I’d known since the day I’d signed those enlistment papers eight years ago that war was a definite possibility, but I wasn’t afraid. I’d grown up an army brat, and American pride flowed through my veins. The idea that I would do anything else with my life never even occurred to me. From the time I was a little girl clomping around the house in Daddy’s big old combat boots, I’d known that someday I, too, would be a soldier.
I’ll never forget my father’s words the day I graduated boot camp: “If you ever get tested, remember there’s a difference between defiance and bravery. Leave your compassion out of it and show them you are a part of something bigger, something they can’t break. Remember the Soldier’s Creed.”
The soldier that resides in me is prepared, so why does it suddenly feel like my heart is going to burst into a million pieces when the voice sounds over the loudspeaker?
“We start loading in five, Soldiers. Say your goodbyes.”
It’s the mother in me that’s at war with the soldier’s decision. Blinking back tears, I look down at my little boy, his arms wrapped firmly around my waist in a vice grip, and I can’t fathom how I will ever be able to leave him.
What the hell was I thinking, re-enlisting last year?
As I pry his desperate arms away and kneel down before my baby, I see the look of devastation on Noah’s face, and the dam bursts wide open.
“Noah…” I gasp as I pull him into my heaving chest. “I’ll be back before you know it, okay? Be a big boy for Mommy and take care of Daddy.” I was bred to be tough and rarely allow my emotions to get the best of me, but there is just no quelling this ache. I can barely breathe through the pain.
Noah’s tiny frame shakes as he shouts through sobs.
“Don’t leave! Mommy, don’t leave! Can Daddy go instead? Please?” His grip tightens around my neck, nearly suffocating me, but I welcome the touch because I know it will be a long while before I feel it again. Inhaling deeply, I try to commit to memory the scent of my little man—coconut shampoo and sunshine.
“I’m a soldier, Son,” I tell him, pulling away and gripping his shoulders. “And what do soldiers do?”
He looks at me with the bewilderment of a six-year-old. “Fight for the free by being brave.”
I give him a proud smile. “That’s right.”
“But I don’t want you to be a soldier anymore.” His face falls as the soldiers behind me begin to load up in the bus.
I look to my husband for backup, but instead, my heart plummets. In the seven years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen Gavin this upset. His expression remains stoic, but when I lift my head to meet his mist-filled hazel eyes over my boy’s shoulder, I see everything he’s not saying. He sinks to his knees, wrapping both Noah and me into his solid arms. And there we sit—two soldiers, trained to be the toughest of the tough and the bravest of the brave—our bodies collectively trembling in fear.
Gavin cradles my head between his hands, kissing my tear-soaked face. “You were made for this, Katy. Just go out there and do what you’ve been trained to do, and if it comes down to it…” His eyes plead with mine. “You do whatever it takes to make it back home to us.”
My throat thickens as I try to swallow. “I’ll be back,” I promise. With these words, I’m being smothered, suffocating in the knowledge that my promise could turn into a lie while trying desperately not to unleash those fears in front of my son. I swallow hard and feel a thousand knives slice my chest.
“Hey, buddy,” Mullins whispers kneeling down and tapping Noah’s shoulder. “How about a hug for me?”
Noah reluctantly turns into her embrace and Gavin and I seize the moment, clutching each other desperately before he presses his lips to mine. His warm tongue licks the seam of my mouth, and I open for him. Our tongues tangle violently as he growls into my mouth, knotting his hands into my short, blonde curls. I whimper, tasting the salt of my tears. Foreheads pressed together, I whisper the only word that makes the moment seem bearable. “Forever.”
Desperately, I try to absorb every last detail so that I can hold onto it for the lonely months that lie ahead.
A warm hand squeezes my shoulder. “It’s time, Scott,” my best friend Mullins whispers regretfully. She steps back, allowing us our space, and I rise to my feet with my little monkey held tightly in my arms.
My lips tremble as I gently nudge Noah’s head from my shoulder. “Mommy has to go to work now, baby,” I choke out.
His cries are pitiful. “No, Mommy, please.”
Oh, my heart.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Noah. I love you so much.” I smooth the mop of dirty blond curls away from his face and kiss his forehead, his cheeks, his nose, his lips.
Gavin wrestles our son from my arms, and as he begins to pull him away, I place a final kiss on my son’s hand before he is no longer in reach. I watch him wildly thrashing in his daddy’s arms, and I want to go to him…to comfort him. I want to kiss them both a thousand times more.
Mullins grips my sleeve, pulling me toward the bus that’s now nearly full. I blow kisses the whole way, whispering I love you and I’m sorry.
Reluctantly, I climb the stairs and make my way to the last seat in the back of the bus, immediately turning to find them behind the thick glass. With muffled sobs, I place my hand to the window and gaze down at my family until they disappear.