Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down on April 9, 2003. I doubt many civilians old enough to remember it could say where they were when they first saw those images. But for those in the military at the time, even 20 years later, I bet that you do. Before I tell you where I was, I’m going to tell you how I got there.
At the time, I was an Operating Room (OR) nurse in the Air Force (AF) stationed at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. My previous duty assignment had been a small, outpatient OR at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana (see “‘A Deck of Many Things’: Reflections on Colin Powell and Iraq, 20 Years Later.”) Prior to that, I’d been a civilian OR nurse working at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. And underwriting all of this was the drive to emulate my enigmatic father in a way that was also acceptable to him and my family. Since the 1980s, Dad had been a part of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), gone more than he was home, and seemed a part of every contingency and operation from the invasion of Grenada through Desert Storm and into the Global War on Terror.
In my youngest daughter’s article “What Moving as a Military Dependent Taught Me About Relationships,” she writes: “It’s human nature to cling to what is most familiar, and nothing is more familiar than being in nine different places with the same four people, my mom, dad, sister, and brother.” The same was true for the family I grew up in. By age 10, my mom, dad, sister, and I had moved six times that I actually remember with that final PCS to Fort Bragg, NC in 1982. Up until JSOC came along, moving around was our way of life. But those four innocuous letters eventually transformed our family of four, bound together as each other’s only constants, into a trio of suburban transplants, trapped in Fayetteville, NC like flies in amber. Previously, we’d lived in places like Casteau, Belgium– Munich, Germany–Monterey, California–and Fayetteville was a dumpster fire by comparison.
After that first year, I yearned to move again as we had done so many times before. It was what I knew. Moreover, I wanted Dad back in our family. But our once free-roaming, nomadic lives were held hostage by JSOC which had also taken one of the only constants in my 11-year-old life. What made it worse was that Dad wanted it. We could sense his excitement for whatever secret things he was doing. When I asked if he could get another job he told me his truth: “I like being where the action is.” And that wasn’t with us. Mixed with his love and affection was enthusiasm for his job. He loved us but not quite enough to want to be with us. The message 10-year-old me internalized? When push came to shove: You don’t matter. And I wanted so badly for us to matter to him. The Army, particularly JSOC, was the most important thing in our family’s life. Military service was the only way I knew to compete with JSOC. The hard truth was that Dad chose JSOC over his family for 30 years. (See “In the Shadow of JSOC“).
The Army was ubiquitous and defined our family’s existence, yet Dad had also steered me away from following in his footsteps. Don’t join the military. Why would you want to learn to kill people? There’s no future in that. Don’t enlist. Ok, if you insist on joining, get a degree–be an officer. You’re going to be a nurse? Great, that’s marketable. The Army’s RIFing their nurses so you’re joining the Air Force? That’s good because the AF is easier than the Army. His example contradicted his words. The Army was both the creator and destroyer of our family. Growing up the mixed messages were: I love you, but not more than I love the Army. But the Army’s also not for you–you can’t be a part of the thing that I love more than you.
The psychological definition of ambivalence is: “The coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.” Ambivalence was baked into my bones as a child–on all three counts. Life didn’t make sense. Like splitting atoms, the paradox ripped me apart–I was an exploding star. By age 13 I experienced debilitating panic attacks and seriously contemplated suicide. By age 18 I learned to force these conflicting energies together into a painful quasi-equilibrium I could live with. The pressure was constant but all-consuming fusion was preferable to self-destructive, life-threatening fission. Once a supernova subsides, the dust and gas form a nebula where new stars can form. That’s what I did. I became a burning star.
At age 28, Mom essentially became the single parent to her 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. She was our only constant and the center of our universe. Without her, there was no family. “Take care of your mom while I’m gone,” dad would say before leaving. Many times we never knew where he was going, and sometimes we didn’t know when he’d be back. We never spoke of his work. OPSEC (Operational Security) was a way of life in my house. I took Dad’s tasking seriously, I did my best. But it was never enough. Mixed with Mom’s genuine love and affection were sewn threads of anger and resentment–more contradictions. I sensed her profound loneliness. It was always there. Mom was in pain and wanted her husband back. Nothing I could do would change that. But I was there and I saw what it did to her. I think it helps explain why, when I had my own family, she was ambivalent too.
