*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on July 30, 2015. It can also be found online here.
My birthday is today, and it hurts. I’m a deployed Army officer, living a half marathon distance from the Demilitarized Zone in Korea and 6,000 miles from home (which may as well read “1,000,000”). Service is a privilege; deployed service is a painful privilege that grinds at the soldier’s soul like cancer corrodes the body.
It’s the little things that wear you down, like the videophone calls that go wrong. We thought it would be nice to set up a “goodnight” for our 4-year-old daughter, and it was, right up until she asked, “Daddy, will you be home tomorrow?” It stunned me, and tears dripped down my face before I could form words. If I were a traveling salesman, my response might have been an excited “yes.” But I’m not; our family is still inside of the first month of a yearlong separation.
The Army trains us to use positive psychology to “hunt the good stuff.” They perch Nietzsche on one shoulder, whispering “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and on the other, the ancient mariner’s rhyme: “calm seas do not make good sailors.” We really have tried to see the good. My wife and I constantly restate the linings of silver: With a lean-parenting regime, our daughters will be “free range.” If they’re “free range,” they’ll be independent. And if they’re independent, they’ll be more self-aware.
Or not: What possible “good stuff” can be found when a little girl’s cries for her father go unanswered?
So distance rips at emotions, and warps time in the process. Routine is broken. A vacuum emerges. I occasionally (read: “binge”) watch AMC’s zombie apocalyptic show The Walking Dead. The program depicts a brutal, Hobbesian world, full of violence, fear, and extreme scarcity, which often turns into an extended lesson in morality. The lack of security, food, water, and trust leads to terrible choices, compromises, and conflict. In the first episode, the main character, Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), is a cop whose injury during duty lands him in the hospital at the precise moment the world erupts in an extreme zombie pandemic. He awakens, alone on a gurney, separated from his family. When he eventually makes his way home, his wife and son are gone. Rick falls to the floor, disillusioned and distraught at the loss of his family, and alternates between shouts, sobs, and shocked silence.
Rick ultimately reconnects with his family, demonstrates a physical aptitude for survival in a zombie-dominated world, and becomes the leader of a small group of survivors. Watching Rick’s development as a character, his moral arc, provides a sense for the internal struggles of a deployed military person. The tension is familiar: to balance one’s duty to secure the larger community versus the individual need to be a good husband and parent. When Rick privileges the group over his family, resulting in personal loss, it tortures, saddens, and eventually maddens him. While leading the others to safety, Rick loses his wife in childbirth. And he loses contact with his newborn daughter for nearly a full season after an attack has him defending the perimeter instead of his child. When he’s away serving the group, by his choice, his family routinely suffers, and Rick wears his guilt like a trench coat.
These experiences culminate when Rick shares a lesson he learned from his grandfather, a World War II veteran. Rick’s grandfather said that during the war in Germany he pretended to be “dead the minute he stepped into enemy territory.” In turn, this informs the philosophy Rick passes on to the group surviving in the grotesque new world: “We do what we need to do, and then, we get to live. This is how we survive. We tell ourselves that, we, are the Walking Dead.” To a military-interested audience, this is no new philosophy. In the popular Band of Brothers mini-series, Lt. Ronald Speirs, advises a soldier to “Accept the fact that [he’s] already dead,” because only then will he be able to “function as a soldier.” These twin sages — Rick and Ron — counsel a harsh way of being.
During this deployment, I rely on new daily routines to avoid thinking about such things. I connect with my family as much as I am able. I write every day, two letters, one for my wife and one for the girls (typically a postcard with a drawing only a preschool teacher could love). In the letter to my wife, I place a small bead in the envelope. We each have a jar. The emptier mine gets, the fuller hers gets — and the closer we are to together. The letters and beads are physical, daily reminders that I’m still with them. But our older daughter is starting to realize I’m gone. She’s not sleeping, and the other night woke up so many times my wife essentially pulled an all-nighter. And when I call to show sympathy and support … we both know my worthless words can’t help. That’s precisely when I feel I’m not really here in Korea, not all of me, that I’m there, that at least my soul is there with them, if for no other reason than I wish it were so, and badly.
And if my soul is with them, gone from my body: Am I already the Walking Dead? Is this feeling a sign that I should just give in and listen to Rick and Ron? When we are so far away from the warmth family provides, maybe we should stiffen our hearts, become almost soulless, in an effort to survive. Or should I focus on a more positive lesson, that love is a scarce resource, more precious than we realize? This couldequally be a daily reminder that we are a family because we choose to be one, and ultimately, you cannot appreciate the bright glow of the sun until you’ve felt the cool dark of the moon.
It’s probably both. In The Walking Dead, a grandfatherly figure quotes Steinbeck: “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” How true. Being in Korea, MERS may have missed me, but I definitely have an infection that might not clear up until next year’s birthday.