On Deployment: Love and Duty in Modern War

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on June 25, 2015. It can also be found online here.

Ellen DeGeneres is wrong.

Misleading, maybe. Her show features military family reunions, following a year of separation, complete with hugs, kisses — all for the cameras. Sometimes even a free trip. The audience loves it; millions take in the YouTube clip.

Unfortunately, this happy view is as inaccurate as focusing on a marathon’s final strides. What about the other 26.1 miles? Or, oppositely, the start? What about the military experience, the moment of deployment departure, when family and all that matters is about to fade into the rearview mirror — what does this feel like?

In my case, excruciatingly conflicted. I love my wife and adore my two daughters, but this coming weekend I will leave them for a year to guard the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in South Korea.

I graduated from West Point and earned a commission as a second lieutenant on June 1, 2002. I saw combat in Iraq in 2003 and 2005. So deployment is not a new experience. But it’s harder now.

I have children, like the character portrayed by another Matthew — McConaughey — who plays a father (“Cooper”) on a future-decaying Earth in “Interstellar.” In the movie, he struggles to keep his small family together, including his ten-year old daughter, “Murph” (Mackenzie Foy; played as an adult by Jessica Chastain). Cooper happens to be a talented former NASA pilot, and learns of a secret mission to space that (naturally) requires his special talents. Ultimately, his choice is to leave home on a dangerous mission to attempt to save the human race. Feeling conflicted, he knows he must go, that he can make a unique contribution — but his family will clearly suffer for it.

When he leaves, Murph won’t speak to him, throws things, and thrusts herself into bed. Cooper begs her to say a proper goodbye. When she won’t, he’s forced to tell her “I love you forever,” and walks out the door. Murph realizes she’s made a mistake, running downstairs to the door yelling “Dad … Daddy!” as the dust from Cooper’s truck still hangs in the air above the dirt road. Later in the film, Cooper is forced to virtually revisit that scene, of his leaving, watching himself walk towards the door. Wanting to take his choice back, wishing he had stayed with Murph, he screams at this vision: “Don’t let me leave, Murph! Don’t let me leave!”

In contrast, I know my going to Korea will not save the world. I cannot even say for certain my contribution will matter, while my presence at home is clearly significant. For our four-year-old daughter, I’m the first thing she sees when she wakes up and the last before she closes her eyes at night. So what makes this year on the DMZ worthwhile?

I can only fall back on professional duty, my obligation to serve the American public. By any objective or subjective measure, North Korea is a human rights wasteland. Like ISIS or the Taliban, the Kim regime systematically destroys human progress, forcing conformity with oppressive dictates and a stultifying worldview, and thereby threatening a world that is safe for diversity. And this diversity really matters. There are many things worth defending; this is one of them.

One of the best officers I served with in Iraq is gay, as is the first clergyman to bless my oldest daughter. I fought with a Moroccan Muslim, and both of us would have died protecting Iraqis, regardless of sect. I have handed grieving spouses flags at military funerals, most recently that of two soldiers — one of whom was Jewish, the other a committed atheist. When my daughter recently had an unexpected seizure — horrifying for new parents like my wife and I — we overruled our white, Anglo-Saxon, (likely) Protestant doctor’s opinion in favor of that of a Pakistani doctor we trusted more. And though, being from Minnesota, I’m Lutheran, we plan on making our long-term home in Utah, home of the Mormon faith.

This diversity is worth defending. And so I see this as my role, my miniscule contribution to the world I want my girls to live in. Duty pushes me; my beliefs compel me.

But I do fear losing my family. Iraq showed me how quickly it can all be gone. In my darkest moments, I daydream a future I wouldn’t wish on anyone. In it, I’ve died. It hurts because my family has completely forgotten me. Over time, there is less and less of me until it was as if I never was. This idea is so frightening it literally incapacitates me. It’s hard to type, or even think.

So I don’t need a car or a trip or a visit to Ellen’s show. I need this year to pass quickly. Fortunately, as always, Hollywood provides some hope. Cooper made it home to see Murph again. Upon embrace, daughter tells father, “I knew you’d come back.” He asks, “Why?” She answers, “Because my Dad promised me.”

I would do anything to be able to promise the same to my girls.

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