There is an acronym in the Army that means more to Joe than any other. While “KP,” “CQ,” and “Brigade FTX” likely strike terror into the minds of the average Suspect, on the opposite end of the acronymular spectrum is “ETS.” End, Term of Service is what it sounds like—the end of an enlisted soldier’s contractual service. It doesn’t take long for many to become comfortable throwing it around like a discarded E-Tool. In fact, for jokers like me, the countdown began at 1,139 days. Simple mathematical computations will tell you that at just ten months into my standard forty-eight month enlistment, I was already counting down the next thirty-eight months.
I have yet to tell the entire story, but my enlistment was set to expire in November 2005. I had more than thirty days of accrued leave; in normal circumstances, a soldier in good standing could use his accrued leave to effectively exit the service by the number of accrued days he has—called “terminal leave”; in my case, that would have pushed me into the second week of October.
Rewind to October 1, 2005: I am stop lossed with the Army’s 101st Airborne; Mrs. 13 is in California, due to give birth in twelve days; and my father is in the hospital with heart trouble and complications with his Diabetes.
I had been admitted to school, had written verification of civilian employment upon my return, the reinstating of medical benefits, and was first on the list of student housing at Mrs. 13’s University. Instead of moving on and restarting my life, I was boarding a midnight flight on a commercial 737 at Campbell Army Airfield on its way to Kuwait International Airport.
I was not allowed to use some of my accrued leave to be home for the birth of our child. I was not allowed to fly home for my (single, living alone) father’s emergency procedure in the hospital, which eventually led to kidney failure. No, Operation Iraqi Freedom V/VI was far more important, and my 1SG said the decision had already been made to have every single possible soldier on the ground in Kuwait.
Fast-forward eighteen days: still in Kuwait, eating camel burgers and Baskin Robbins, playing PS2 in the MWR tent, and generally avoiding formations and responsibility.
The next day (or 2—being half a day ahead in time is confusing), I was in Baghdad, starting a twelve-hour shift at the BIF. I checked my email and found two phone-mail pictures in my inbox—Tristan was born on the 19th. He weighed six pounds, two ounces, and was nineteen and a half inches long. He looked just like me.
I was not happy. I should have been celebrating one of the most important events in my life, smoking an “It’s a Boy!” and learning how to be a good father. My mind was cluttered, my concentration was broken, and I couldn’t have given two shits less about working in the BIF. To make matters worse, the Red Cross message alerting me to the birth of my child never came. Both of them never came. I spoke to the new Company’s 1SG, and he promised to look into it. He and the Chaplain never spoke to me again for the duration of the following twelve months.
I survived, somehow, by busying myself. I became obsessed with working out, reading books and magazines, and wasting time on the Internet. Mrs. 13 emailed me photos and videos at every opportunity. From the other side of the world, I watched the pixilated version of my son grow from an infant into a toddler, and experienced none of it.
Friends, and others with children, would often attempt to calm me down. They said it was no big deal, and that I was honestly not missing anything good, but returning for all the good stuff. They said to trust them; and they’re the ones to know, right?
Little 13 was seven months old when I met him. I landed at John Wayne to a not-pregnant wife, and a little boy on her shoulders. I feared holding him, being just another stranger, wondering whether he asked himself, “Who the hell is this asshole taking mommy’s attention away from me?”
It was the shortest two weeks of my life, and any ground in establishing a relationship with him was quickly lost. In my mind, thinking of his mind, I felt that he might think I was not important enough to stick around.
By this point in the deployment, the stop loss battle was over. I’ll cover more of what happened in those seven months soon, but it’s worth noting that the following five months were as painfully long as those two weeks were painfully short.
Little 13 was fourteen months old when I got home, this time for good. In total, I had missed the last six months of Mrs. 13’s pregnancy, and the first fourteen months of Little 13’s life. The transition from battlefield and combat zone to home is hard enough, but from being a soldier to being the father of a child I had not known was much more difficult than I can share to explain.
When I think back to those who told me I wouldn’t be missing much, I feel angry and bitter, until I realize that every single last bit of it was one steaming pile of horseshit. All it took for me to realize was one look, the first look, that my minutes-old daughter would give me when she heard my voice for the first time. When she stopped crying, and directed her gaze toward me, she smiled, and I knew in an instant that I would have given anything I possessed in the world to have experienced that with my son. It was the most precious, perfect, first greeting I could have ever imagined. This is why the stop loss story is important to me. It’s not that I had to do my job a bit longer, but that I lost something that should not have been taken from me. Nothing is ever more important than family.
*For more photos, please visit: Only Film, Thanks!