Like Father, Like Son
By Rick Friday
I’m a second-generation military man and had the pleasure of watching my oldest son become the third generation of our family to serve in the military. My dad joined the U.S. Air Force at the beginning of the Korean War. He thought he would probably be drafted and wanted to have some say in how he served. That is exactly what moved me to join the U.S. Air Force after graduation from high school. The Vietnam War was hot and heavy and the draft was going strong. I wasn’t going to college and the possibility of being drafted looked strong. I chose to have a little say in how I served.
My son, however, joined under different circumstances. He got a scholarship to play soccer at the University of Central Arkansas but ended up having surgery on both of his knees within six months. He lost his scholarship. We weren’t in a position to pay for all of his college, so he joined the Arkansas Army National Guard in 1999 to draw the GI Bill and help with student loans. He joined as a 13F, a forward observer. He stated, “I don’t want a boring desk job,” when asked why he chose that career field. The size of the enlistment bonus made enlisting an easy choice. He loved the training and the experiences he had for the next two years. Then 9/11 happened and everything got very real, very fast.
During my years of service, there was always a “go bag” tucked away in the corner of my closet. This bag contained enough uniforms and basic necessities for a thirty day deployment and could be fully ready to go in a matter of minutes. The closest I ever got was a pre-deployment in October 1973, during one of the Israeli/Arab conflicts. Luckily that ended before we could actually be sent. But that bag was always a reminder of the possibility. I never thought of how this would affect my wife or children because it was just part of our life, but now I can tell you how this affects you as a parent.
Watching my son and his unit prepare to deploy to Iraq in 2004 brought mixed emotions. He was going to a true combat zone and his skill set as a forward observer would put him right in the middle of it. I was fully aware of what may lie ahead for him and what he was going to encounter. I was so proud of him the first time I saw him fully decked out in his gear, 9mm on his side, M-4 strapped across his chest and looking like the poster boy for combat. It also scared me because he wasn’t dressed like this just for show. What he was doing and where he was headed to do it was serious business. Those weren’t paintballs in those weapons, and the rounds being returned would be just as deadly. I am a man of faith and I spent many hours in prayer asking for safety for our son. When we saw him for the last time before he headed overseas, I fought the panic that arose in me, afraid it might be my last time to see him alive. I knew he was doing a job and he was as prepared as he could possibly be to do it effectively. I also knew he would be facing an enemy that was prepared to stop him from doing that job.
His first deployment lasted twelve months, and his guard unit was attached to the 1st Cavalry Division. The 1st Cav was assigned to Baghdad and surrounding areas. Once his skill set was identified, he became a very busy individual, working on multiple missions with various units. But the coolest thing was that we got to see him about every other day. Skype had been introduced and as soon as his unit got their Wi-Fi up and running, we would connect through our computers and talk as often as possible. The ability to just lay eyes on him helped both of his parents tremendously. If he knew he was headed out on a mission, he would tell us it might be several days before we heard from him but he would always contact us upon arrival back at the Forward Operating Base (FOB).
Their FOB was located in one of Saddam’s palaces. My son’s grandmother sent him a flag to fly in their area. There was a rule about flying U.S. flags in Iraq so he did the next best thing. Around midnight one evening, he took the flag to the top of the palace, unfurled it, took a picture, and then folded it back up. He sent the flag back to his grandmother who promptly took it to her church and, to this day, it is displayed in their sanctuary.
The day his unit returned to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, was a proud and joyous moment. They marched in like soldiers who had done their duty and done it well. They did suffer casualties, and those soldiers were honored. But to see him march in and then to be able to wrap my arms around him knowing he was home was one of the happiest days of my life.
We had to go through the whole thing again when unit was deployed two years later. We prepared the same way and experienced the same emotions, except the coming home part contained something extra. He informed his superiors this would be his last deployment, and he separated within seventy-two hours of his arrival. He did his duty and did it well and it was time to move on to different aspects of his life. I was disappointed to see him leave the service before retirement but I was glad I had seen him deploy to a combat zone for the last time.