I recall being accused of being unpatriotic because I questioned the lack of exit strategy for Iraq. I remember praying I was wrong.
I remember years later walking through Warriors’ Walk and stopping at each tree, to look at the items left behind in memorandum. The stunning emptiness and finality of row upon row of trees – both a tribute to bravery and a symbol of loss.
I remember watching the troops’ too early morning fitness routine, rock music blaring across the base, thundering legs in unison.
I remember a soldier coming home in a wheelchair that didn’t fit through his home’s doorways. I remember a just-returned soldier found dead in a shallow puddle of water the next day.
I remember a wife speaking casually to her deployed husband on her cell phone, her kids crawling over her, as she packed her house to move on her own. I remember a newly deployed female pilot looking for a new home for her dog.
I remember warnings about domestic violence and suicide rising for returning troops. I remember the excitement and pride of returning troops showing me pictures of work they had done to help rebuild Iraq.
I remember a war weary America’s cynicism glossing over the complexities. I remember how easily the press ignored two wars and how eager we were to forget.
I remember a friend cleaning her house daily because she didn’t know when her Special Forces husband would return due to the high security of his missions.
I remember the frustration over the efforts to train the Iraqis to protect themselves and the uncomfortable shift of power as we moved into advise and assist mode. I remember being told that in Afghanistan, a troop with a unit that is not patrolling is frustrated with not being able to protect himself due to the new rules of engagement.
I remember the proud faces of new recruits mastering their skills in hot desert like conditions. I remember the beautiful and smart female MP who kicked serious ass. I remember a young mother joining the military so she could get a good education and take care of her son.
I remember MREs and Humvees. Endless heat. The airless back of a cargo truck, tarps pulled down. I don’t know how they do it.
I remember watching in awe as the troops stormed a village, being tested on the impossible task of only shooting the bad guys — burning sand, deafening gunfire, threatening movement from every direction, heaving sand piles that turn into hiding shooters, too fast. I remember a Black Helicopter landing, gritty dust whirling under it and a big, strong soldier passing out on a sand mound from the weight of his pack and the heat. I remember hefting a machine gun up to my shoulder to see what it felt like.
I remember watching pain ripple across the face of a young male soldier telling me about children strapped with explosives.
I remember the warnings in a base bathroom about rape. I recall communities and churches rallying around returning units; banners, parades, and smiles. I recall meeting a group of military spouses and wondering why they don’t have a badge of honor to identify them, reminding us to try to be a bit kinder.
I recall the suicide of a returning warrior.
I remember the faces at the airport greeting their returning hero/heroine. I remember thinking no one can know what that feels like unless they’ve been there. I remember hiding tears of burning happiness for them. What worry I can’t imagine.
And I remember the homes of loss, shuttered up against the world, a flag flying.
To find out what you can do to support our military families, check out Michelle Obama and Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative.