Family is brought together by adversity and held together by choice.
When people meet my wife, Kelly, and hear our story, they often ask, “how did you do it?”
Her response is typical, “you just do, nobody plans for this; nobody really knows what they are getting into, but you just make do and help one another when you can.” Between September 17, 2001, and June 14, 2002, Kelly and I married, lost her mother to cancer, got pregnant with our first child, saw two deployments to the Middle East, and finally, she delivered our son in Seattle while I was deployed to Afghanistan.
How did she do it?
Together, that’s how. Surrounded by incredible people knit together by shared hardship and love. That’s how we all did it.
Sixteen years ago the war was new. Special Mission Units were conducting covert operations while the rest of the force postured for deployment and still more U.S. military forces waited. Unsure of the future, whether forward-deployed, scheduled, or in idle, all of us were decisively engaged in a journey that lasts to this day. A journey highlighted by pain, loss, light, and hope that remains with us all, forever in some form.
On high alert status, a one-hour, 60-mile leash tethered us to our post. Worldwide deployable in 18 hours sounded so sexy when you’re 18 years old and sitting in a recruiting brief. By 2003, after two years of being bound to our immediate area, broken up by 90-day rotations to the war, the shine had tarnished. In those years, while separated from our biological families, brother and sisterhoods were born that created a lasting and different kind of special. A family. Bonds created by necessity and solidified by love. Months and years of the little favors: babysitting, dog watching, house packing, and birthdays, teed up the big moments that propelled friendships into family. The big ones that changed everything: weddings, births, deployments, and even deaths.
In that season of great uncertainty and hardship, the darkness in our lives was overcome by the light of unity, the family of disparate and displaced families in orbit around our shared adversity.
The story of my service is, in fact, the story of my family.
Today is Thanksgiving. For the sixteenth year in a row, our family gathers. It is a tradition that has become so special that it has lasted all these years. Though most of us have separated from the Army and moved states away, our bond carries on. Today I sit with my brothers and sisters, I’ll get the best “blue ribbon” hugs from my Goddaughters, and talk football, school, and comic books with amazing young men and ladies who will always call me “Uncle.”
My heart swells as I watch my children become the most whole they will be all year amongst their little squad of cousins. They laugh, they talk, and they play. These kids have grown up together.
I’ll watch three women, sisters of circumstance who without our adversity would likely never have met. Three women, I admire greatly who have held us together over all these years. Together, they have delivered babies, raised children, fought cancer, and stabilized marriages and families. They’ve cried together, laughed together, fought together, and lost together.
These women went to war together.
I’ll embrace brothers who have fought by my side, held one another up, beaten back fear and pain, and walked together in the darkness of our sorrowful moments. We’ve exchanged the hurt of holding one another as our babies were born in the audience of those great women thousands of miles away.
All three of us held one another’s pain, and the dirt trampled by empires over millennia, as our lives moved on without us at home.
Our table remains open, always, to others displaced around us. Year after year our little family of three Ranger families has been an anchor for over two hundred others. All are welcomed and wanted. All have a home with us.
We give thanks today. Thanks for one another, for those we’ve lost along the way, thanks for our brothers and sisters overseas right now, experiencing either the newness or the familiarity of their hardship. We pray they are together, in this time of separation from home, like we were all those years ago during the “Winter Strike” in Afghanistan. We give thanks for our kids, our spouses, our health, and our blessings. Tears are shed, laughs are plenty and love is true. We are thankful for one another.
Today, I pray for all people.
I pray today that wherever you are in your journey, whatever hurts you’ve sustained, that you experience them with the support of good people around you. Fight the urge to withdraw, and allow yourself to let in those who walk alongside you. So many of us go through life with very real hurts and traumas and yet I hope that past these, you find hope and you find your family. An anchor, like ours, that I know has kept me whole in the darkest of times and hopeful in the depths of my misery.
I promise, you will see it if you look for it: hope in the hardship around you.
I see it today and every day as time softens the hurts of my past, but only when I view it through the lens of the relationships that have kept our family together.
I see it today amidst the rubble of broken cities as veterans and community members wear the grey shirts of Team Rubicon and rally to rebuild broken houses. I see it in the completion of a 4,600-mile Old Glory Relay as Eagles of Team Red, White and Blue unite 10,000 Americans under the banner of our Nation’s colors and stand together in over 200 cities, every day. I see the healing of unity in the blue shirts of the Mission Continues, serving communities who need help and rebuilding campuses for children in cities across our country. Campuses like ours, at the Tennyson Center for Children, tucked away in the West Highlands neighborhood of Denver, Colorado.
At the Tennyson Center for Children, we serve kids who have experienced abuse, trauma, neglect, and mental illness by providing a safe and stable environment for them to heal. We are one of Denver’s oldest non-profit organizations. Sadly, we are needed today more than ever in our history. Today, in the midst of their hardships, I also see courageous kids creating new and healthy futures for themselves and their friends.
They don’t know it just yet, but their family is forming. At Tennyson today, a little girl and her young male friend are tossing a football on the playground. She is black, he is white. They are 10 and 11, both of them residents because their biological families just aren’t safe right now. These kids, like 92% of our residents, have already experienced at least four events of abuse, trauma, or neglect in their short lives. But they walk, together, and smile. They sit together tonight at a table that is humble, yet safe. Amongst their cottage mates, this little family stitched together by circumstance, grows together by choice.
Holidays can be hard. I get it, truly. So many people today are separated from family, by pain or by geography.
Today, wherever you are, I pray that you find a way to be “together” with those around you. Those you choose to be family.
Together and thankful.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on November 22, 2018.
Brandon Young, former U.S. Army Ranger, is the Chief Advancement Officer for the Tennyson Center for Children, which works to heal severely abused, neglected, and traumatized kids in Colorado through a safe and stable community.