Journey to the Sandbox: My Soldier, Kevlar and Deployment

6 years ago

As the war in the Middle East drags on indefinitely, America’s armed forces are continuing to prepare for deployment. Trained, motivated, and highly skilled, our volunteer force is ready to serve when called – no one knows this more than the spouses and children of these brave men and women. Recently, CNN reported on the Shorter family’s preparation for SFC Shorter’s third deployment, "When a 'Daddy' Warrior Deploys." His family referred to a deployment to the Middle East as a trip to “Hell on earth.” I chose to view my husband’s time away from home as a journey. A long uncomfortable journey, but a journey just the same. While we vary greatly in the way we handled the upcoming separation, Mrs. Shorter and I have one thing in common, we wish we did not have to let them leave.

The Sandbox

At least that is what we called it, “The Sandbox.” It seemed easier to refer to my husband’s trip to a war torn region as his time in The Sandbox than stating the obvious fact that he was preparing to head to the war itself. Front lines? Down range? Ummm, no, no thank you -- The Sandbox will do fine.

While our children were all old enough to understand the reality of the situation, I chose to tell myself that “The Sandbox” reference was for them – in retrospect, it was more for my sanity than it was theirs. Somehow, I convinced myself that if I called it The Sandbox, I would have hysterical dreams of his unit playing beach volleyball and flying kites rather than racing down dangerous dirt roads avoiding IEDs along the way. Too bad it didn’t work.

With only a handful of weeks to absorb the reality of his departure, pack him, and prepare for single parenthood, I was well beyond stressed. There is nothing romantic about deployment.

A week before he left for his “fun in the sun journey,” our home became a maze of digital and desert camouflage clothing, bags, and Kevlar. Yes, Kevlar! I must tell you, the green and tan Kevlar only served to increase my anxiety. I knew its purpose. Sigh.

We carefully packed mementos of our life together into bags that I imagined already smelled of burnt oil and moldy sand. Sigh again.

We sat a little longer at the dinner table each meal, played board games every night, and looked at photo albums until way after bedtime.

We were rarely more than an arm’s length from one another.

I made lists. Power of attorney, check. Living will, check. Will, check (sigh, yet again). Record of emergency contact, check. Bank information and passwords, check. Utility information and schedule for payments, check. Somehow, this made me feel in control, managing this journey in my life as if it were any other – methodically.

Hubby stressed. Often I would find him sitting at the dining room table examining folders for proper paperwork, trying to make my life without him easier. Yeah, I love him.

I would wake at night to find him watching me sleep or “just checking” on our children. Too sweet, right?

Our children found their own way of handling The Sandbox Journey. We are a blended family, only six months young at the time. With four young elementary children between us, there was a lot of emotion and adjustment to address. They all cried, of course. I do not want to paint a pretty picture for you when there was not one. Long sleepless nights left our first grader exhausted the next day at school. His 6-year-old little body tried to shovel snow and mow the grass. He was, after all, the man of the house until daddy came home from playing in The Sandbox. Staying focused and feeling important filled the empty hours – daddy’s praise during phone calls home made all the hard work worthwhile!

Since daddy would be leaving just days after Christmas, we spent the extra time at home making surprises for him. Artwork, schoolwork, and endearing letters were stashed in his BDUs, boots, and anywhere else our tiny hearts could find to stash their tokens of love.

He left as a unit of one. No big send off, no banners, no parade. No family members to take pictures of us. No publicity. He just left. We cherished every sweet moment of privacy. Friends could not understand us turning into hermits. What were we thinking? Did we not want the big send off or news coverage? Certainly, those, now traditional, social events would make us feel better and would bring his leaving to reality. No amount of conversation helped them understand; we had everything we needed right there amongst the green and tan sea of items that had taken over our home. We had us.

The day finally came. My pulse was erratic. I was nauseous. Slowly, we placed his bags in the truck. Perhaps a parade would have been good right about then. After all, I would be much less likely to throw my convulsing body on top of his luggage screaming “NO!” if CNN was broadcasting his departure live nationwide.

Before leaving him at the international security gate, I reminded him to wear sun block – it would have sucked to burn his balding head while building sandcastles!

His cologne-covered t-shirts served as our pajamas. We lived for phone calls and video messages. Made themed boxes and shipped them out frequently. Found our way around in a strange city. Powered through the rough days and celebrated the good ones. We thanked God daily for our soldier’s safety and anxiously awaited his return – HOOAH!

Just for the record, I had NO IDEA how bad the smell of burnt oil combined with moldy sand would be …UGH.

Proud Army Spouse, Mrs. H

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