Our phone rang at exactly 3:55 AM. It rang with one of those “Dad something bad has happened” rings I hadn’t heard in the ten years since our youngest son said goodbye to teenage angst and hello to twenty-something aimlessness. Thankfully the aimlessness finally eased as he joined the Army , found a wife and fathered the most perfect grandchild in the world.
The second ring snatched me from the world of dead sleep to the waking world of a worried parent whose youngest son fought a distant war in the burning sands of Iraq.
“Hey dad, did I wake you up? Sorry about that.”
“It’s Ok son, always good to hear your voice. You alright?”
Months of periodic phone conversations punctuated by silence had conditioned his mother and I both not to ask too many. Not to force him to say, “I can’t tell you that.” Or, “We’re not allowed to say.” Through that time we had developed our own unofficial code of non-questions followed by non-answers that told us little except the most important thing. He was alive and well for another day.
Silence on the other end of the sat-phone from half a world away. Silence that filled in more blanks than I wanted filled. He was calling and that was good. That meant he was alive and healthy enough to speak. But his brief answer spoke volumes.
“Great dad. I’m doing great. Just wanted to hear your voice. I don’t won’t mom to worry so tell her everything is fine. I’ve just been through a hard few days and wanted to hear you guy’s voices.”
Before I could delve deeper into the his definition of great, he said he had to go and there my wife and I were. Lying in our comfortable bed in our cool house at 4:00 AM while our son stared at a silent sat-phone in the 130 degree heat of 1:00 PM Iraq.
“Great”. I played through my mind all the things that word could mean. Let’s see; large, huge, noble, distinguished, superior. No. Or perhaps, he meant like when he used to roll his eyes at us as a teenager and mutter under his breath, “Oh great.”
Three hours later I stared at the morning news over my bowl of cereal partly wanting to hear the latest word on the war and mostly not wanting to at all. “A convoy was hit last night in southern Baghdad leaving two reporters dead.” My parental ears perked up. Just as our ears always caught the sound of every siren when our boys started driving I couldn’t help but wonder if our son was leading that convoy. That was his job after all, convoy mission commander.
My wife glanced over at me, not wanting to ask. Knowing I would shake my head and remind her there are over one hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq and our son was probably nowhere near the bad news we had just heard about. I glanced back and said nothing. I couldn’t. All I could hear in my mind was, “Great dad. I’m doing just great..” And then, like all good parents, I knew.
Back on base he called to tell me more. Not much more but enough. That convoy had been his. The men killed had been his. The danger and terror had been his. The IED destroyed vehicle had been his. He had spent terrifying hours cut off from his convoy, back to back with a young lieutenant waiting for help that took far too long coming. He had prepared to die but graciously been spared.
Three weeks later I stood in an airport watching our youngest son. The boy we thought would never make it out of teenage-hood alive. The man who had left family and home to defend what he fiercely believed in. There he stood, hugging his wife and little girl. Still in his desert camo.
He turned from his family and looked at me. I walked over and we embraced.
“How you doing son? How does it feel to be home again?”
For just a moment, Staff Sgt, Jason L. Whitmore softened. Mission Commander and soon to receive the bronze star Sgt. Whitmore was just Jason, our youngest son. He locked eyes with me and breathed deeply as he pondered my question.
He flashed a familiar grin, the boy still inside the man. “Great dad. It feels really great!”
(The name was changed for obvious reasons).
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