Then there was the time I joined the Army. Throughout my 10 years, I was often asked “Why did you join?”
The easy answer was that I ran out of things to do. In retrospect, at the ripe old age of 19 I find it extremely hard to believe. But looking back at my options at the time, if I did not get out of that tiny town, I would have never left. I miss that place, but it was too small for me.
The real answer and my driving force to join the Army was a Hail Mary attempt at connecting with my father. Growing up, I remember him always coming or going. We would record our voices on cassette tapes and send them to whatever country he was in that year. He would send some back with souvenirs, some I still have to this day.
I remember the way my dad smelled when he would come back from the field. All of his gear would smell like camouflage and sweat. My brother and I would try to hold his feet while he did sit ups and then he would leave the house and run for miles before coming back drenched and out of breathe.
I remember Christmases were the most magical time. Mom and Dad would go all out, rearranging the house and adding decorations we have no idea existed. I never really felt the tinge of needing. I’m sure they went without before we ever did.
2002 sent my dad to Korea. I completed a year of Bible college where the focus was on finding the love of God as a Father. This bought about many glaring daddy issues I never knew existed and a driving need to rectify them.
I enlisted in the Army while my dad was at war. I knew he could not tell me “No” once I had done it. Looking back, being in the midst of death and violence, I am almost positive it broke his heart to imagine his daughter in such a place. He was nothing but supportive, and even was able to make Christmas special from where ever he was:
Sorry I’m not anywhere to get you a nice Christmas card. They did finally get some Thanks giving ones in.
A lot of fighting in Ramadi these days. We continue to take casualties, but I think we are doing well. Your Dad is “A Fighting First Sergeant”. I’ll be glad when this chapter in life has concluded.
I miss you and love you. Your invisible Father,
I received a couple of letters from my dad prior to this at boot camp. The Drill Sergeants would call us out of formation to collect our mail. One day I was questioned as to who the letter was from, seeing that it came from a military base over seas from a First Sergeant with my last name. I told them my father was at war. They let me go without consequence, and I found that quite strange. On Thanksgiving, as we all stood completely still and silent, that same Drill Sergeant called upon me as we waited to enter the dining facility for our holiday meal.
“Private Gilliam! Who is your father?”
“First Sergeant Gilliam, Drill Sergeant.”
“Now listen up, pit stains! While you go inside and file thru getting your fatty-cakes and licky-chewies, remember that there are Soldiers far more discipline than you, eating MRE’s or nothing at all. Private Gilliam’s dad is at war. He isn’t eating turkey. He’ll be lucky to get peanut butter on a stale piece of bread.”
As “tough” as I wanted to be, I cried. He was right and I felt so ashamed for never realizing that he was not away from home because he wanted to be. That day I realized where he had been throughout my life.
When I went home for Christmas break, I was able to check my email and found that he had sent a mass email to the family.
“Hello everyone, It has been a while and communications will continue to be sporadic like this for a while. There has been a great deal of fighting and it is not over by a long shot in this country… Please pray for them [his Soldiers]. I am fine. I am currently on my third hummvw. The first one was blown up an 2 Sep. The second took 2 rpg rounds in the left rear door and out the back of the vehicle in Oct. Now I’m down to a haji armored cargo. It has already been hit by a proximity mortar round which shredded my cooler in the back. Up until that point I hadn’t gotten angry. However, I had hopes of cleaning that cooler up and setting it next to my recliner full of light beer from Miller after I retire. It was more important to me than the big screen TV I am going to buy. Oh yeah and a few new bullet holes in the front windshield, but it is bullet proof so long as we don’t take too many more. We are back to living without electricity, water, the usual. My company has commandeered a large castle (Keep) looking building. The rest of the battalion is holding up in a small post a mile or so down the road. I tell ya, it has been fifteen years since I had to burn human excrement. But it was a most humbling and almost spiritual ritual… Anyway, I am good and all is well today. Never take your life for granted. Love, Jim”
Not many people know that my dad is a funny guy. In the thick of all that had and was happening, he did not want us to worry but he did want us to know what it was like. I also want to add that he lost his first hummvw the day before his birthday and the second when I left for boot camp. None of us (family) had any idea.
When I returned after Christmas, I found out that both of my feet had stress fractures and my hips were not much better off. I was 5’2″ and 120 pounds tops carrying the same load as the 6’2″ guy next to me. Okay, maybe his boots weighed more than mine but you get the idea. I had never been athletic in my life. I was struggling to even walk some days but trying to make it through with my peers. Dad sent me this:
“Dear Dacia, It was great to get your letter. I mean REALLY GREAT. Glad to hear basic is going well for you. It is a steady paycheck. Do the best that you can and even if you do recycle, it’s that much more money in the bank.
I love you and miss you. I am very, very proud of you. With the way things are you could probably transfer to Active Duty if you like it. I go along your thoughts and try the part time thing first.
Here in Ramadi we are preparing for the upcoming elections… We will never make the news though because Ramadi is the political capital of the Anbur Province. So there is too much of our own politics at stake here… Never forget what your job means in the Army. You take care and do your best. I love you sooooo much. Love, Dad”
I carried this letter into my own war. In 2007, I deployed to work in Baghdad ER as a medic. For 15 months I witnessed the atrocities of war. I would look into young Soldier’s eyes, talking to them, trying to calm them as we tended to their fatal wounds before they slipped off to sleep and up to the operating room for a last chance at some sort of life beyond their wounds. I never followed up to know if they made it home. We would already be onto another set of young men and women mangled from a fight. Children would come in the same way.
I pushed through that time in my life because I never forgot what my job meant. I had also not only witnessed but experience a small fraction of what my dad went through while his little girl prepared for the same.
The day my father announced his retirement, I cried. Could my father truly be a mortal being? Would he still wear his uniform as a Sergeant Major as he walked me down the isle and give me away to my husband?
Yes, yes, and yes. Over twenty years of an infantry career, took its toll on my father’s body, but he would still dawn the uniform with his rows and rows of ribbons perfectly straight and right shoulder insignia proudly displayed. As we stood at the closed door that represented the rest of my life, the other side a gentleman sang “Lady” by Styx, my dad looked at my and said “Are they going to change the music or are we walking out to this?”
“No, Dad. We are walking out to this.” He smiled and the door opened.
In his loud, clear, and stern Sergeant Major voice, he announced “Her mother and I” were giving me away.
Later that evening, the moment came to dance with my dad. I do not recall this ever happening before in my life. “We Belong” by Pat Benetar played and I cried.
“How did we get here, MeMe?” His little girl who had shitty handwriting in third grade and who hated to do homework had been to war twice and was now married.
Even in his retirement, my father has been the one I have turned to for life advice. He would offer it knowing I was going to do what I wanted anyway. He was supportive and always proud even if the road I took to success was not the easiest. I made it work, I made a family, and I grew into a happy successful adult.
I attribute my resilience to having to do things for myself. Needing to find my own way to get there. My dad really is a funny guy. No one else would no that. He has always been my hero. Love you, King Daddy.