Today the desert dirt of Afghanistan rained across my bedroom floor for the final time. It coated my feet and the floor in a thin layer of grit. I stared at it, feeling the heaviness it brings into my home. Tomorrow, my husband will be officially medically retired from the US Army. His career was spent entirely with the 75th Ranger Regiment. The dirt falls from a flag I have unrolled to properly fold and place in a shadow box. It was carried through four combat deployments, rolled up and shoved into my husband’s kit; carried with him the same as his weapon, wherever he went.
That flag has been to more places than I have. It took me a few days to find it. I feel the weight of nostalgia and guilt settle across my shoulders as our 8-year-old daughter laughs and asks me to watch her defy gravity on her scooter. Our other three children are napping or playing quietly inside; all of them untouched by the flood of memories I’m nearly drowning in.
I feel guilty as I sift through this entire other world. I find pieces of him I never met; some I don’t ever want to. It’s all been unceremoniously shoved into bags, and I wonder if there is a method to the madness before me. I reach in and pull-out armfuls of uniforms and boots. I stop and stare at the boots.
One still has dried blood on it; a memory from his last deployment, a fellow Ranger’s blood, his own or someone else’s answer unknown by me. Many times, I hear a story for the first time as he tells it or relives it with someone else. It stings a little knowing that there is a side of my husband that I don’t know–a lifetime of memories that I will never be privy to; mere glimpses when I catch that look in his eye and ask him what he’s thinking about and sometimes he tells me.
I move to the next bag and instead of his memories, I’m greeted with my own. Pictures come tumbling out of me and our daughters, pictures the girls scribbled for him, each one a masterpiece. Several of them are laminated, the true badge of honor. I wonder, as I finger through them, of my own memories and life that I have that my husband knows so little about. My lamentations of the sting of not knowing glare back at me as a more recent memory fills my mind.
We are standing at the stove. I had just written and submitted a letter to a workshop in which it detailed some mental health issues I had battled all those years ago while he was gone. That same sting is apparent in his eyes as I share with him a story he’s never heard. Each of us having lived our own lives together but apart for so many years. It was never my intention to hide my experiences, nor his, but there are certain things that seem so irrelevant when you have such little precious time together.
I once did the math and by the time our oldest daughter was 5 years old, my husband had been home for less than 3 years of her life; a week here, two weeks before and after deployment, four-day weekends sprinkled in. I know we are not alone in this lifestyle and that brings some measure of comfort.
When I finally find the flag, I just hold it. It is sacred to me. I say a silent prayer of gratitude that it came home in his bag and not draped over his coffin. I feel the gut punch of each memorial service I attended, and I can feel the desperate grasp my own hands make upon the flag, mirroring the wives of those lost. I’m not sure what this exact flag truly means to my husband but I’d like to ask him someday, just not today.
For me, as that desert dirt glitters through the air, it represents what’s next. He’s been enlisted nearly our entire married life thus far. As I make each of the thirteen folds in the flag, I consider what this flag has given me. It wasn’t an easy fight, and it isn’t really over. For a split second I wonder if the multiple TBIs, neuropathy, arthritis and compressed vertebrae were worth this worn and dirty flag. The thought is fleeting and replaced by a highlight reel that flashes through my mind: places I’ve never seen, people I’ve never met, things I could never do, friendships turned family, each of us stepping up to the challenges presented to us, and I feel a release. A release of the breath I’ve been holding for the last 9 years; a release of mixed emotions.
This flag will never again travel to a foreign country. It will stand its final sentinel watch over our family for years to come, serving as a reminder of all the challenges we have faced and overcome. A steady friend to redirect us in our new adventure. An ever-living example of just what we are capable of: both apart and together as a family. It’s a bittersweet day today. I try to contain my excitement and relief so he can have space to mourn this other life. I’ve mourned the ending of this other life, too, but I know it isn’t the same. I lovingly tuck that flag into its rightful place beside his beret and the beanie baby that also traveled the world with him. A whispered, “Thank You” escapes my lips, and a few tears slide down my cheeks.
The military life is a strange one. It’s confusing and frustrating, overwhelming and yet fulfilling. I found myself over the years rising to challenges I would have never dreamed would happen to me. I watched my husband become so much more; watched him step into the role of Ranger and father and husband and stretch and grow.
All of it happened beneath that flag. All of it happened for that flag. All of it happened because of that flag. I will proudly continue to live a life worthy of that flag and the dirt that came home on it.
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.