The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

THEN AND NOW |

August 21, 2007

THEN AND NOW
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 8/21/07
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
Email: wordsmith16@excite.com

I spent almost a year in the Sunni Triangle. I somehow avoided the hundreds of mortar attacks on my base, the IEDs on some of the most dangerous roads in Iraq, the RPG fired at my convoy. It's the path of the ages I feel I've traveled, where able-bodied Americans go to war for their country, either by choice or not, and the best way to illustrate my journey is with a simple then and now. It is a desert full of memories I can conjure up, and every grain of sand is in ultra-sharp focus like a 7 mega-pixel photo.

Then: I had been happily married for seven years. The most sacred things in my life were my family, my marriage, my children, and my dreams. This was the war of my generation and I wanted to do my part. I was in charge of tactical communications for a Battalion of 600 soldiers, but sometimes I was called upon for other missions. One day I found myself conducting a search for an Al Qaeda weapons cache on a farm near Ramadi. The helicopters landed and we jumped out. I ran through a swirling dust cloud with my weapon pointed at the chest of the man who walked out of his doorway when he heard us land. I didn't know if he was hostile yet. I couldn't take the chance. I was yelling at the interpreter, and the interpreter was yelling at the man. Two hours later, the farm had been searched and we were kicking a soccer ball with the man's son. There was no weapons cache. And no one was hurt. It was still a good mission because we narrowed our search.

That same night I boarded another helicopter to go on emergency leave. I was flying to New Orleans just weeks after Hurricane Katrina to visit my mother, who had been struggling with breast cancer. I had received a Red Cross message that same morning. My soldiers tried to talk me out of going on the mission, but I refused to back out. I compartmentalized those personal emotions until the mission was complete.

Once there I helped my dad get the house and property cleaned up. Water damage had left everything in a horrible mess. I'll never forget the wisdom and wetness in my mom's eyes the last time I saw her. I had been there for weeks and she was still holding on. My leave could not be extended anymore. I had to go back to Ramadi. We both knew it was the last time our eyes would meet. And it was. She passed five weeks later. My wife and kids were still back in Utah, where the marriage I left behind was struggling to survive as well. These are the pictures hardest to look at in my high-def recollections. And these are the pictures that need no well-intended caption scribbled on the back because they are burned into my memory.

I returned to Iraq, an anonymous face in the window of a plane, flying across the Atlantic in the middle of the night, and threw myself into the work. Things got worse back in Utah, and at that point I gave up on trying to save my marriage. My own home was no longer a healthy environment. My only concern then was for the kids. I honestly thought I might lose my mind to frustration, helplessness, and anger. When my tour was over and I finally got back to Utah, I had been gone for 17 months. I had lived and worked in close proximity to violence and death for a year. Over 80 soldiers in my Brigade were killed in combat.

Hundreds more were injured. Two soldiers in my battalion were killed. I prayed for them. I thanked God that none of my soldiers were killed, and that I was unharmed. It felt positively blessed to be home in one piece. Now my kids needed their daddy. Overnight, I changed my focus completely and put every ounce of energy into facing new challenges. The transition was immediate. I had no choice.

Now: When I first returned to Utah I felt that my very soul had been scrubbed raw by sustained emotional overload. I was equidistant between two extremes and the balance could go either way. Darkness or Light. Depression or Joy. I could see no grey, only black and white. I was on the cusp of major life changes on many levels and they scared me. I was drinking too much and nothing felt the same. My marriage had failed, and faded like a Polaroid left out in the sun. My mom was gone. And I hadn't yet begun to understand how much the war had affected me.

The kids kept me busy, yes, but they kept me grounded too. I have to be strong and stable for them. I have gladly cared for the kids since the day I got off that plane. I was granted full custody in the divorce. I've been a single dad for 10 months, working 40 hours a week while raising my two kids (seven-year-old girl and four-year-old boy) with very little help. I'm not complaining, but the adjustments have been intense. I am becoming an expert in the art of parenting and personal sacrifice, and my kids are worth it.

I volunteered in my daughter's classroom, taught both kids to swim, and threw them very cool birthday parties. We've spent the holidays together. We've gone to movies, plays, amusement parks, Disney on Ice, and the circus. Also, after nine years with the same woman I'm "single" again, so I've started dating a little. It's much more complicated now. I have been writing quite a lot, working on multiple projects, and I have a literary agent. I don't remember the last time I had a bad day. I am settling into a renewed optimism, a fresh interest in all facets of life and ambition.

Before I went to Iraq I was not in the habit of sharing my personal life with complete strangers, and I'm still not. But through my blog, and forums such as this one, I've come to realize that it's good to talk about these things to those who want to listen because I know I am not the only soldier facing adversity. In fact, I feel very lucky indeed.

