationed. Eventually, I got older, and while I am always his kid sister, I was not his baby sister. It’s harder to know and love and have things in common that way—at least, it was for us. The distance didn’t help, and neither did the fact that we are both phone call avoiders.
That doesn’t mean my heart wasn’t in my throat every time he was deployed to either a war zone, or an undisclosed location. When he was going on a dangerous mission (it sounds all spy like, but it’s an accurate description), we would get a very specific phone call. My younger self did not translate the situation into meaning very well, but I know now that those phone calls were goodbyes, in advance, just in case.
There have been lots of dangerous deployments and close calls over the years, and there have been great moments, moments of real triumph and joy, and thankfully, since he has advanced in rank, he’s had mostly stateside stations, with a “quick” trip here and there to Afghanistan, etc. I know that’s coming to an end. I know he is going to be deployed soon.
It’s much harder now than it was then. I’m older, I know better. We’re both older, and we have a great relationship now. We’re much closer. I understand more. I worry more. I’ve had many friends and classmates go over and come back fine; go over and come back…not quite the same; go over, and never come back. It’s not going to be for at least 6 months yet, I think, but it’s already following me around, like a shadow, where I can see it, out of the corner of my eye.
My nephew, for as long as I can remember, has been fascinated by his uncle (“unk-knu”). When my brother sent him a bomber jacket and “pilot” sunglasses, my nephew wore them until they practically corroded off him. He’s always wanted to be military. He’s always wanted to go an academy.
He did. He’s at Annapolis. At his graduation, they did this thing where each student stood and they announced either what college they were going to, or where they had been accepted. When his was called, and they announced the naval academy, the entire school, all the present parents, everyone in the massive commencement hall stood up for him.
I know, someday, he’ll be deployed and we’ll go through this all over again.
My dad spent 30 years in the Army. He retired at the very end of August 2001. Just a few week later, when September 11 happened, he was agonized that he had gotten out. I know he tried to re-up. I overheard him and my mom discussing it: "This is what I trained for! This is what I was supposed to do! I left two weeks too early." "I know, J. But we have our son out there, and I don’t think I could handle it nearly as well if you were still out there, too."
Given my family background (there are even more in the military), I suppose it’s only natural that in college and law school, I tended to gravitate towards the military people. The way one of my military friends (actually, one from grade school) put it was that I’m a civilian, so I am a nice break from military life, but I’m also military, so I always get it. You’re the best of both worlds, he told me when he came home from the Air Force Academy one summer. Everyone at the academy needs a friend like you. I told that to one of my ROTC friends in college. He laughed, and said you are easy to be around.
That was in 2004. It’s 2013, and he died this past week, in the sand.