Work, Kids, College, Rotate

A Dad's Tale of Deployment and Term Paper Deadlines

Work, Kids, College, Rotate
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Hard to type an essay on Gothic literaturebouncing a baby on your knee. But with each bound of the red-headed binky sucker, I reminded myself: “This is what you wanted, man.”

Homework was due on Ann Radcliffe—the “Grandmother of Goth”—for a graduate course I was taking online. But my little clone didn’t leave her Daddy’s sight…not since I’d returned from Afghanistan. I’d already missed her birth. Now, unless I was at work, we were hanging out.

She’d even adopted a habit of wanting to be read to while breastfeeding. I’d stand behind my wife, reading our daughter books while she took her meals and soaked in the illustrations with her wide, developing blue eyes. She was a multitasker early on.

Deployed, I’d been often alone and, I can admit now, depressed.

Living and working outside the wire as an embedded trainer, exposed daily to deadly situations while missing your kid’s first weeks on Earth has that depressive effect.

When we’d finally convoy back to camp each day, I’d shoot pool, lift weights, watch movies, drink coffee—and write. It was a novelty to me, but I took comfort in writing about my experiences and my hopes in my little “war journals.”

I wrote about Afghan kids playing in the barren dust, running around the wastelands…

About seeing a Humvee toss bottles of drinking water out to the kids in passing, and them chasing after.

And I wondered when was the last time they'd had a clean bottle of water, or when they'd get another...

If we were on foot, often they’d approach to sell us cheap scarves and we had to buy one or bribe them to keep them back because it wasn’t safe to be near us. We were, after all, walking targets.

Each day I wrote before supper, then I was first on the convoy back to our "mini-mansions," first before the others came. The houses weren’t bad, and I wondered who used to live in them and under what circumstances they'd departed...

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Sometimes I’d arrive and Afghanis would be loitering in the living area, but they’d lackadaisically scatter upon seeing me. I reported it, but no one knew who they even were. Once one of them turned over a pistol some idiot had left on the coffee table.

When I finally returned Stateside I had enough writing to fill a book.

But I didn’t know how to organize such a thing, so I enrolled in a Creative Writing MFA program. My daughter was three months old, my wife still in trauma from her botched emergency cesarean section. I incorporated everything into my journals, which fed into the script I had to write for Screenwriting 101.

Later I novelized the script to be my thesis project, but I altered the timeline for fear of being actually published. If the Air Force read my book, they’d think it overly critical of the war, perhaps. You never know, and no sense risking it.

So I had to disguise the commentary; I pushed the thesis story into the future, making the protagonist part of a branch of service which doesn't exist yet (I dubbed it the Cyber Corps...; again this was a few years back).

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Uncle Sam paid the bill for this graduate degree, via the “Tuition Assistance” program. In fact that’s how they got me to enlist in the first place…the ol’ “we’ll pay for your college” bit.

Prior to joining I’d sold luggage, rented out videos, dug sludge in California’s most noxious refineries. But I hadn’t gone to college. Too broke and my folks had made (barely) too much to get a grant. Loans looked like bad ideas waiting to happen. So I’d waltzed into an Air Force recruiting office (went first to the Navy because I wanted to “see the world,” but they scared me off with talk of “nuclear submarine duty”).

Well, at least they were honest. The Air Force guy was less than forthcoming...

“I want to join ROTC and be an officer,” said I. “You’re too old,” he lied. “Enlist, we’ll pay for your college. After graduation you can apply to Officer Training School.”

Actually I was not too old, it turned out. I could have easily gotten waived. But no matter. I enlisted. Took me ten years to finish a History degree, though!

By then I had no wish to be one of their officers, frankly. Nothing against 'em; they were very hard working. That was the problem... I’d seen enough of what they did to not want to do it myself. No, I was having too much fun traveling overseas, seeing the world without having to pull “nuclear submarine” duty to do it. Things were working out…until Afghanistan (and later Iraq!).

But I’m indebted to the service for paying for the degrees and providing the inspiration to write. This isn't a plug for 'em. Just saying.

And though I took writing up as an outlet, I’ve since honed it to be a partial second career. I needed something exportable, something I could do on my own with no overhead. Something to take wherever I go…because that travel bug never left!

I retired from service and we’ve moved overseas to live on the beach for a bit. Our daughter is now writing her own stories, getting a big jump on Dad’s late start.

Sometimes I miss our homework jams. She was an integral part of my college experience. It wasn’t easy; but it was what I wanted. I wanted the job, the degree, and the kids...the whole package.

Meanwhile, that first novel of mine? Yeah, well, it was never published. So I wrote another...and it was self-published! And now I'm working on a third.

No problem; I already got the things I wanted, remember? So getting a book deal will just be icing on the cake.

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Matt Cates
Matt Cates
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Matt Cates

Retired Air Force Vet; former admin at Oregon State University; author of Haveck: The First Transhuman; GI Jobs contributor and admin at Amazing Turkey!

See all posts by Matt Cates