For months I was bitter and confused, but after deep consideration, and with the unconditional support of a very small circle of family and friends, the image of a still pond behind the hurricane won over my intention, rather than the fury of the storm itself. Forgiveness seemed possible. Grief less painful. I sat alone the other night at a lookout point above the Salt Lake Valley. It is a spot I visit whenever I can. It was dusk and the mountains looked like the painted shadows of mountains, silhouetted by the light behind them. I thought about the last couple of years, as I do often. And I was once again amazed by the momentum of the sun when it struck the horizon, and the way time heals these invisible scars, slowly braiding solace back around a broken heart. War and life have penned this harsh new narrative, but I am home now. And I am learning.


Originally published by the New York Times.

Comments

My son came back to a wife who left him only after she knew he would make it back. I shouldn't think that way, but I can't help it. He is facing his demons and moving along. Unfortunately for him he did not get custody of my grandson. He did not fight for it, believeing the baby needs to be with his mom. I can't make those choices for him, he will have to live with them.

So many of you are coming home to similar situations and it helps to see it in writing. It helps me to know that you and he(my son) will move through this.

I pray for all of the soldiers, that fight for us at the battlefront and then have to come home and fight once more at home.

God bless you and your children. I am sure one day they will tell you how much they appreciate you being there for them.

May you continue to heal and grow, and may God bless you and your children. Best of everything, Martha

Sorry to hear about your family problems. Your children are your first consideration. I love four year old boys. This is a good time for being home with your son. I have a seven year old granddaughter who is playing baseball and loving it. She is quick to say 'soccer is boring, just running around the field, but baseball is really a fun game.' That warm's this baseball fan's heart.

Enjoy them and good luck. Take care of yourself for their sakes!

For what it's worth, I can relate. I was gone 16 months, no time to aclimate back to civilian life before finding myself sole custodial for my two kids, then 6 and 3. At one point I even had to leave the military or face never seeing them again. God smiled on me and this past January I was able to re-enlist back with my unit.

Trying to balance full time sinlge parenting with a full time career and a military one to boot isn't easy...but it's possible. Reading about others doing the same always gives me hope on darker days. Thank you for sharing your story, good luck, and God bless Sir.

Very nice piece about transition and memory!

My thoughts and prayers are with you as you continue through this journey of healing. Until today, I have not read any soldier's accounts of the war and coming home, so for me, it was very moving to read this. God Bless you and may you find healing and comfort through our most cherished joys, children.

Glad you're doing well, Cpt--I've been following your posts on and off and know that the road is a hard one.

Take care of yourself, brother

It just goes to show how much can change and how much someone can change in such little time, for better or for worse. I can only imagine how hard that must have been, but I believe in the end you'll be stronger because of it.

It is stories like that that are truly inspirational to me. You have done your hard work in the military, for which I thank you very much, and now you are raising a family on your own which is more hard work. You are doing a great job and I hope you will continue to keep us all informed on the little ones. Good luck!

Dear CAPT Lee Kelly -- My college English class assignment was to read this military blog and respond to posts that I felt I needed to. I have read quite a few now and I have to say that yours touched me the most. You write of the journey from one point to the next but from a perspective that I have never experienced or even imagined. Your words make me humble. Know that your strength will carry you and your children through and the memory of your mother will be with you to hold you up. Regards from an Indiana housewife, newly married to an Army MP veteran, Mary

Your story was definitely touching. It was as if every word you wrote had all your emotion and heart into it. I enjoyed reading your blog and look forward to reading more of them. Thanks for serving our country and sacrificing so much.

Wordsmith,

I applaud you. Few people can do the “normal” things you do. Sacrifice of oneself for another life. You give of yourself for your children, but you were willing to do this for us as well. Thank you. By your optimism and perseverance you show an attitude I don’t often muster in my cozy, safe little world. Bless you and your family. Please keep us all updated on the writings. Best of luck, I think you will do well.

Lee: I literally just stumbled onto The Sandbox blogsite tonight for the first time, and came upon your "Then and Now" post. More than anything else I've read in the last several years on the War, this War, your "Then and Now" post put the real impact of the war in true perspective for a non-military citizen of this country. I say a prayer for you right now, a prayer that God will continue to bless you all the time in the world to spend with your children. For the time you spend will forge a bond of Love between you, a Love that will carry you and them a long, long way in this world. Thank you for your service on behalf of our country, and even more so on behalf of the country of Iraq (for those people need to see a future, too, at some point). And thank you for your willingness to open up and share your life experience. May God grant you many sunrises and sunsets with those beautiful children.

Blessings

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