This past weekend I, along with the rest of America, took time to give thanks for those who have given their lives during war. However, Ialso had another reason to give thanks: For the first time, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would not be adding my brother's name to that list. How did I know? Well, he returned from his last tour of duty on Saturday morning and is getting out of the Army next month.
It is finished.
Now, for the very first time I will honestly answer that question that so many people have asked me -- How do you feel about having a loved one at war?
How do you feel? Well...
You feel a mixture of pride and fear when you find out they are signing up to join the military. They head off to basic training and you think, "How did this little boy get to this point?" You wait for the letters to come, hoping that they aren't screaming at him too much and that he has the endurance to make it through 22 weeks of that level of intense training. You marvel at the fact that he got pepper sprayed and gassed and made it through and you think, "I hope that part of the training will never be useful in real life." And then you go to graduation and your heart fills with pride to see how much this boy has become a man during that short period of time.
Not long after that, you find out that all that training did have a purpose as he gets his first orders: Iraq. You feel disconnected to his reality. His random phone calls in the middle of the night tell have some stories of tanks and landmines, but are mostly filled with questions of loved ones back home. You pray earnestly that not only will he survive, but the death and destruction that he will witness will be minimal. You realize that those are, by definition, a very real part of war, but you can't bear to think that this little boy who you held when he was baby, got into tickling matches with, and smacked really hard when he annoyed you was facing things that you will never understand. And then you pray some more.
You feel embarrassed when you have to get up and walk out of the sanctuary at church when they showed a short clip of soldiers passing out wheelchairs to those in need in Iraq. You don't want people to see you sobbing, knowing that nobody else will judge you, but feeling stupid all the same.
You have this strong, irresistible urge to go up to any boy or girl in uniform in the airport to give them a hug and a "thank you", hoping somewhere, somebody is doing the same for your brother.
You let the only tears escape your eyes on your wedding day when you get a phone call from Iraq saying, "Sis, I wish I could be there..."
You are angry for the Army not keeping their word on letting him take his leave during this time, but you understand that they have a war to fight, and your wedding is not their highest priority. But you wish they understood that your brother, you only immediate family member left, being able to come to your wedding was your priority. And you realize that sometimes you are at odds with the world.
But finally the day arrives for him to come home and you are at the airport with balloons and hugs and a heart that is skipping a beat.
Fast Forward to a year a half later and you are starting the whole process again. But this time the destination is different and so is the situation. This time "Afghanistan" is stamped on his orders and he has a wife kissing him goodbye. You are grateful for this stronger support for him while he is out and you pray daily for them to stay strong for each other, knowing full well that missing your spouse is much harder than missing your brother, and there is no way you can understand how hard that must be if this is so damn hard for you...
A couple of more things change. News doesn't get turned on because you just don't want to know if somebody died out there. Veteran's Day and Memorial Day take on a whole new meaning. Holidays get a date change. Thanksgiving is celebrated in June, Christmas in January, and you realize that dates don't mean so much, but the people who spend these days with you mean the world.
You cry every time that Walmart Christmas commercial comes on.
You realize you have an awesome group of friends and feel so grateful for their response to Operation: Merry Christmas that you put into action, knowing that your little brother received close to 100 letters or packages to celebrate the holiday.
And then, when it is all over, you breathe out a big sigh of relief because he made it. Life and limbs all still present. You can't help but get a lump in your throat, though, when you realize that there are many families out there who can't say the same, and you don't understand why you get that privilege and they don't. You know that some of his very friends gave their lives, and you just don't get it. But deep in your heart you know that you are grateful it wasn't you who got that knock on the door, and decide really the best you can do is give thanks for your situation and give support for those that don't have a situation that matches yours.
Ultimately, though, you are proud. That is a feeling that lasts the entire time, from beginning to end. Proud of his accomplishments, proud of his growth, proud of the fact that he maintained a good attitude throughout it all.
Proud of the man that has come home in place of the little boy that was sent off.