On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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I am an Army wife; I am a mother; and I am proud to be both.

My husband, Sergeant First Class Michael Hertig, has been in the Army for nearly 22 years. I have been on this journey with him for 14 of those years. He is currently serving his dream assignment with the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) and we’ve been living in the D.C. area for nearly a year.

I would like you to meet my oldest daughter Michaela.

Sarah Hertig and her 14-year-old daughter, Michaela. Courtesy photoSarah Hertig and her 14-year-old daughter, Michaela. Courtesy photoMichaela, 14, is an amazing child. When she was born in 1997, it was a different time in the Army and her dad was “allowed” to come out of the field to meet his new baby.

Today her life is all about new friends, Starbucks, Facebook, her Smart Phone, the 24 hour news cycle, and war. But it’s not a war she only sees through the television. This war lives and breathes with her. It goes to school with her, and sits at the dinner table with her.

As hard as she tries to ignore it she feels its presence day in and day out. 

It goes where she goes. And she continues to live her life in its shadow.

As Michaela gets older, her dad and I wonder and worry—as all parents do—what the future holds for her. Where will we be when she graduates from high school? College? Will she get married? Would she marry a soldier?

Now, if her dad has anything to do with it, Michaela will live with us forever and she will NEVER marry a soldier. But I know that I can’t help who Michaela falls in love with, and if it is a soldier—or any man in uniform—I can only hope she knows what she is getting in to.

Today, I would like to share with you a letter I’ve written to my daughter in the event she is swept off her feet by a soldier—just as I was swept off my feet.

What I’m sharing with my daughter is nothing new. It’s knowledge that has been passed between warrior families for generations: There are things in this life worth fighting for.

Dear Michaela,

If you are reading this letter it is because you have decided to become an Army wife. As much as I would like to tell you it is an easy life full of pride and patriotism, I feel I have an obligation to tell you about the challenges and hardships this life brings.

You grew up in an Army family. I always thought we were a normal family, but when I look back over our journey I realize all of those twists, turns, and detours we experienced weren’t normal. And it is because of that path we became the Army family we are. You were born into this life, you didn’t choose it. And you have thrived in spite of it all. Maybe it’s because it’s all you’ve ever known or maybe it’s because you love this life as much as I do. And that may be why you’ve decided to marry a soldier.

Michael Hertig and baby Michaela. Courtesy photoMichael Hertig and baby Michaela. Courtesy photoYou were only 5 years old when your dad left for war. You were in your princess pajamas when we dropped him off. It was January 2003 and I bundled you up in our blue minivan and we drove to your dad’s company so he could draw his weapon and drop his bags. You walked with him—balancing his heavy Kevlar helmet on your head and clutching his hand—taking advantage of every moment you had.

We walked him to the building where other soldiers and their families were saying goodbye. People were crying all around us, but you didn’t. When it was time for you to say goodbye, you gave your dad his helmet, hugged him around the neck, kissed him, and said, “See you soon.” He turned and walked away, he didn’t look back. This bothered me for a long time until he confided in me that he couldn’t bear the thought of that being our last moment together. He began to break down and he didn’t want us to see that. I was worried about you, too. There was no emotion—just a strong, stoic 5-year-old staring bravely into the night. I dismissed it as you didn’t understand, but you did. You didn’t want your dad to see you afraid. You were being brave for him as he walked off to war.

As the wife of a soldier you will have moments when you don’t want to let go, that you can’t be brave. And it will hurt. But you will find your strength. Saying goodbye to your husband as he walks off to war is one of the hardest things you will ever do. You have to let him go and you will. And you will be brave. Many other Army wives have stood where you will stand—I’ve stood there—and we will be there for you. You will cling to them for strength and support when you feel you can’t go on and you will be a shoulder for other Army wives to lean on. You will depend on one another to get through the hard times and you will celebrate with them during the good times. They will be your lifelong friends. They will be your Army family—and they will be your most treasured possession

After we left your dad and watched him walk off to war, we both broke down. You were curled up in a ball on the front seat of the car, sobbing. You were inconsolable. You slept with me that night and for many nights after that. All I wanted to do during that time was sleep and when I did wake up, I would stare at a spot on the wall thinking that if I stared long enough and hard enough at that spot all of the fears I felt would fade away. And many days, I would let my mind slip into that darkness. I would plan how I would react if those two men in uniform rang our doorbell. I even went as far as to decide what I would wear to your dad’s funeral. And then I would think of you—your beautiful smiling face—and you needed me. So, I would get out of bed—leaving that spot on the wall and the darkness behind. I could breathe a sigh of relief after 10 o’clock—hearing the Tattoo bugle call brought calm and after a while it gave me permission to sleep. One more day down, one more day closer to your dad coming home, one more day he was alive!

I was surviving! I realized, though, that I needed to do more than survive. I needed to be strong—really strong—and I couldn’t be strong just for you. I had to be strong for myself first.

