There’s a children’s bookstore I often visit when my five-year-old daughter asks a particularly challenging question. With the help of books I’ve purchased there, together we have discovered, in great detail, What to Expect When Mommy is Expecting and what Dog Heaven must be like.
These books and others have helped to facilitate an open discussion in our home about sensitive and sometimes difficult topics. Recently though, I couldn’t find the book I needed. There were no titles to explain why my 58-year old father was called to active duty for Operation Enduring Freedom. There were no books on What to Expect When Grandpa Goes to War featured in the new release section or tucked amid the stacks of Olivia or Margaret Wise Brown books.
My father, Senior Master Sgt. Ronald Brown, has been in the Air National Guard for the last 20 years. Until recently, his time in the guard was uneventful. One weekend a month he would drive down to St. Paul from my parents’ home in St. Cloud to put in some desk time for the 210th – an engineering unit that specializes in communications. His unit was not called active during the Persian Gulf War, nor during any subsequent call-ups.
But on Oct. 18, 2001, my father received a coded phone call at home from his superior officer. He had been assigned to 365 days of active duty, effective immediately.
My father spent the next five days packing a crate for an extended deployment, while my mother made countless trips to Target. How do you pack for an unknown destination? At night, my parents would come to our house in St. Paul to spend time with Bergin, our five-year-old daughter, and her 16-month-old sister, Flannery.
In a sweet yet eerie way, Flannery spent much of this time standing close to her grandpa and asking him to read to her. Did she sense the impending change in our lives, or had she just found an eager volunteer?
On Oct. 23, my father boarded a C-135 with other fathers and mothers for the Persian Gulf. With a distinct lack of local fanfare, my mother, my wife and I stood quietly with Lt. Col. Dan Becker as the massive transport plane budged airborne. We stood braced against the strong winds along the runway at the Air Guard base, and in a moment, the plane and my father were gone.
We have often been told that this is a “new” war, and that the process of international conflict has changed. Evidence of this change first struck me when I received an e-mail message from my father on Oct. 26. He had arrived safely, and after a slight adjustment for time zones we established an almost seamless pattern of electronic communication. For the next several days, the 210th and other U.S. military units constructed a tent city in the 120 degree heat and blowing desert sand of Qatar – a four-block by four-block development my father now calls “home.”
With regular contact established, and my father settling into a daily routine in a very foreign land, my wife and I still struggle to explain grandpa’s sudden departure to our daughters. One lively plot has him taking a trip on a three-humped camel through a sandy desert (“Like on ‘The Emperor’s New Groove,’” Bergin observed). Most often, we talk about grandpa being away on a work trip. This placates their curiosity, although questions often arise about grandpa’s absence during holidays and other family events such as the birth of a new grandson.
What I am less prepared to neatly fold into a made-for-Disney plot is my own role in this “new” war. At 35, I am from a generation that, until Sept. 11, had no definitive tragedy to define themselves by. We had no World War, no Vietnam, no JFK or Cold War. My uncles, some of them military veterans, now ask, “Don’t you think you should be the one fighting in this war?”
I think for a moment, and then answer without hesitation, “I don’t think I could do what dad is doing.” The thought of not seeing my wife or daughters, even for a weekend, is difficult. Are there any events or issues that I would place ahead of my own family? And what does this say about my generation and our commitment to each other? Perhaps now that we have experienced our own tragedy, time will help change our perspective of the common good. And perhaps we will be less hesitant to put ideas before people. But I am not sure.
So for now it appears that I have little to offer this new war. But through our e-mail communication, and the tender letters I have read between my mother and father in his absence, I have discovered a new level of respect for my father – a respect borne from sacrifice and selflessness.
And yet passing through bookstores I still find myself searching for titles that might simply explain Why Grandpa Goes to War
Note: The author, who works in University Relations at St. Thomas, has created a Web site to help family and friends stay in contact with Senior Master Sgt. Ronald Brown. You can visit the site at https://personal1.stthomas.edu/bcbrown.