Danie Harrelson: Memories of the first Gulf War
March 23, 2003
Steamboat Springs — They sat in the kitchen for two weeks. I would trip over them on my way out the door to school and ballet and horseback riding lessons. Sometimes I would sit on them, knees up to my chin, and thought that as long as I sat there, they weren’t going anywhere.
Then one day they were gone. And so was Dad.
It was August 1990, and I was 10 years old. Iraq had just invaded Kuwait. U.S. military troops were put on high alert, including my father. So he packed his green camouflage bags — bulging with enough gear for an indefinite stay in the desert — and placed them in the kitchen. It was a nagging reminder that his departure was inevitable.
The call to head out came in the night. I never heard him leave.
Dad served with special operations forces based out of Florida at the time, which meant he did a lot of stealing away in the night.
The next morning my mother would sit at the foot of my bed and gently break the news. Her tear-stained face said it all. Dad had left, and she didn’t know where he was and when he was coming back.
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So we committed Daddy to the protection of a sovereign God, prayed for his safe return and moved on.
I wonder how many children have staged a minor protest atop green camouflage bags and thought they could hold on to Mom or Dad just one more day if they didn’t move from their perch.
War is not just about soldiers shipping out. It’s about the wives and husbands, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers and children they leave behind.
Nothing — not even prior experience — prepares you for that day.
Frenzied press conferences with men in expensive ties and gray suits and high-ranking officers in decorated uniforms hint the day is coming. But it never hits home until Dad’s bags are really gone, and the only thing you trip over are your muddled emotions.
The war aired on television is about air raids and ground troops and explosions over Baghdad. The war I know is about watching the mailbox religiously for anything with an overseas postmark and reading and rereading that letter because you don’t know when the next one will come. It’s about Mom being a mom and a dad.
It’s about burying pets without Dad and winning spelling bees without his high fives and singing in the school play without him in the audience.
It’s about envying friends whose fathers aren’t camped out in the desert thousands of miles away.
It’s about mailing Dad a two-foot Christmas tree from Wal-Mart because he’s not coming home for Christmas. It’s about not taking down the tiny artificial tree until March and leaving the wrapped Tasco telescope you begged for all year beneath it because you wanted Dad to watch you unwrap it.
It’s about counting the days until Dad comes home and then learning he’s not coming home for at least another two months.
It’s about getting a phone call from Dad your freshman year of college and learning he won’t be there when you come home for Thanksgiving break.
It’s about waiting in cramped quarters with other anxious wives and fathers and children to welcome home loved ones after spending eight months apart.
It’s about watching your mom hug your dad, who’s looking like he spent eight months in the desert, and thinking that no Hollywood screenwriter could ever script a better reunion.
It’s about attending the funeral of a soldier who served alongside your father and having nothing to say to his children because you don’t understand why your father made it safely home and their father didn’t. American soldiers recently answered a call to liberate Iraq. Today a quarter of a million men and women are stationed in and around the Persian Gulf. They left hundreds of thousands of family members behind to serve their country.
My father is not among those men and women.
He retired three years ago, after 24 years of trotting the globe with the United States Air Force.
The selfish part of me is thankful he is not in harm’s way this time around, but I know he feels differently.
Just as a firefighter doesn’t weigh the risks to his safety before he runs inside a burning building to save another, a soldier doesn’t question the call to duty because he knows there’s a chance he may not come back.
He packs his bags and puts them in the kitchen and waits for the order. And one day his bags are gone and the long wait and prayers for his safe return begins.
Danie Harrelson is a reporter for the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Her father, Dan Harrelson, is a retired senior master sergeant in the Air Force who lives in Rapid City, S.D.