When my 3-year-old asked me why I was going to the desert in 2004, my reply was simple. I said, “Daddy has to go feed the camels,” and that was enough to sustain his curiosity.
But my 7- and 8-year-olds didn’t buy it. I then tried my best to explain that I would be supporting ground and air operations in Iraq in an expeditionary maintenance squadron. That was my first deployment and, though it seemed difficult at the time, it was perhaps the easiest mission I’ll ever endure.
A few years later, I found myself working at Dover Air Force Base, Del., in the public affairs office. Back then, the 436th Airlift Wing was responsible for port mortuary operations, and I had ample opportunity to be part of the well-oiled machine that returned America’s heroes with dignity, honor and respect.
Some days at Dover were harder than others. Still, our mission was an important one, and I was glad I got to come home to my family every night.
My 3-year-old was then a 6-year-old, and had no idea what Daddy did at work. He’d practically forgotten that I’d ever left a few years prior. Then another set of orders came. Daddy was off to Afghanistan to serve an in-lieu-of tasking with the famed 101st Airborne Division’s Screaming Eagles.
When I explained that, once again, I had to go feed the camels, his reply was much different.
“Why do you have to go feed the camels, daddy?” he asked, “Why can’t other people feed them?”
I explained that many fine soldiers were already in Afghanistan, but they were getting tired. Daddy had to go help them, I said, so they could go back to their kids.
He stared me straight in the eye with a gaze of disbelief. I could see that he questioned why these camels were more important to me than he was. My heart skipped a beat, but I stuck to my story. What he imagined was not the case at all, and I knew with time he’d understand.
So off I went to serve 214 days with the Combined Joint Task Force-101 in the Eastern Provinces of Afghanistan and got well acquainted with a lifestyle and mission only a few Airmen ever experience. In that mountainous terrain, I experienced emotions and saw things that will resonate with me for the rest of my life.
How do you explain that to a 6-year-old? It’s easy: You don’t. You simply say you are off to feed the camels.
Now my 3-year-old is nearly 9, and my 7- and 8-year-olds are 12 and 13. Last week, a message came saying it’s my time to go to again. How do I muster a proper explanation to them? Should I simply say that daddy must, once again, go feed the camels?
They won’t buy it.
Still, I told them that very thing — and no, they didn’t buy it. Nonetheless, I’m compelled to go forward and do whatever I can to help.
Naysayers will tell you that we’ve been in this war for nine years. Those same naysayers may tell you that we can never win this war.
I wonder if they’ve ever gazed into the eyes of child who was just used as a human shield or mustered the strength not to look into the eyes of women who have been abused, so they could have the willpower to photograph those women’s plights. Perhaps then they’d have my same outlook. Or would they continue to turn their backs?
I wonder if those same naysayers have ever walked a foot patrol and watched a small girl jump from rock to rock, swiftly navigating across her backyard — that field of land mines that she was just playing in — to simply ask for a chocolate bar.
The bottom line is: These people need us.
I don’t know if my children will ever understand the choices I live by, or have forced them to live with. I don’t know if they’ll ever agree with the sacrifices I continue to make in a dream that someday I can help quench that seemingly endless thirst for water and hunger for food in Afghanistan.
What I do know is there are people waiting for me. So, this autumn, I’ll answer their call.
Tech Sgt. Kevin Wallace wrote this earlier in the year, before departing for Afghanistan. This is the first in a series of his columns that we will feature on our Voices pages in the weeks ahead.
Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace is a U.S. Air Force photojournalist serving in Afghanistan. He was born in San Luis Obispo and attended Cuesta College.