But I also realized it’s acknowledging all of those fears that makes us stronger. I don’t think there is any Army wife out there who is OK sending her husband to war. We are all afraid. Saying you are afraid is the bravest thing you can do.  

It was my Army family that helped me see that. They were also afraid. And we would talk about it with each other. We understood. They understood more deeply than anyone else.

Your dad was wounded in Iraq. He suffered a blast concussion that caused a subdural hematoma—basically he was bleeding in his brain. Today, we know his injury was a traumatic brain injury. In 2003, your dad—being the soldier he is—thought he just had a bump on the head and had a few residual headaches. But it wasn’t that simple. He was eventually medically evacuated out of Iraq and sent to a hospital in Kuwait and then home. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was helpless and I didn’t know what to do. I had prepared myself for your dad to not come home, but I had never prepared myself for him to come home injured.

When he did come home things were a little different. His head hurt, and he was different. Our days were filled with hospitals, new medications, and headaches. Things he enjoyed doing caused him a great deal of pain. Hearing fireworks and rifle fire from the ranges near our home caused panic. And I didn’t know how to help him.

In 2005, your dad’s unit returned to Iraq and he couldn’t deploy with them due to his injury. He was frustrated but he understood. During that deployment your dad lost several friends and it was so unbelievably hard to watch him deal with those losses. He and I would go to the memorial services and I would cry—and I would hold his hand when he cried. I would ache for him and for the widows sitting in the front row—sad that she had given so much but thankful that it wasn’t me. And then I would feel guilty. And your dad felt guilty because he was home while his brothers were continuing the fight. I couldn’t understand why your dad wanted to get back to the fight. He had not healed completely and I couldn’t imagine sending him back into harm’s way.

Michaela, being an Army wife sometimes means that many times you won’t understand. You won’t understand why the Army does what it does and you won’t understand why your husband does what he does. Most times there are no explanations. It’s just the way it is.

Even though we have thankfully grown beyond the age of “If the Army wanted you to have a wife they would have issued you one,” many times the brotherhood your husband belongs to doesn’t take into consideration that he has a wife and a family, or that he will miss another birthday, Christmas, or anniversary. And you will want to fight and scream in protest, but you won’t. The pride you will feel in your husband will dull the pain and important occasions are less about the dates and more about capitalizing on the time you do have together.

In 2007, your dad was given the all clear from the doctor and he was looking forward to deploying again. This time, the unit he was with would not release him. And once again, your dad watched his unit, his brothers, deploy without him. He was frustrated and he didn’t understand. This was a difficult time for us. I was so relieved he wasn’t going back to Iraq, but your dad was angry. I desperately wanted to ask him, “Do you love the Army and this country more than me?” But the answer to this question is easy. I didn’t even need to ask it. The answer to this question—while hard to accept sometimes—explains why I love your dad. It is because of his deep love and devotion to this country that I love him. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yes, being the wife of a soldier is hard. It is hard knowing when his nation calls he will go and fight, putting his own life on the line. Your dad wrote to us five days prior to the invasion in 2003 and he told us why he chooses to fight.

“I am afraid of fighting… not of the actual fighting itself, but of the potential of not being able to share any more days with you. Because of you and the kids is why I must fight if ordered to do so. I want you to be proud of me and being part of this allows me to give you something even greater—a more secure world to grow old in. If I have to give my life for that then I will.”

He fought for us. We were what gave him the strength to do what he needed to do.

In 2009, your dad was able to deploy again. This time it was on our terms. He was able to go back to the fight.

We drove him to the company so he could draw his weapon and drop his bags. You walked with him clutching his hand taking advantage of every moment you had. We drove to the buses and when it was time to say good bye you hugged your dad around the neck, kissed him, and said “See you soon.” Your dad turned and walked away. And you stood and watched. No emotion—just a strong, stoic 12-year-old staring bravely into the night. Once again you were being brave for him. And when you were back in the car you collapsed into a ball on the front seat, sobbing. And once again, we leaned on our Army family to see us through.

Loving a soldier is not easy but things worth having are never easy. I hope you get to experience just a fraction of the many joys this life has brought me. I hope you will have the same love and support during the hard times—and believe me—you will have hard times. It’s part of this life. But, fortunately this life, while unpredictable, is the most exciting adventure you could ever imagine and I wouldn’t trade it for the world—not a moment.

And when I’m not there to pick you up when you fall, to dry your tears when it hurts, to cheer you on… your Army family will be. 

All My Love,

Mom

 

Sarah Hertig currently works as the Outreach Coordinator for the Fort Myer Army Community Service Center. She’s also frequent speaker at Strong Bonds conferences and Family Readiness Leadership workshops. Hertig’s husband is Army Sergeant First Class Michael Hertig of the 3rd Infantry Regiment—The Old Guard. The couple has two daughters—Michaela and Madison.