••• The International Writers Magazine - 22 Years on-line - Living with a Navy Dad
“Oh, so you’re a Navy Brat.”
How many times has this label landed on me? The speaker’s eyes always light up, as if it’s some great revelation. I ought to start charging a dollar for every time I’ve heard it. But, yes, I am a Navy Brat.
I was four years old the first time my father came home from war, and just barely old enough to brush my own teeth. Which is exactly what I was attempting to do when my grandmother got the call that my dad, very soon, would be walking through the door, duffle bag slung over his shoulder. I stood at the bathroom sink regarding myself in the mirror with all the winning confidence of a kid who thinks they’ve become a big girl or boy. I slipped off of my step stool, tearing my newly pierced earring clean out of my earlobe. Perhaps it’s this seemingly trivial moment that first caused me to associate war with pain, or perhaps pain is simply a consequence of being a military brat.
Being a military Brat, I got used to warrior-like thinking. When my father wasn’t deployed, he would always try little tricks to make me smarter and tougher, putting me through mini-mind bootcamps. One time, he outfitted me with a list of items needed from the grocery store, a ten-dollar bill, and ordered me on my way. I skipped happily through the store collecting butter, batteries, ketchup, ice-cream. But when I arrived at the cash register, I didn’t have enough money. Confused, I called my dad. “Mental agility,” he reminded me,” is just as important as physical strength.” I should have noticed that he had given me only a ten spot. Yet he still came to rescue me, striding into the store with a crisp twenty in one hand. Here to save me, even while scolding me.
After 9/11 my dad was deployed again. I started to miss even the smallest things about him. His soldier bootcamps, teaching me how to fight off an attacker, the cheesy broccoli he always made me for dinner—the only reason I learned to like my vegetables. It felt as if he was always leaving, like the leaves that fall in autumn, one minute clinging tightly to a branch, then the next moment drifting away. Before he marched out and flew over-seas, Mom bought poster boards and glitter markers. We dressed up our pain and fear in colorful American flags and cheap words on a thick poster board.
While my father was fighting in Kuwait, every time I saw a flag at half-mast I resented the stars and stripes. It was a symbol of fear, fear that Dad would never return. The blood red stripes reminded me that Dad was risking his own life. The flag also felt like Bin Laden himself was staring me in the face, laughing at my trepidation. Mom and I would grip each other’s hands. We would wait anxiously by the phone, sitting in front of the tv, glued to the screen like a dog when it watches you eat, waiting for scraps of news. Whose troops were attacked this week? Where was Dad stationed?
Then, it happened. Mom was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and Dad was allowed home on emergency leave. Although I was overjoyed to have him back, war had robbed him. The sly, merry trickster of my younger years had vanished. He would get mad at the smallest of infractions. I was used to strictness, of course; it’s something every military child grows up with. But this was different. To young me, he was a Bruce Banner -- one minute quiet and pensive, the next, raw with rage.
The demon controlling Dad, it turned out, was PTSD. At the time I couldn’t understand why my father--my hero--had turned so hard and cold. In Iraq, my father’s best friend died in his arms. My father didn’t tell me this. He kept that part of his life hidden from me--buried deep, like the old military uniform that still hangs in the back of his closet. Through harsh arguments and leather belts, I often felt the anger and loss that my dad had suffered. One time, I didn’t dry my hair properly, so I was grounded for a month. But now we share an understanding, my dad and me. We each battle with PTSD in our own ways: he fights with the PTSD of war, and I fight with the PTSD of being a Navy Brat. I understand how loss transformed my father. My Dad who, even now, always comes to my rescue.
© Katie Robison 3.12.21
a student with Dr. Devet at College of Charleston.
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