By Mary O’Brien
Not everyone considers a promotion in the military cause for celebration—it often comes with an inevitable relocation. After seven moves, my 13-year-old daughter knows all the signs leading up to moving. She brings it up every chance she can. What are your options? Where will they send you? When will we know? If Dad retires, can we stay here in Maryland? If you move somewhere boring, like Texas, I don’t want to leave. I like our new house, my school, my basketball team. I’ll only move if you go somewhere cool, like Europe, Japan or Korea.
This go around, I get the news shortly before Christmas, but we decide to wait until mid-January to tell the kids. We choose the sunporch, the most cheerful place in the house we bought seven months earlier, when I saw retirement on the horizon. We used to go to a favorite pizza place to break this kind of news but can’t anymore because both kids learned that pizza restaurants mean family discussions regarding new assignments. The last two family discussions broke the news that my husband and I were being sent in different directions. We’ve been stationed apart ten of the last fifteen years.
I tell my daughter she was right—I’ll have a new job in the spring. Before I can finish, she asks “Is it overseas?” I pause a moment, not expecting her to ask about the overseas options, and say yes. Bursting into tears, she tells me, “I thought I wanted to go, but I don’t want to move.” I try to talk over her sobbing, “You aren’t going—I’m going to Afghanistan and you’re all staying here.” Her crying stops immediately. Embarrassed, she admits being relieved, but immediately feels guilty for being happy that I’m going to a war zone. They all know how deployments work. My husband spent a year in Helmand while the rest of us were stationed in the United Kingdom, meeting him in Germany to ski on his two week mid-tour leave.
Once we break the news, both kids promptly go back to their own worlds; to them, I suppose, five months until my departure seems a lifetime away. Occasionally, there’s a glimpse of concern behind their denial. After I make white chicken chili, a particularly favorite meal, my son asks my husband “Do you know where mom keeps her recipes?” Which reminds me, I have to share the kids’ practice schedules and game locations with my husband.
One morning in May shortly before my deployment, I laugh at my son’s comment about only being able to picture me sitting behind a computer when I announce I’m going to the shooting range to requalify on the 9mm. He can’t imagine me carrying a weapon, even if it’s just the small handgun that officers carry. “Contrary to popular belief around here, the Air Force is a branch of the military,” I respond. Soon after, I add my departing flight information to our family Google calendar and note the possible conflict with my son’s lacrosse game. “I can do both,” I tell him, hoping I can keep my promise. We drive to the airport in my minivan after his game and I feel a little guilty standing in the long line with my family. Other deployers who don’t live in Maryland already said goodbye to their families days ago and won’t get any more hugs tonight. My husband keeps the mood light and they all manage big smiles for the last photo at the airport—the kids on either side of me in my scratchy Army multicams.
In Afghanistan, tears creep out of the corners of my eyes every Sunday in the dusty base chapel, the only time I allow myself to admit just how much I miss my family. I’m the senior military woman in Kabul, and possibly all of Afghanistan—showing weakness is not in my job description. I follow the guidance I’ve given to many new military mothers I’ve mentored over my career. Limit the photos on your desk—a family portrait and one individual shot of each child. Too many cutesy photos and the men (and some women) won’t take you seriously. My husband and I are both in uniform in my carefully chosen family photo. My way of saying our whole family is “all in.”
The days turn to weeks, weeks to months. I try unsuccessfully to set up predictable times to call home. The 9 ½ hour time difference, my long hours on duty and the kids’ busy after-school schedules make it impossible. High school basketball tryouts are underway so I rummage through the stack of greeting cards I picked out before coming to Kabul. “You won’t be able to get anything good over there,” a friend told me. Taking her advice, I spent an hour in the Hallmark store picking out a “Congratulations” card, then decided I didn’t want to risk jinxing my daughter, so added a “Don’t Give Up” encouragement card. Remembering her sprained ankle from 8th grade, I threw in a “Get Well Soon” card for good measure. She makes varsity; she’s elated, and I promptly mail the “Congratulations” card with its handwritten “FREE MAIL” where the stamp normally goes. Knowing by then that the card will take at least three weeks to arrive, I use the Internet to send flowers overnight, too.
Surprise and disappointment set in when I realize our FaceTime calls are too hard for my son. He’s never been able to say good-bye. I ask my husband to stop coaxing him into the room when I call. I’ll wait until he asks to talk to me, which isn’t often. I’m thrilled by the rare text from him—”hi mom I lost that molar.” I accidentally discover that he’ll talk to me longer if I catch him home alone when my husband drives my daughter to basketball practice. I try to synchronize my work schedule and the time difference to take advantage of these moments. When my boss tasks me to attend multiple long-winded PowerPoint briefings about the possible reduction of troops in Afghanistan, I try unsuccessfully to hide my grumpiness as I see the rare opportunities to talk to my son slipping away.
My favorite aunt vows to make this Christmas special, but privately shares with me that my son has convinced himself that I am going to surprise everyone by coming home for Christmas unannounced, just like all those military reunion stories on Facebook and YouTube. I’d like to say that I despise everyone who has ever had anything to do with these videos, but actually I’m also envious.
On Christmas Day in Afghanistan, I wake up at 4:30 a.m. to hear my son play Christmas carols on his saxophone for all my relatives. It’s still Christmas Eve in Maine. Everyone can see me on the iPad placed on a chair in the center of the room and I’m mildly embarrassed that I’m still in my pajamas with messy hair and puffy eyes. My son opens with “Blue Christmas” in my honor and my heart breaks all over again. They sing along to “Deck the Halls” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.” He’s sounds really good and I’m surprised by the noticeable improvement in only six months of middle school concert band. “I take requests,” he boasts proudly. I’m amazed at this new confidence—what else will happen this year—and I request “Silent Night.” I hide a few tears as he plays it perfectly.
Mary O’Brien has more than 26 years of Air Force service and was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan from June 2014 to May 2015. She is currently stationed in Maryland with her husband—a retired Marine, 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. She hasn’t missed a basketball game this season.