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How Do You Do It?

By Sara L. Carlson '12

Sara L. Carlson photoDuring the last ten years, the lives of my family, like so many others affected by the military, have changed in ways that are hard for many non-military people to comprehend. While I am no longer serving on active duty, my husband is. Our lives remain in constant flux. Because we are currently not located in a military community, I am often asked by people not familiar with the military lifestyle how I am able to manage law school, elementary-age children complete with extracurricular activities, a husband fighting a war, dogs, a house, and my good friend “Murphy” (of Murphy’s Law fame) who often visits while my husband is deployed. Truth be told, the everyday tasks are easy. These are the ones that every parent will figure out. The tasks that are specific to military life during times of war are the ones that everyday life does not prepare you for, and there is no manual to help you figure them out.

My husband and I have been deployed more times than you can count on one hand. We have two wonderful children that have not had the pleasure of enjoying their parents in the same home for longer than ten consecutive months. Birthdays and holidays are on the calendar but we consider it a win if one parent is here for those important moments. Our children were nearly three years old before they realized that their father, who we occasionally were able to communicate with via video chat, did not live in our laptop. They are now old enough to realize that Daddy is at war and not simply away for his job. With this realization come valid questions that are impossible to answer. How do you do it? How do you tell your children that you are not sure that Daddy will come home in a year? When they ask, how do you tell them that deep down inside, you are as afraid as they are? The truth is, you don’t. You hug them because both of you need it, promise them that Daddy loves them very much because that is a promise you can make, and then you lace up their shoes and head to football practice.

One of the best things about the military is the friends you make. The circle of my closest friends formed when I was in college at West Point. All of us entered active duty service upon graduation. Our paths have crossed many times and our circle has expanded. With more friends comes the increased risk that tragedy will strike someone we love. It was bound to happen to one of us, though we were convinced, or perhaps in blissful denial, that it never would.  We were wrong.  A non-descript government car showed up in the driveway of one of my dearest friends early one morning. Sharply dressed, uniformed Army officers knocked on her door bearing news that changed her life in a moment. How did we do it?  We, her friends, prepared her to sit through a service memorializing her husband, a wonderful man I’d known longer than her, and father of their three young children, and keep her strength as the flag that draped his cherry-stained casket is presented to her “on behalf of a grateful nation.” The truth is, you cannot prepare someone for this. Her life changed in a moment that we all know is possible but pray never happens.

Just a few weeks after our friend’s funeral I was back in Afghanistan yet again, this time deployed with my husband. As I sat in an intelligence center, monitoring a developing attack in a distant valley, I recognized a familiar call sign being beckoned to an ongoing firefight. It was his company. I rushed to his command post. Environmentally, conditions were too bad to fly. Tactically, he would fly in to a hornet’s nest. He gathered his gear, nonetheless. I said good-bye to my husband and the flight crews as they left the safety of the command post and headed to their whirring helicopters waiting on the nearby airfield. They would fly virtually blind, through the treacherous mountains in Afghanistan, to the Waygal Valley in what would become one of the deadliest battles in the war. I knew in my heart that he may not come home. As he left I couldn’t kiss him good-bye because he is the commander and even though his soldiers would understand, it would indicate to both of us in some strange way that to forgive military bearing just this once would almost equate to giving him permission to letting that kiss good-bye be his last. He subtly issued a rain check with a tight squeeze of his hand. How did we do that? I remember the calm and courage in his eyes. It’s all I had to sustain me until the early morning hours when his helicopter landed safely with only a few bullet holes this time. Another day, granted.

The events of September 11, 2001, changed our nation and the world in ways that many never would have predicted. While the sense of patriotism that followed those attacks has waned, many of the American flags have grown tattered or disappeared. Lives of our veterans, our military, and their families are affected every day. So every time someone asks me “How do you do it?” I think back to days like these. I am thankful for the days that I have together as a family when I am fortunate to have them for they are often few and far between. I pray for the many friends and families that may only replay memories as opposed to make new ones with their heroes. Perhaps most importantly, I pray that all of our service men and women will return to those who love them and to a nation that appreciates the immeasurable sacrifices they have made and will continue to make.

This article appears in the fall 2011 issue of Lexicon, the alumni magazine of the Penn State University Dickinson School of Law.

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