Commentary: Feeding camels tiresome, yet important task
RAF MILDENHALL, England — When my 3-year-old asked me why I was going to the desert in 2004, I said, “Daddy has to go feed the camels,” and that was enough to sustain his curiosity.
My 7- and 8-year-olds didn’t buy it.
Despite their doubt and his bewilderment, I went forth and tried my best to help by supporting ground and air operations in Iraq in an expeditionary maintenance squadron. This was my first deployment, and though it seemed difficult at the time, it was perhaps the easiest mission I’ll ever endure.
After a mere 100 days in the theater, I returned to my assignment in Okinawa, Japan, as a changed man. While others went about their daily grinds, I had gone to a foreign land to serve something greater than myself.
After a few years, and a forced retrain, I found myself working in the public affairs office at Dover Air Force Base, Del. The 436th Airlift Wing is responsible for port mortuary operations, and I got more than an ample opportunity to be a part of the well-oiled machine that returns America’s heroes with dignity, honor and respect.
Some days at Dover AFB were harder than others. Still, our mission was an important one, and I was just 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 101st Airborne Division.
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 from Fort Campbell, Ky., were already in Afghanistan, but they were getting tired. That’s why they asked the Air Force for some help and Daddy had to go help them, so some of them could go back to their children.
He stared me straight in the eye with a piercing 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. I got well-acquainted with a lifestyle and mission that few airmen ever experience.
In fact, aside from airmen in the tactical air control party, pararescue, combat control, special operations weather, psychological operations and public affairs career fields, you’ll rarely ever find an Airman embedded with an infantry unit well outside the perimeter of a base.
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.
In reality, however, I knew I was going to face a brutal enemy on his terms and in his terrain. By providing food, shelter and education to generations of Afghans, we hoped to remove hunger and oppression, to feed the future of a country in need.
For 234 years, America’s security has rested on the shoulders of those who were willing to answer the call when and where it came. For that same amount of time, I imagine parents have tried to find ways to explain this to their children. For me — well, I simply say I’m off to feed the camels.
I continued to serve at Dover AFB until I got orders to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England.
We’ve been here about seven months and have enjoyed the country so far. But, being in a highly-deployable career field, I knew I would get the call again eventually. Last week, a message came saying it’s my time to go to again.
Now my 3-year-old is nearly 9, and my 7- and 8-year olds are 12 and 13.
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, this past weekend 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 has just been used as a human shield, or mustered the strength not to make eye contact while looking into a room full of abused women, so they could have the willpower to photograph those women’s plight. Perhaps then they’d have my same outlook.
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 back yard — that field of land mines where she was just playing — to simply ask for a chocolate bar. If they had, maybe they would finally stop questioning whether or not we should be involved is a war half a world away. Maybe that would be enough for them to personally start chipping in.
The bottom line is that 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. I guess in the foreseeable future, I’ll never know.
What I do know is there are people waiting for me. So, this autumn I’ll answer their call.
We are making sacrifices today for a better tomorrow. We must continue to believe that.
After all, if we don’t help now, it’ll be our children telling their children in the future that they’re off to feed the camels.