Twelve years ago, when our son, Mike, enlisted in the Marines right after his eighteenth birthday, I told him that if he were ever sent into combat, I would find a way to visit him. As you might expect, he laughed and said, “How do you think you’d do that? You can’t just decide to go to a combat zone on your own.” I replied, “I’ll find a way.” He chuckled again.
By the time Mike’s Army unit deployed to Iraq in September, 2006, he had finished his hitch in the Marines, finished his college degree, completed Army OCS and was serving as a platoon leader with an ordnance company. Before my wife Cathy and I said our last farewell to him at Ft. Lewis, I took Mike aside and reminded him of what I had said those long years ago: “I meant what I said, Mike; I’m going to find a way to visit you in Iraq.” Mike smiled and said, “That’s great, Dad, but it’s okay if you don’t make it.” I suspect that he still didn’t take me seriously, and I have to admit that at that moment, I really had no idea how I would accomplish this unlikely task. Visions of Walter Mitty’s adventures floated in my mind, but I had no practical way of turning this dream into a reality.
As I explored the Internet to find ways to get to Iraq, I became discouraged. It turned out that Mike was correct to caution me. All the ways I could find to travel were very dangerous, involved enormous costs (mostly to obtain private security protection), and still provided no assurance that I could even get to Al Taqqadum, the base near Ramadi where Mike was stationed. Then I came across a site called Multi-National Force - Iraq which gave detailed instructions on how to get permission to travel to Iraq as a reporter embedded with a particular unit.
Through the help of a friend with Catholic News Agency, I was able to get credentialed as a reporter, a “war stringer”, and with that accreditation, applied for orders to embed with our son’s unit. Incredibly, I eventually found myself, in mid-October, 2007, on a flight from Denver to Kuwait for three days of processing and then a follow-on military flight to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). While I was en route to Kuwait, Mike had taken a five-hour convoy to BIAP to meet me at the military side of the airport. I was horrified that he had turned down a helicopter flight to take the more dangerous convoy route. Throughout the entire flight to Kuwait, I prayed repeatedly that my visit to Iraq would not put him in greater danger.
On my third day in Kuwait, I was able to fly out on a C-130 aircraft to BIAP. In order to avoid potential surface-to-air threats, the pilot flew a series of high bank-angle S-turns on approach to the runway. After touchdown and taxi, we deplaned, bussed to a large building and sat in wooden bleachers to await our next transportation. I had no idea what that next step involved and so I simply filed into the bleachers with the dozens of soldiers and Marines who had also traveled on the same flight.
What I also didn’t know was that at the far end of the bleachers, Mike was standing and grinning with his fellow officer, First Lieutenant Jason Vivian, watching as I filed into the bleachers, quietly waiting for me to see him. I searched the room thinking, “Wow, how will he ever know where I am or how to meet me.”
After about 15 seconds, my eyes scanned the room and suddenly I saw him with Lt. Vivian. I felt a surge of joy and moved quickly down the bleacher row to greet him. “Hey Mike, I made it!” I said as I gave him a hug. Mike smiled wryly, but I thought I detected a somewhat perplexed look on his face. Later, he confided to me that for a while, after serving in Iraq for 11months, he simply couldn’t comprehend that I was actually there with him.
For the next six days, Mike and I had the most memorable time together, three days in Baghdad, and three days at Al Taqaddum, meeting many young troopers and soaking in the reality that is Iraq today. For me, now 60 years old, it was as if the Lord had stored up 60 birthday presents for me and gave them to me all at once. While I had been terribly jet-lagged in Kuwait, it seemed as if I was suddenly twenty years old once I reached Iraq.
The six days in Iraq came and went very quickly and soon Mike and I were waiting together for my C-130 back to Kuwait, standing outside the small wooden flight operations building at the Al Taqaddum airfield. I had been overwhelmed by Mike’s kindness to me throughout the visit. As we waited the several hours together, Mike shared some things from the bottom of his heart. With undisguised emotion, he described what it had been like for him to say good-bye to Jen and the kids. It was a tender time for both of us and very hard for me to say good-bye to him.
During our time together in Iraq, I wondered how Mike had been experiencing my visit. I prayed each day that I would not cause him any embarrassment or put him in greater danger by my presence. What I didn’t know at the time was that Mike had been regularly writing his thoughts on a personal blog site during his deployment, and had continued to write even while I was there with him. Recently, he shared with me some of the reflections he wrote on his blog shortly after our sad farewell. With his permission, I share them now with you.
