I have deployed on numerous occasions during my nineteen years in the Army. On every occasion, both as a Special Forces soldier and as an Intelligence officer, I deployed as a member of a unit. During those times, the frenetic pace of preparing a group of soldiers to leave had distracted me from thinking about the actual deployment itself. Now, however, I find myself in the unique position of an individual deploying to a unit already in Iraq. This time I have had months to reflect, and I write this because this deployment has rekindled long forgotten memories. As the war progresses, I hope this piece reaches out to other individuals who might find themselves in similar situations.
"To the world I am an individual. To an individual, I am the world."
SFC James Smith attached that quotation to an email he sent me four years ago. Unfortunately, I never took the message seriously until I recently received orders for a brief deployment to Iraq. Now, as my departure date looms, I find fault regarding the opportunities I missed to spend time with my family during this past winter.
Up here in West Point, N.Y., winter is long and cold. And winter, reflected off the uniforms of cadets and the granite walls of the United States Military Academy, is gray. In fact, cadets often remark that winter here often takes on the appearance of "Castle Greyskull." Indeed, my cynical outlook toward winter only changed because of a lesson my daughter Leah taught me.
The leaves have fallen, and winter is on its way.
When Leah was two, we went sledding for the first time: Just the two of us—daddy and daughter-- out enjoying the Michigan snow. After each ride down the hill, I would tow her back up while she sat on the sled. During one of our treks up, I overheard her crying and looked back to see that one of her snow boots had fallen off at the bottom of the hill. I picked her up, placed her foot in my jacket and headed down the hill to retrieve her boot. Little did I know that she would forever remember that incident as a pleasurable one because it was a moment in which we bonded. Now, any mention of snow and she responds happily with, "Daddy, remember when we went sledding and my boot 'felled' off?" quickly following with, "Daddy, when can we go sledding again?" That was two years ago, and she still remembers it as if it were yesterday.
I look out my window and see the frozen Hudson River covered with ice which resembles cold steel. For some reason, I find myself feeling as cold inside as the chilling wind that slices through everything and forces people to scatter for reprieve.
One night during this past December, I read Leah The Snowy Day before she went to sleep. The next morning revealed 3 inches of fresh powder. "Daddy, can we go outside and play like Peter did in his book?" Leah asked me. I replied that I had to get to work but maybe we could build a snowman after I returned home. Unfortunately, it was so dark by the time I returned from work that there was no time for snowmen.
Every morning, I walk outside to kick the icicles hanging off my jeep before driving to work through the slush-covered roads.
In January, it snowed again, and Leah came running up to me with her pull-on boots on the wrong feet, an unzipped jacket and mittens. There she stood in front of me: smiling eagerly in hopes of playing in the snow. Sadly, my response was not so soothing. Put simply, I felt that I had no time to play with my children. I was preparing to go to war. Eventually, she stopped asking me to play in the snow with her and instead would sit quietly in her reading chair while I called Ft. Bragg. Her silence rang in my ears.
As I walk around the campus, harbingers of spring greet me: islands of grass appear, and I no longer wear my parka to work.
In March, the sun began melting away both the snow and winter's memories. During one of the unseasonably warm days, I arrived home late but just in time to witness Leah attempting to play kickball with the neighborhood children. In the middle of the field was another father from across the street. He moved towards her and gently rolled the ball as she stood uncertainly at home plate. She responded with a kick and laughed hysterically as she attempted to run the bases in a circuitous fashion. It hit me. As I sat there in my car, I realized how that should be me out on that plate. That should be me guiding my daughter to first base and then deliberately miss tagging her out as she rounded third for a homerun. I quickly understood how I should have taken her sledding to see if perhaps we could make it down a hill without her boot falling off.
The next day, I saw Leah ride her bike by herself. I asked my wife, Tina, who had fastened Leah's bicycle helmet and helped her move the bike from our backyard to the front of the house. Tina responded that Leah had found her helmet in the closet, dragged her bike to the front of the house, and proceeded to ride. This was the first time she did not have anybody walking by her side ensuring that she would not fall: this time she was riding alone. It was then that I grasped that she was growing up and would not always need me.
Now it is spring, and last night, as I was putting her to bed, Leah looked up at me and said, "Daddy, I have tears in my eyes because you will be leaving." With that statement, I resolved to take SFC Smith's quote to heart and decided to "be the world" to my family. Years from now, I do not want to be the guy who sits alone sifting through a box of pictures trying to recapture fading memories because he left his children clinging to unfulfilled promises.
April has arrived, and there is little evidence of the long winter. I have put the sled away until next year. Winter is over, and I am leaving for Iraq. My daughter is growing. Man, I wish it would snow just one more time.
It snowed ten days after CPT Krompecher began this article. He and his girls spent a wonderful afternoon sledding and topped it all off with rounds of hot chocolate. He left for Iraq in May.
By Zoltan Krompecher