Father’s Day especially poignant for deployed military personnel

It was after 1 a.m. when I drove Jimmy to the airfield for his departure to Afghanistan. At least a hundred soldiers gathered in a large hangar where their family members had congregated to say their goodbyes. Later in the hour a “departure ceremony” would include a final farewell. Families were talking in hushed tones, as if gathered for a wake.

Although I was focused on my own sadness at my soldier son’s going to war, I couldn’t help but notice the number of small children present at that terrible hour. They were in their footed pajamas pressed against Daddy’s shoulder or resting in Mommy’s arms. Older children were sipping on the hot chocolate provided. How much could they understand of what was happening? How do you prepare a toddler or a young child to say this kind of goodbye? I couldn’t fathom what the next year would be like with my son in Afghanistan. What kind of impact would such an experience have on a child, missing her dad?

When I said my goodbye, caught up in my own sadness, I was oblivious to the others experiencing the pain we shared.

However, one year later, I was back in the same hangar at the same airfield, this time to witness a homecoming from Afghanistan. I had arrived early in great anticipation of the moment my son would step into view. While waiting with my family, I was entertained by the young children, so filled with anticipation they were beside themselves. Many were dancing to music being piped over the loud speakers.

Three mothers sat together holding their infant girls, dressed in frilly pink dresses, ribbon bands wrapped around their tiny bald heads. One infant boy wore a T-shirt with the words: “Sergeant Smith, you are now under my command.”

I imagined that, having spent the last year in Afghanistan, some of these fathers had not seen these babies except over Skype and in photographs sent from home.

While I realize that many mothers have been deployed in our two wars, I think today of the fathers who spent the year in Afghanistan with my son, deployed from Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y.

In a Father’s Day column, I want to acknowledge these fathers, as well as others deployed now and in the past, all who have sacrificed so much for their country.

Not only do they place themselves in harm’s way, in terrible conditions, they give up something many of us take for granted — ordinary days of family life.

They miss being present for the milestones of their children’s lives, the first tooth, the first step, the preschool play, the first soccer game. They miss being present to comfort and soothe their babies, calm their toddlers after bad dreams, dust off scraped knees and offer kisses on the forehead. They miss ordinary conversation around the dinner table, the excitement of prom night, and their teen’s getting a driver’s license for the first time.

If their children are very young when their fathers deploy, the fathers must re-acquaint themselves with their own offspring. They must re-establish bonds and re-introduce themselves to their children’s lives. Older children and teens must adjust to their fathers returning as disciplinarians.

Even in the best of circumstances, challenges for these fathers are daunting. But what if the family unit breaks down while fathers are at war?

A lawyer acquaintance told me the story of a Marine whose wife decided to divorce him while he was deployed. When he returned from Iraq, in a bid for full custody, his ex-wife used the Post Traumatic Stress he suffered, mild though it was, as a way to prevent him from seeing his children. He had to prove to the court that the trauma he experienced after being in a war would not make him a danger to the ones he loved most.

Not only are fathers placed under tremendous stress when separated from their families, many have been deployed three and four times since our nation went to war in 2001.

Even the strongest families suffer under these conditions. Relationships that are fragile to begin with are likely to break.

Every devoted father deserves respect and appreciation, but these deployed fathers sacrifice so much. We mustn’t forget them or their families, especially on Father’s Day, when what they would like most of all is to celebrate at home