He Knew What He Signed Up For

IMG_7118My goal here is not to dive into the politics of whether or not the President of the United States told a grieving Gold Star Widow that the her husband “Knew what he sign up for.” My goal is to explore who signed up for what.

You see, I once signed up. As a young man I chose a career in the United States Army; as an Armor officer it was my job, when called upon, to lead soldiers into battle. I knew full well that my chosen career might entail giving the “last full measure of devotion,” although I would argue that young men and women seldom expect it to actually happen.

Within a year of raising my hand and “signing up” an interesting thing happened: I met the love of my life. After a short, long-distance, romance we married, and she “signed up” to be an Army Wife. I tried my best to prepare her for what she was signing up for, but frankly even I had little idea how hard it would be. There were long hours, separations, danger, frequent moves, the impossibility of establishing a career, and many other hardships for her.

We made it work. Unlike many of our friends, we stayed together. Several years later, when we thought we were ready, we brought new people into the world. We had a son, and later a daughter. They changed everything for me—I finally had to be a grown up! I also came to realize that while I signed up for Army life, and my wife made a conscious decision to leap into the unknown, my kids had no choice. They did no sign up for the moves, the separations, or the fear that a five year-old feels when he knows that Daddy is gone in a war. Neither of them signed up for their father to go to war three times in six years, and neither of them signed up for their father to bring the wars home with him.

I am also certain that neither my wife nor my children signed up to have two officers in blue uniforms knock on the door in the early morning hours, and say “The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your husband…”

That knock never came. As luck would have it, I survived Iraq and Afghanistan. I did not even get a scratch. My body and mind were much the worse for wear, but I was one of the lucky ones.

Whether or not you agree with what the president supposedly said, you can make the argument that a soldier does, in fact, “sign up” for the hazards of his/her profession. Be that as it may, I can assure you that no Army husband, wife, or child “signs up” for that knock on the door, or the short notice trip (to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for wounded soldiers evacuated from the combat zone but not expected to survive; to Dover Air Force base to greet the casket). No one signs up to be a widow or orphan.

When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, I didn’t worry about me. Sure, I watched my back, I slept with a loaded weapon next to a pillow, and made sure I had a round in the chamber when I went into meetings with Afghans, but I did not dwell on the possibility of death or wounds. You deal with that when it comes. But I did worry about what would happen to those I would leave behind. I worried about my wife raising two children without a husband…having to find work after she had given up a career so she could follow me around the world. I worried about a boy growing up without a Dad to help him understand what it means to become a man. I worried about a little girl growing into a woman without her Dad there to show her how a man is supposed to behave. I thought about the anniversaries and birthdays and Christmases and graduations and awards and championships and heartaches and weddings and grandchildren I would miss. Try as we might, a folded American flag just does not replace Daddy.

Donald, in one sense, you’re right. Sergeant La David Johnson did, in one sense, know what he was getting into. Myeshia Johnson did not. Consider yourself fortunate that you will never feel her grief. You will never know her pain. She most definitely did not know what she signed up for.

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