A soldier starting his deployment with Chosen in the spring of 2007 had roughly a one-in-two chance of getting killed or wounded before the end of his tour.
He was the one who broke his arm, has scars in both eyebrows and split his lower lip wide open. As a teenager he ripped the cartilage of his nose apart and as a young adult managed to shoot himself in the knee. So when my little brother announced he was enlisting, I was sure it was a mistake.
But it wasn’t. And then he was gone.
He left a boy, awkward and proud. Not sure where he would be sent, we hoped for one and dreaded another. One of Airborne’s Chosen he was dispatched to the worst that Afghanistan could offer, his fractured missives giving us a glimpse into a place and a horror we couldn’t fully grasp. Bella, Ranch House, Wanat. Places we would never see and that he would never forget. He came back wearing battle-weary fatigues and steel wristbands bearing the names of fallen friends. Dates and images engraved in his memory.
We were all besieged in the last months of his deployment, each day dragging into the next. A summer under fire. So close to home and yet so far away, his notes relaying the anxiousness that permeated their days. Waiting to be attacked. To fight. To come home. Hit in the final days of his tour, he stayed to fight alongside a family fused by the bonds of war, refusing to leave until those that remained left as they had arrived – as one.
My husband calmed the storm, assuring me that he would be home soon. And suddenly he was. But instead of a hero’s return, he came quietly in the night traveling halfway around the world to rescue me from my own loss. I watched as my children clung to the spark of light that came with him, his boyish humor still embedded within the man he had become. I felt him watching me, the hardened soldier surveying the battlefield. No longer the protector, I became the one watched over.
He drove me back from the funeral home in the dark, the quiet measure of his voice belying the pain of his experience as he prepared me for the days and the months ahead.
“Is this the same?”
He left a boy, but returned a man. I knew what he had seen, what he had suffered, but I would never truly know what they had all left behind in that place. I needed to know whether the man beside me was the soldier who had lived through hell or the little brother that had been there as I grew to love the man I had lost. Or was he both? After everything he had seen and the fallen friends he had grown up and fought beside, recovered, mourned and vowed never to forget, he turned and looked at me for the first time in that long, lonely car ride.
“No. This is family.”
He left to fight for something far greater than all of us. He came home to fight for me.