June 18, 2011

Name: Matthew Mellina
Returned from: Iraq
Email: [email protected]

We used to stand there counting stars. When the light would fade and fireflies began to shine, we headed to a nearby field and he assembled our telescope, my young hands not knowing what to do, and there we mapped the night sky. I am sure we were there for only an hour or two at a time, but I now remember those days as a perpetual night. I am not sure now what we talked about, or even what we saw, only that when we got home I had a book of glow-in-the-dark constellations to remember.

A snapshot of youth shared between a father and son.

A youth of H-O-R-S-E and science projects and fossils and Ditch Plains. A youth of Dirk Pitt and toy soldiers and road trips and Sundays on the soccer field. A youth far removed from bombs and bullets and the sands of a desert. Where Long Island was home and Iraq was not even a thought or consequence.

I left behind the joy of childhood and settled for adolescent views of rebellion, joining the military, just as my father did decades earlier. But never to follow in his footsteps. I knew some stories of his service. An Airman during the Vietnam era, he never deployed and never saw combat. He was tucked away in the safety of Colorado and Arizona and Germany, working on spy cameras for the Dragon Lady. Most considered him lucky for this, but I when it was my turn to sign the dotted line, I gave myself over to the romanticized heroism of Blown Away. Destined for the Army and Explosive Ordnance Disposal and a war I joined as an act of desperation.

I returned home four years ago only to have another war start. The one with self-sabotage and acronyms for diseases and a strange, creeping loneliness. Through the turmoil of return, my own son was born. I had hoped for a partner in my father who understood the military life, and maybe, just a small amount of what I’d been through. But I was still young and ignorant, and never truly understood the pain caused by my actions and the sleepless nights because of a son fighting a war 7,000 miles away. He gave his all to stand by my side as I have crumbled since my return, but still I turned away from him. The divide between us grew.

Every part of me regrets this gap. There was no similar ground we saw or felt. The military saved him and in the end it may be my downfall. Our differences aren’t just philosophical anymore, either. He watches his back and surroundings, but not as vigilantly as I do. Sounds make him alert, but the effect pales in comparison to my reaction. His world is organized, but not as obsessively. And he is comfortable. Comfortable in his own skin, and comfortable with what consists of time. I’m still searching and wandering for a similar type of comfort.

I have an urge to share my stories with him but I still hold back. Not for fear of what he would think of me but because I do not want to take away what innocence he has left, never seeing death and destruction as I have. We are generations separated by time, distance, and conflict. But as the stories slowly come out, and laughter and sadness collide, I’ve begun to formulate the path I have been on and where the beginnings of who I am began. In moments shared now, I can live and discover about who I am through who we are.

But still, I worry. Not just as a son, but as a father. I was told once, in a war thousands of miles away, that you can never be a man until you raise one. Now I know this to be true, as I raise my son.

I have created lists since his birth three years ago. Lists on how we are similar.

We become lost in the world the same way. Shoot the same looks. Eat the same way. We run like ducks. Our teeth are preferred to nail clippers. We blow bubbles with our own saliva. Our knees shake when we are spooked. We arrange our blocks in color and shape order. Our lips quiver when we cry. Our giggles are the same. We confuse baby pictures. Our eye color is just a shade off. We are each afraid to touch or look in the other's direction. Our bellies are not to be touched. We will both fart on you when prompted and are not opposed to burping at the table. Women are of an extraordinary interest to us. We feel the need to ring doorbells. Our hair cowlicks match. Climbing excites us but the descent may cause us to become petrified. We both love bouncy houses and Hershey’s Kisses. We love to read before bed and we leave the pillow with drool and creases on our face.

I am sure my father has the same experience in reflection when it comes to my youth and upbringing. That’s what bridges humanity and families. But what of this new bridge? I am afraid of my son. I’m afraid to hold. To comfort. To love. To discipline. I am afraid to disappoint. He is an undeniable part of me, and I am an undeniable part of him. Our similarities prove this. So I take in what I fail at, exceed in, and what I know I am to him. The rest will follow because it needs to, and I will not allow it any other way.

I have the example of my father to follow. The man I once resented and now am jealous of. Someone who has been through it all alongside me, regardless of who I am or what I have done, and I will always have a shoulder. An example. On how to care for a family. On how to love unconditionally. On how to learn from your mistakes and fight for what you hold dear. Yes, my father has his downfalls but he is a man or the best damn example of one that I can find. Hearts fail and generations collapse, each making room for the next and hopefully greater one. As I raise my own child, I will impart what I have learned from my father. This is what I hold dear and I pray for, the day my son will ask me about my youth so I can whisper to never make the same mistakes. To never run. To face it all. To keep the world as his own. So I can never sit as my father has with the fear of burying your own. To raise him in the image of my father and hope I can live up to both of them.


Matthew Mellina is an Iraq war veteran and served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist and Calvary Scout with the 4th ID from 2001 to 2007. He is an active member of the NYU Veterans Writer Workshop and spokesperson for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). His work has been featured on


Wow! Thank you Matt, for all that you have done...and for all that you will continue to do.
Your story has prompted me to write a note of thanks to my Father for all he did for me.

Dear Matthew: I am of the same generation as your dad. I enlisted in the Army in January 1974, and retired in July 2001. Like your dad, I never had to face what you have faced. I pray to God that no son will have to do that. Yet I also know what your father knows and you will soon know - that we desperately want to keep our children safe no matter how old they are or where they are. We cannot do that, and it tears at our hearts. My son will soon be a Navy chaplain. His motivation to do this comes from trying to talk to his best friend after the friend got back from tour #2 in Iraq with the USMC. My son couldn't understand what his friend had been through, but he really wanted to be there for him. I am sure that your father, like me, will never understand what you went through -- but our fathers did understand and they did their best to pass that knowledge on to us. I applaud your work and your desire to communicate across the generations. Give your dad a try when you are ready to talk about what you have been through. He's probably imagined most of it anyway. Good luck to you, Matthew. God Bless
Jim Gawne
MSG, USA (Retired)

One day, you too will learn to be comfortable in your own skin. Whether your father deployed, or not, he met and spoke to those who did. He knows more of what you went through than you know.
You have a new life and an old example. Combine them. Make them yours. Impart them to your own son.
One day you may be the own who has to live with the possibility of surviving your progeny. Discover how to do that before it is too late.
You are surviving in an environment that no one should have to experience. Over and over again. Unlike my generation, your come from an all volunteer force. One too thin and too exhausted and too under-appreciated because too few are required to share in the burden of freedom. Not the one this nation is trying to force feed to others. An admirable desire, but one that is unique to this country and this people. Until we realize that each country and people have to work out their own destiny, more young men and women are going to be sacrificed to the "Meat Grinder" called "Freedom".
You and yours preserved "Freedom", for those unworthy of you, To ask you the stupid questions. To slap you on the back and tell you what they would have done if they had been there beside you in the streets and the corridors and the back alleys and the rooftops. Staring at you expectantly to share in full detail what you so desperately desire to forget. And getting upset when you decline to fulfill their curiosity. To tell you to "Man up" when they have no idea what that really means.
You have already "Manned up". All you have to do is learn how to LIVE.
I can think of at least two reasons to make that "Priority number one".

Welcome home. And, "Thank you" for the great sacrifice you continue to carry.

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