by Aaron Ritchie
The last time I talked to my family was a spur of the moment call they made during dinner. One minute I was walking through a hangar in 90-degree heat and the next I was seeing a bustling dinner table, happy voices, and, through the window, fat snowflakes fell.
Just like that I was right there: sitting at the kitchen table, asking the kids how their day was. I’m trying to concentrate on the highlights of their day while in the background of my four-inch screen there is an incessant hum of generators powering the lights necessary for my family to see my face 7,000 miles away. The high-pitched whine of turbine engines on the F-22 preparing to get airborne.
The kids have a hard time hearing me over the aircraft, and I struggle to keep my focus on them when I know what’s happening behind me. The aircraft is throttling up and the kids are so excited to have me at the dinner table they can’t get the words out fast enough.
In correspondences with family and friends back home I made mention that living in the two worlds is like looking through a snowglobe.
There is a whole different world right in front of me. It’s right at my fingertips. I look into it and I am magically transported to a place of happiness. The sparkle of glitter makes it even more magical. Then I come back to reality, realizing it was too good to be true. It was just out of reach. As much as I am longing to be in that world right now, I simply can’t.
During our initial in-brief the commanding officer told us our mission while deployed is to “deliver decisive air power, defend the region, and develop relationships.”
I began to think about what the mission statement meant to me on a personal level.
Delivering decisive air power and defending the region are the reasons I joined the Air Force. We have the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world and our capabilities of mid-air refueling is what makes us the world’s most powerful Air Force.
With that power comes the responsibility to defend those who cannot defend themselves. Whether it be an entire country or a child whose family was taken by oppressors who prey on the weak, they look to the U.S. to provide hope and to gain freedom from those who challenge their way of life.
I feel honored and tremendous pride being part of such a truly meaningful mission. The footprint the U.S. leaves in the region will last for generations; it’s an amazing feeling to be part of that.
It took me some time to think about what “develop relationships” meant.
Does he mean relationships with our host nation? Or is he saying this to better our relationship with our NATO partners stationed here with us.
The U.S. has a large presence but we are not alone in the “global war on terrorism.” We are accompanied by Canadians, Australians, English and French, just to name a few.
Should I be working on the relationship with my foreign brothers in arms? The U.S. has done an exceptional job keeping service members informed on the fact that we are the “face of America.”
While traveling off base or working with NATO nations, you represent the Stars and Stripes, make us proud. So the more I thought about it, that’s not what the wing commander had in mind.
Then I think of what it means to work on a relationship with those who matter most to me, my family. I left behind my wife, Mollie, and our three children: Addie, Ellie and Abel.
How am I supposed to better a relationship with them while I’m gone? I have always been there for my family, but now I can’t be there. My chosen profession has called on me to fulfill my commitment. Eighteen years ago I made that commitment to defend my country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
I think back to that day prior to Sept. 11, 2001, when I chose to raise my right hand and swear an oath to myself, my country and God.
I have a family now, and an understanding about the deeper meaning of what that commitment means. I have a family that relies on me, but not as much as I rely on them. They are what is most important to me now. How am I supposed to be there for them while I’m gone?
The simple answer is Facetime, Skype and the dozens of other tech mediums to connect me to my loved ones in an instant.
“How great, you can be right at home with your family” is what most people said prior to deploying. At the time, it seemed like a godsend to have this available. No other conflict in history has had this technology available to service members. No other conflict in history has asked its soldiers to be in so many places at once.
Later that day, I got the chance to talk with Mollie. The kids had their baths, teeth brushed and tucked in warmly in the comfort of their beds. I have a few minutes for a much-needed talk without interruptions of typical children banter, which I miss now more than ever.
She asks how my day was and I answer her with the obligatory, “It was fine, everything good at home?”
With no children in earshot, she reveals what most would expect to hear. Everything is not rainbows and picturesque postcards. Life with three kids is happening back home.
Our oldest daughter was recently diagnosed with epilepsy and her treatment is not going according to plan. Mollie had a rough day at work, and she came home to a house that looks like three kids live there, laundry is piling up and the kitchen faucet is leaking.
I do my best to guide her in the right direction (even though she doesn’t need it). I tell her to call a friend who will take care of the faucet and whatever else she needs. We exchange heartfelt expressions of how much we miss each other, that we can’t wait to see each other. I tell to bring her phone up to the kids room so I can see them resting peacefully in their beds. I ask her to give them a kiss and put the phone to their ear as I whisper “I love you, see you soon,” during which I struggle to “keep a stiff upper lip.”
As a military member, there’s an unspoken popularization of stoicism. We have this idea of being self-sufficient and self-reliant. We have been told to “suck it up” and “press on.” Our occupation is about deprivation, survival and a minimalist lifestyle. If it hasn’t been issued, you don’t need it.
I have never been issued feelings but they are right there with my rifle and rucksack. I feel the recoil of my rifle in my shoulder, the rucksack weighing down my shoulders. None of this compares in the weight my family bears on my ability to stay focused on the mission, when just a few minutes ago I was at the kitchen table.
My great-grandfather, grandfather and father have all served during times of conflict (and longer). Never in their wildest dreams could they imagine having the technology available to be on the field of battle in one moment and be in the living room the next. The only ability to know what happened thousands of miles away was through the U.S. mail or through government-censored periodicals such as Stars and Stripes.
In a way, I’m envious of their ability to keep the two worlds separate. I find myself struggling to keep my mind on either thing that’s happening right in front of me. Troops in contact means everything else stops to get this aircraft launched, American lives are in imminent danger.
As a father who is longing to connect in any way with his wife and children back home, I struggle with sheltering them from my feelings about what is happening right behind me. I have been handwriting letters to my family and friends who have been gracious enough to send correspondences and packages. As a deployed service member, nothing can change your day as much as your name being shouted out at mail call. The feeling is indescribable.
These are the moments I tell my family back home about, not the day-to-day happenings of a field of battle 7,000 miles away. This is what makes me feel like we are doing the right thing. We are here, away from our family and friends, trying to make the world just a bit better, a bit safer for everyone.
I hope someday I can explain this to my children. I hope they understand why I had to leave. I hope they feel the same calling, not to keep the family tradition of military service alive, but to keep the world a safer and better place.
Last month I received a Christmas gift from my mother in a care package. It was wrapped the way only a mother wraps presents. The paper met perfectly at the bottom, the ribbon tied by hand, not held in place with tape. The gift tag filled out with that handwriting that you have seen on gifts since your childhood.
The tag read “the closest you’ll get to home this Christmas.” I opened the package with what I hope was the same care my mother put into wrapping it. Upon opening it I felt like I had just seen a ghost. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh hysterically. I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I gazed into her gift, the gift my mother had thought would bring me back home, even if only for a moment. Her gift to me was a snowglobe.
Aaron Ritchie is an 18-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force assigned to the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee. He is one of 17 members of this unit deployed in Southwest Asia. They will be stationed in-country for six months, and they hope to return in April-May 2018. He and his family have property in Door County.