On December 28th, President Obama gave a landmark speech, the kind of speech that students will be studying in history class 50 years from now.
He said that after 13 years of hard fighting, the ISAF's (International Security Assistance Force) combat operations in Afghanistan are over. Which means -- for the first time in most military kids' memories -- our nation is not really at war.
Instead of cheers, all around the military community sighs and groans could be heard. Even though the president said that the war was over, we all know our service members won't be coming home and staying put. Not all of them. Not right away. And not for good.
The words the president said were nice, and we were thrilled to hear them, but we've lived through "Mission Accomplished" and "end of combat operations in Iraq." No one was rushing to pop the champagne and throw out the ticker tape.
Our children, however, are not so jaded. If yours are anything like mine, the first questions they asked after hearing that the war was over were along the lines of, "Does this mean Daddy will be home soon?" Or, "So Daddy won't have to deploy again?"
And if you're anything like me, you probably said something like:
"Uh. Well. Um. Er. It's complicated."
Because even though you're glad to hear that the war is over -- and who isn't glad to hear that? -- you know that your solo parenting days probably aren't finished.
For starters, we already know at least 13,000 American troops will be staying in Afghanistan, advising and assisting the Afghan military and hunting terrorists. We also know that we now have troops in Iraq all over again, helping to rid the region of the brutal Islamic State terrorist organization.
And then there are the humanitarian missions. And the cruises. And the TDY trips. And unaccompanied hardship tours. And geographic bachelors. And the military schools that take service members away from home.
And. And. And.
So the president says the war is over, but there's still an empty spot at your table, or you expect there will be again. What do you tell your kids?
Explaining a deployment for war to children seems almost easy compared to explaining a deployment for a war that has ended. For war, you can talk about how people in other areas need help, how the deployed family member is a hero, how your family is sacrificing to make the world a better place.
Deployments for a war that has ended are more nebulous.
Here's how we tackled this one in my family:
The president's speech happened to take place while we were visiting my husband's family, a 17-hour drive from our house, providing us with a perfect illustration as we slogged home down I-95.
Our mission, as my husband explained it, had been to visit Mimi and Granddaddy and, even though our mission was over, we still had lots of work to do before we could rest easy back in our own home.
First, we had to pack our bags and load the car. We had to clean up after ourselves and leave Mimi and Granddaddy's house like we found it. We had to make a long and not-very-fun road trip. And, upon arriving home, we would have to unpack our car, unpack our bags, do all of our laundry and prepare for everyone to get back into our normal school and work routines.
That's what our troops have to do in Afghanistan and in other places where military personnel go, my husband said. Even after missions end, he said, there's still a lot of work to do before the job is done.
The comparison made sense to all of us and, late into the drive, the questions finally stopped and the kids fell asleep, leaving him and me to wonder aloud how we would answer the question we both suspect will come the next time he deploys:
"Why aren't my friends' parents leaving, too?"
As a military community, we've grown accustomed to communal deployments, to thousands of friends and neighbors being gone at the same time. These big deployments have borne down like tornadoes over our military towns, leaving wide swathes of devastation, but they've also allowed for strength in numbers.
Going forward, deployments will be shorter and smaller. The sense of unfairness that often infects our households will grow more acute. And all of this will happen at the same time that our civilian communities will likely become even less aware that anything is happening at all.
I don't know how to answer those next questions.
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