“In case you didn't know, my Dad came out to visit me in Iraq. Most of us in life are a chip in the mosaic, a ripple in a sea of faces. When we walk in the rain, hurrying down the street, all of us get wet. Yet every once in a while, someone walks through the rainstorm and sun shines on their head and they don't get wet. Sometimes the crowd just falls away and we receive a miracle just for us. That's what happened to me.”
“My Dad made me a promise a long time ago when I joined the Marines: Son, if you ever deploy, I will find a way to get to where you are and visit you. Well, I totally forgot about that. Right before I deployed, he reminded me, and I was like, ‘Sure, Dad, that's awesome.... but it’s Okay if you don't make it’.”
“Wow. He did it. Got media credentials, bought his ticket, ballistic armor, everything... I went to Baghdad, picked him up and even went on a convoy with him into the Green Zone which was amazing. Then we flew over Baghdad at night in a helicopter on our way to my current Base. It was surreal sitting there in the dark helicopter, looking out the open back door of the Helo at the lights below and the darkness of the desert farther out. Right next to me, there is Dad, giving me a ‘thumbs-up’.... Honestly, even though I was having a great time, it was strange b/c out here I am not really living. It’s like a roller coaster ride when you are too young and it’s still a bunch of unpleasant jolts and shocks. It lasts forever, and you can't relax, and you feel like you're not even there, but all of a sudden you're done. I'm not scared out here, but for my Dad, yes. In BIAP, when we thought a mortar hit... BOOM!... In a split second I realized my vest and helmet were still in the vehicle too far away and all of a sudden I had my Dad's vest on him and his helmet. Everyone quickly realized it was just EOD blowing some old ammo up outside the wire. Everyone stopped halfway to their gear, but there was my Dad with all his stuff on. I guess I didn't know I loved my Dad that much. But, the kicker was after the BBQs, the war stories, all of a sudden it was time for him to go.”
“The whole time, I was almost kind of numb because it was surreal having him here. This place is the half way place, the wood between worlds. For me, this place has been an existence out of existence, if that makes sense. I live here, and for a pretty long time, but there is no permanence, no attachment. So everything is transient. You want time to go fast because it is overwhelming. So like a marathon, you run to mile 7, then say ok, I'm at 7, now 5 more to twelve, 12 miles etc. So all of a sudden, part of the real world, my Dad, shows up and then I am dizzily sharing my world with him.”
“When it was time for him to go, we waited for his C-130. We said good bye, I gave him a hug and he stood in the long line of troops going back home. It was only when the long line began to walk to the plane, my Dad, a tall distant figure turned around and waved. All of a sudden I felt really sad and really happy and the reality hit me. My Dad came out here just to see me. All the coordination, money, and time, all just to let me know he loved me. I watched until the plane was a little black speck against the red sky of sunset. I think the reality honestly hit right after he was gone. Weird how that works, that sometimes we don't realize our happiness or appreciate our situation until we realize it by its vacancy. My memories are great from this. But somehow it was stark “Army of One” reality out here, and then the brief appearance of someone from home that reminded me I've got people in my life who are pretty awesome. I'm glad I'm so loved. Even if I am 29 and an Army Officer, I think I'm lucky to have a Dad like that....”
As I reflected on Mike’s words, I became aware that it was his birth that allowed me, for the first time, to be called father. It is a gift that God the Father shares with us. Because of this gift we fathers share in the terrifying task of trying to reflect, in some small way, the image of our heavenly Father. I think most of us fathers live life burdened by how we fail in this task. We say, “I won’t be like my father!” and then are horrified to see his failures in us. But every once in a while, usually unawares, we get it right. We actually, by God’s own grace, succeed. In a recent email, Mike described the result. While he was in Iraq, Mike had never mentioned to me that his faith in God had hit rock bottom. The long months, the violence, the heat and dust, the family separations, had all ground him down.
I will close with Mike’s words as an encouragement to all of us fathers. His words are a sign to us that, in spite of all our failures, the Lord can still use us to reach our children. In the email, Mike wrote:
“In seeking to hold to your promise to me, and to make up for your perceived failures, you validated to me not only a father’s love, but something even more. At that time (of the Iraq visit), I was completely jaded with God. When you validated your love to me … you actually validated God's love to me. The operative thought for me was: If this guy … could cross an ocean, go through all this trouble just to see me and show me that he loved me- if a person was capable of this, than certainly God was capable of the same and more.”
Thank you, Mike. And to you, and all fathers “fighting the good fight”, Happy Father’s Day!