My wife (Jen), our two-year-old daughter, and I arrived at Elmendorf AFB on November 1, 2001. Jen got pregnant that very next month. It was a shock to the system. We’d left the humid heat and swamps of Louisiana, for the frozen tundra of Alaska. We also arrived in the winter with very little sunlight–something I never acclimated to in the 3+ years stationed there. Unlike the OR I’d just left, this OR was overworked and understaffed. In fact, one of the former RIF’d (Reduction in Force) Army OR nurses I’d worked with at Barksdale AFB, who’d previously complained how slack the AF was, warned me that this OR was as tough as any Army MEDCEN (Medical Center). We took a lot of call and in addition to the emergent appendectomies, cholecystectomies, fractures, and occasional trauma, et al– we did a LOT of C-sections. I soon learned to hate the sound of a pager.
9/11 was fresh and I volunteered to be a member of an MFST (Mobile Forward Surgical Team). I wanted to deploy. At the time you could feel America spinning up into a great war machine. As part of the training pipeline, I spent the month of February 2002 at the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, Maryland. I loved it. In addition to soaking up normal sunlit days, we worked 12-hour shifts doing nothing but trauma. And best of all… there was no call. I had set hours and for the first time since 1998, got to do neurosurgical cases–which had been my specialty as a civilian prior to joining the AF. I went with three other guys from the unit and we all shared an apartment during the four-week training. When we were off duty, we drank like fish. It was like college all over again. It was a blast.
With a second baby on the way, Jen, a Certified Ophthalmic Technician at the time, was going to have to quit working. Daycare costs were so high in Alaska, anything she earned would have gone to paying for daycare. I worked long hours and wanted Jen, not a daycare, raising our kids. She was due in September, and that spring friends of ours threw a baby shower for us. No one came. Yes, we’d only been in Alaska for six months or so. Yes, the OR was understaffed and people were busy. But it stung. In October 1999, when our daughter, Alyssa, was born in Louisiana, no one from my family came to visit. This felt a lot like that. So when our son, Andrew, was born in September 2002, and again no one from my family visited it was as if an icicle had been pounded into my heart. It drove the point home. You don’t matter.
Coupled with this was the fight with superiors to take leave to be with Jen who needed help with our almost 3-year-old daughter and newborn son. As I said, we were short-staffed, the mission came first (they weren’t going to run one less OR), and paternity leave didn’t exist. More than anything I wanted a close-knit family. Yes, it was expensive to fly from NC to AK, but Jen’s parents came and they were by no means affluent. Though we bumped heads at times, it meant a lot. We needed the support and they were there for us. Having children didn’t seem to matter to my family in NC, and I wanted so badly to matter to them. Yet my mother was active in my sister’s children’s lives. More contradictions. What was more important? Military Service. Though it wasn’t the Army, by my twisted mental calculus, when I started doing things that mattered in the AF, we might start to matter to them too.
My training pipeline was completed after finishing the Expeditionary Medical Support (EMEDS) Course in October of 2002 at Randolph, AFB, Texas. I was good to go. The U.S. was gearing up for invading Iraq and I was itching to deploy. So when I heard there was going to be a six-month deployment to an undisclosed location in February 2003, I had to go. At that time AF deployments were three months long so this was highly unusual. This was it. Iraq. Jen wasn’t eager for me to go, but she understood how important it was to me.
Except I wasn’t tapped to go, someone else was. I asked if I could go in his place. To this day, I clearly remember him saying, “Yeah, I’ll let you have this one.” I was supercharged. I thanked him and we made the arrangements. I’ll also never forget the moment I signed the temporary NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). Afterward, the NCO told me: “You’re going to Guam.”
“What? Why?” I asked. I was incredulous.
The tasking fell under Operation Enduring Freedom, not Operation Iraqi Freedom, and supported a buildup of B-1 and B-52 bombers deploying to Andersen AFB in Guam. It was a show of force in case North Korea acted up while we were invading Iraq. The existing medical footprint couldn’t handle an influx of 2,000 troops, so the 7th Expeditionary Medical Group deployed to provide medical support.
So where was I when Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down? Though the six-month deployment was terminated at the three-month point, I watched Saddam’s statue topple while sitting in a DFAC (Dining Facility) at Andersen AFB, Guam. North Korea had behaved itself and I was glad to be going home before June instead of September. The deployment was part of Operation Enduring Freedom yet Guam was 5,000 miles from Afghanistan. Iraq was 6,300 miles away. Any way you sliced it, we were on the sidelines.
And in my mind, we hadn’t mattered.
Mike Warnock is the editor-in-chief of The Havok Journal, an Air Force (USAF) veteran, and a retired Army Nurse Corps officer. After working 10 years as both a civilian Operating Room (OR) nurse and USAF OR nurse, he served in the Army from 2007-2019. The majority of his 23 years of professional civilian and military service were spent in clinical nursing, which included working in several ORs, in various clinical leadership and staff Officer positions with two deployments to Iraq.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.