When Your Wife Deploys to Iraq

I never quite understood those pictures of young men standing in line on December 8, 1941 to volunteer for what we now know were roughly four years of carnage and depravation.  It seemed so counter to my basic survival instincts.  Thanks to those men, I had the luxury of other priorities.

I registered for the draft shortly after the Tet Offensive and Khe Sanh in Vietnam.  My views about military service at that time were the opposite of those men of 1941, and unlike theirs, my first contact with the military through draft registration was mandatory.  However, there was no sense of urgency for me. In that pleasant autumn, safe with my student deferment, what tangible threat from the world did I really face in Gambier, Ohio?

Studying history and the nature of so many oppressive regimes that continually seek to impose their will on others changed my sanguine view of the world.  Although I came to understand the need for Teddy Roosevelt's "big stick," I never experienced any visceral desire to bear arms.

September 11, 2001 changed all that.  I caught glimpses of those innocents jumping from the heights of the World Trade Center (those few whom the nannies in the media would permit us to see). I worried about relatives who worked in New York's financial district. I watched the Towers collapse and saw the celebrations in the Muslim streets.

The seriousness and enthusiasm of those men in 1941 were quickly clear to me.  It was equally clear to me that these fanatics and their state sponsors are impervious to diplomacy, negotiation, or reasoned argument. Never did the passivity of our fashionable saint, Gandhi, seem so foolish. That day I left the high-rise where I work with the urge to fight back.

Unfortunately for me (and thankfully for our country), our armed forces have no need for a 50-something attorney with aching knees and a temperamental back.  But our military needs and will accept a 50-something physician.

My wife is a physician with an urge to serve and face challenges.  She was able to do what I could not. Two years ago she joined the Air Force.  She completed her training at Maxwell Air Force Base in the heat of an Alabama summer, and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel.  In an arrangement with the Army, Air Force medical personnel were then embedded into Army units. 

The Army, quite understandably, requires all who serve in its units to know how to use its equipment and understand its tactics and strategy.  It was on to Fort Riley, Kansas, where she trained in weapons, surge tactics, convoy logistics, and communications technology.

My wife has just been deployed to Iraq.  In light of the long history of warfare, her mission is a role reversal of sorts that seems odd to me.  It is I who remain on the home front while she heads for the war zone.  I have become Andromache to her Hector, Lady Percy to her Hotspur. 

I drove her that morning to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where she began her eastbound journey. It is sobering to watch a supply sergeant hand my wife her M-4 and pistol.    Learning that someone stationed at her destination in Iraq was killed two days earlier concentrates the mind. Their fitting her with a gas mask conjures the imagery of Wilfred Owen, who wrote in 1917 on the Western Front of the Great War:

Gas! GAS! Quick boys! -An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time.....

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

She stands there (all of five feet two) dressed in her helmet, 50 pounds of body armor, holster, and camouflage uniform.  I think of Hector's son, Astyanax, who, upon first seeing Hector dressed in all his armor, "recoiled."  Is this the person who shuttled our children in a minivan?

For most of us on the home front, I suspect that the nether region of half-sleep, those hours between 3 A.M. and 6 A.M. are the most difficult.  It is for me. Hawthorne offers advice for the passage of this time:

"In an hour like this, when the mind has a passive sensibility, but no active strength; when the imagination is a mirror, imparting vividness to all ideas, without the power of selecting or controlling them; then pray that your griefs may slumber, and the brotherhood of remorse not break their chain."

And pray I do.  For it is during these hours that I see the hooded figure load the mortar, plant the IED, take aim, or draw his sword.  It is then that I see the non-descript government vehicle crawl down my driveway with two somber soldiers bearing news.  This is the gloomy reign of "what if."

Then the sun rises, and with it, perspective.

Do I somehow merit a holiday from history? History is replete with war, and loved ones marching to war is more the rule than the exception. Ships have always been troop ships, and trains quickly became troop trains, and who am I to complain?

With all the predictability of the tides, evils arise that must be fought.  The Kaiser begets Hitler and so on. The world's hyper-secularists, so strongly supported by our smart set, gave us 75 years of Stalinism.  Now the world is tormented by a sect that has melded hyper-religiosity with the brutality of Adolph Hitler. They are quite explicit in their desire for a sequel to the Holocaust, obvious to all but the willfully obtuse. 

The delusions of pampered baby-boomers, so perfectly exemplified in any "peace studies" curricula, won't pacify this sect.  Neither will the pre-emptive concessions made by those dainty boys and girls in the State Department.

It takes heavy lifting and real sacrifice as endured by our soldiers. This is the necessary work to which my wife has chosen to make her contribution.  She has exchanged the more comfortable clinic for dust storms and 130 degrees. I could not be more proud. 

My wife is now in transit, on her way to that thin line between us and the barbarians.  Like those two stiff legs on the navigator's compass, the further she goes the more we lean toward one another, to borrow a conceit from John Donne.  Godspeed, Alice.  I will see you in August.

Henry P. Wickham, Jr.welcomes comments at HWickham@LNLattorneys.com