The day I turned 23 my military ID expired. In a few months I’d be put of college and off to work full time for a big aerospace and defense contractor thus my mother decided to not renew my credentials. Adapting to life as a civilian, as an outsider, was challenging. As the daughter of two Colonels, it was a culture shock to not be allowed into the bases that saw me learn how to bike, safely, alongside HUMVs and National Guard transportation vehicles. Fort Allen, Salinas, Buchanan, Ceiba, Reimi; there was no PX/NX store I didn’t visit, nor a fireworks night we had missed since I had gotten my driver’s license and the windshield decal that granted me passage into my own private playground.
That ID opened me up to a world of wonders accessible only to the few brave souls who wore camouflage.
Growing up my toys were tanks, jets, service trucks and mortars, the real life sized Tonkas and fighter planes not the plastic cheap stuff bought at Toys R Us stores. I loved sitting on the bleachers of Camp Santiago watching the military planes do target practice runs. Dad used to take me to Roosevelt Roads to watch the F-16s and F-18s practice aborted landings and fly bys. The smell of diesel, oil and cleaning supplies transported me to a magical land where everyone worked together towards a common goal in full uniform; where you could be an Army of One making the impossible possible. The sound of boots marching still makes me feel at ease. Memories of smiling, dusty, sweaty faces of the cadets an ode to the God, family and country motto my parents took to heart inside and outside of the battlefield.
When other kids’ parents showed up at field days or school events, they didn’t do it in full BDU. My classmates would salute my mother and ask her 10,000 questions, all answered with the same one liner: “If you still like tanks and things that go boom when you graduate from college, come see me.” Both my parents oozed respect and commanded attention whenever they went, in and outside of the office. I carried myself with pride knowing that whatever they had earned from their peers was a gift to me; that I was to inherit a lot of good will and appreciation because of what they had achieved.
I am very proud of being an Army daughter, a soldier’s child, and a brat, as they call us kids. We didn’t move from base to base, nor had to live without my parents through lengthy deployments, but I still cried as I ran to their arms after a long business trip or Officer training school. It was no secret that they snuck me into their Military Intelligence offices, the POTO, so I could practice math by helping them inventory deployed tanks, personnel, supplies and vehicles. “If the X battalion had 4 tanks and loaned 3, where does the report say is the remaining vehicle?” While other kids were being safeguarded, I was being exposed to the art of war, to the harsh realities of conflict and the battlefield. It was a very unique perspective on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I knew freedom wasn’t free.
I haven’t been on base in over a decade. My last visit was with my mom, who escorted me in to buy Seguras Viudas Rosé Champagne for my wedding. The cash registers were full of print outs stating that due to shipment issues, purchases of Coors Light beers were limited to 4 cases per customer. Entire families did the lines in groups of two, or pretended not to know each other, to get as many cases as they could for the upcoming Christmas holiday. A band of brothers and sisters, active duty and retired, exercising the right to the benefits of their labor. To celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness together, as one.
If someone had told me that a decade later I would be at the VA National Cemetery burying my mother, I would have not believed them. The thought of not being able to talk about my mother’s accomplishments in present tense had never crossed my mind. My voice breaks when I mention her name, her rank, and what she meant to all of us who miss her. A big part of me is missing because I have to stop and think in past tense, memories flurying and escaping me at the same time as I’m trying to phrase my new reality.
Life in exile is lonely and dull.
The though of not being able to set foot inside an Army base with my mother is overwhelming. To me, she was the Mars, the God of War, immortal, divine. Queen Hypolita, the greatest Amazon warrior of all time. She was my ticket to places and experiences no one else had access to; a behind the scenes look at how gritty and dark and scary the world could be when death was always calling for you from the war zone.
I wish life didn’t have so many expiration dates. So many goodbyes. I rather believe that there is always an “hasta luego” or see you soon since the finality of this process has been cruel and excruciatingly painful. Mom, wherever you are, I’m proud to have been born to fire and ice.
I’m proud to be a recovering Army brat.