“You can always talk to me if you need to.” I’ve heard it a thousand times from concerned parents, sympathetic teachers, and obligated counselors. Many people do not understand the burdens that come with having a family member in the military. As a ten-year-old youth, I used to think it was the coolest occupation in the world; a Dad who traveled the world fighting. On the day before my Dad deployed for his second tour, he gave me a size-small olive drab t-shirt that sported a silly yet intimidating cartoon symbolization of the division he leads. The shirt stood out and drew many people’s attention. People curious enough would ask me twenty questions in regard to my connection with the shirt. Every conversation was generally the same: “I noticed your shirt, does your family serve in the military? Has he ever killed anyone before? What is it like when he was deployed? Are you worried about him every day? Do you miss him a lot?” The probing questions and deep inquiries bothered me. Before wearing the shirt, I was never really asked much about my Dad. The questions I was asked while wearing the shirt forced me to think through conflicting feelings about my Dad’s involvement in his line of work.
The more conversations I was forced to have, the more I started to reflect on these questions. Of course, I missed my Dad a lot, but I never thought about his safety when he was deployed because I assumed he was a superman, and my Dad. The constant questions also made me wonder why people were asking these questions about only my family’s situation. I became aware of the special attention that I was receiving from others; it bothered me. As I reflected on my Dad and I’s predicament, it became painfully obvious that there was a very real chance I would never see him again and others around me knew it as well. It felt like others were trying to console me as if my Dad had a death sentence.
Soon it was visibly apparent on my face that my Dad’s involvement in the military upset me. I stopped wearing the shirt, and people stopped asking me questions about my Dad. My favorite shirt was now a stale cloth wadded up in the back of my drawer. Many older figures tried to reach out to me as a confident and father figure in hopes that I would stay focused on school. Even the head master called me into his office to discuss the concerns he and other teachers had for me. He explained to me my dropping grades and withdrawn attitude in class and in the hall ways, how this type of behavior would lead to a very long and painful year, and the need for these problems to be corrected. He asked me if there was anything I would like to talk about. “No,” I answered dismissively, and marched out. It was obvious what topic he was alluding to talking about and it frustrated me.
I attempted to scrub my brain of the questions people had asked me about my Dad. One question that started to stand out the more I thought about it was: “has my dad ever killed someone?” I did not know definitively if he had or not, but I always answered the question with a dismissive “I don’t know.” I realized that my Dad’s time in the middle east has probably put him in positions where he needed to lay down justice; he probably has killed someone. At first, I was bothered by this. My Dad, a butcher. As a middle schooler, I was always told that there are sins that should never been broken. My Dad’s military career likely meant that he has killed, making him a murderer.
The thought of a gunman father scared me. Even as an intermittent church attendee, I knew that those who killed were going to the lake of fire. I thought my Dad was going to hell for his evil job that made him do evil things. I didn’t think that I would be able to interact with him when he got back. I thought I was going to look at him like a condemned man.
One week before my Dad was due to finally return home, our school had a veteran’s day assembly. A speaker came to address the importance of veteran’s day. He spoke of his reasons and situation that lead him to his decision to join the military, but I applied everything he said to my Dad. At the end of his speech my Dad was an irreplaceable soldier, sacrificed his time and lifestyle to serve his country, and joined the military to protect others. The speaker changed my thoughts about my Dad. I accepted the fact that he might be a killer. He was excused by the ever-present needs of the country. His show of loyalty to the country meant that I should be loyal to him and hail him as a hero not a villain.
Everyone cheered the day my Dad returned to the neighborhood. Tight hugs, tears, and smiles were contagious amongst the family and neighbors. The day winded down and people returned to their lives. In a moment when me and him were finally alone I blurted “Dad I know you have probably killed people but it’s okay because you did it for the country and I still love you.” My statement caught him a little off guard. He started slowly, “Kayle, I joined the military because I wanted to protect the ones I love, I wanted to protect my kids and my wife. I will fight for them, and I will kill… for them.” He gave me the dismissive nod and excused himself.
He fought for me and he killed for me to protect me. His military involvement was not for his country, but for the people he loved. The definition of murder is the unjust, premeditated killing of another human being. A soldier that is set to defend his loved ones is justified to use any means necessary to keep them safe. That is the difference between factions; A righteous one is set to protect and an evil one is set to destroy.
My Dad used lethal force righteously to protect his loved ones. It just so happens that the best way to protect them was to protect the land they lived on.
2017 Photograph: Centurion, by Olivia Arnold