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Between Iraq and a Hard Place: A Memorial Day Memoir

Between Iraq and a Hard Place:  A Memorial Day Memoir
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I remember being at an odd place in my life. I have had the opportunity to serve the military in three different roles.  I was the daughter of a military father, the wife of a military husband, and the mother of two military sons.

My father is a retired Marine Corps sergeant major who served two tours in Vietnam.  As the daughter of a military member, I was like most of my childhood friends, happily uninformed about what my dad did for a living and oblivious to the dangers inherent to his profession.  However, I have a vivid memory of him telling me why he was leaving home to fight in a war far away: “We’re fighting over there,” he said to me, “so we don’t have to here.”

I was in second grade when he left home the first time, and his explanation made perfect sense to me then.  I had no real concept of what war was anyway, but it was my dad going to do the fighting, and my dad could do anything.  He was invincible.  He was the man who protected me from the things that went bump in the night. I missed him when he was away; I missed him a lot, but I never really worried.  Every time he left home, I knew he would come back.  He always did.  And he always brought home funny stories about the time he spent away.  My memories of the Vietnam War are of Fizzies in village wells and water buffalo chasing my father across rice paddies.  I didn’t hear the story behind his silver star for many years.

A few years ago I had lunch with my mom, dad, and three Marines who had served with my father in Vietnam.  I had never met these men before.  All three men, with tears in their eyes, told my mother and me that if it were not for my father, they would not have survived.  I am thankful that I learned of the dangers my father faced long after those dangers had passed.

My husband and I attended Camp Lejeune High School together.  After my husband’s graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force, and two years later, three weeks after my own graduation, we were married.  Overnight, I went from being a military daughter to being a military wife.  Because my mother was such a great role model, it was an easy transition for me. I never once heard her complain about the unaccompanied assignments, the pack-up-everything moves halfway across the country, leaving one base just as we established solid friendships and arriving at a new base not knowing a soul.  Most of my perceptions of military life came from my mother’s unshakable positive attitude.  My goal was to be as supportive of my husband as my mother had been of my dad.

I enjoyed my life as a military wife.  Each base was a close-knit community of families all in the same situation.  Since all of us were either hundreds or even thousands of miles away from actual family, neighbors became support groups.  And they all understood when things got tough for me because, at times, it was tough for them also.

My husband went on to earn a commission and served nearly twenty years as an officer.  He spent the last five years of his career leading weapons inspection teams to remote parts of the world.  Throughout our marriage I had seen him calmly and competently handle every crisis, either personal or professional.  I never worried about him when he deployed.  I knew he would come back.  He always did.

But I eventually reached an odd place in my life. Our elder son served aboard the aircraft carrier Eisenhower as an electrician. With all the time I lived in base housing, as both a daughter and wife, I never really concerned myself with “Quality of Life” issues.  I loved the security of base life, even places named Tarawa Terrace and Dog Patch. Places where the signs along the road read “Tank Xing” or “Caution: Live artillery fired across this road day and night.”  Why was I now worried about Navy chow and education benefits?  But Navy chow was the least of my concerns when the Ike deployed to the Gulf.  The boy who wore us out during high school was sailing into harm’s way.  My only comfort was all that steel wrapped around him.  Fortunately, he is now happily married and living in Charlotte.

Our younger son, the one who wanted to be a Marine from the moment he stopped wanting to be a cowboy, graduated from Virginia Military Institute and was commissioned as a Marine Corps infantry officer.  I watched him interact as an adult with fellow Marines, but I always thought of him as the boy who could never find his shoes and socks.  A few months after his commissioning he told us he would probably be going to Iraq, so I envisioned the worst when he called home with the announcement of his first assignment–Hawaii.  When I heard the news I let out a breath I didn’t even realize I was holding.  I held my breath again, however, as my son’s unit in Hawaii soon deployed to Afghanistan and then later to Iraq.

After 45 years of military life as a daughter and wife, I should have been used to those things.  When my husband and I ought to have been quietly enjoying our empty nest years, I found out my job got much harder.  It turns out that, for me anyway, the role of mother of a serviceman is far more difficult emotionally than the role of daughter or wife.  In fact, it is scary and exhausting.  My on-the-job training had not adequately prepared me to be a military mom.  I remember thinking many times that if I could have one wish, it would be that our political leaders would care for our most precious national resource, our sons and daughters, as much as we mothers care.

About the author: Cheryl Poliquin is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes.