If you’ve read my bio, you know that I spent six months in Iraq back in 2003. For years before that, I spent plenty of time training and preparing for that deployment. When I became a parent, people told me about how hard it was going to be. They told me how different it would be from anything else that I had ever done in my life. I always joked that combat had prepared me for just about anything. Little did I know how right I was. Here are my top ten ways that parenthood is like living in a combat zone.
Sleepless Nights. This one is pretty obvious. Infants, and even toddlers, wake up at any and all hours of the night. I even know people with teenagers who still have trouble sleeping because they are worried about asthma problems when their kids were young. In a combat zone, long guard shifts followed by long patrols can lead to even longer nights with little to no sleep. When you finally do sleep, it can be pretty hard to wake up for anyone or anything. If you’ve ever had to wake up your spouse two or three times to let them know that it was their “shift” with the screaming infant only to get the zombie stare, you’ll have some idea of how it feels to wake up someone for guard shift in a combat zone.
Restraint. No matter what happens in a combat zone, you cannot just fly off the handle. You have to remain cool, calm, and collected or you can create a dangerous situation for everyone around you. As a parent, you will have times when your kids drive you nuts!! You cannot just flip out every time they do something wrong. You have to hold it in and either let it dissipate or find another way to let it out.
Flexibility. In a combat zone, thing change…quickly! Add-on missions, extra equipment, new intelligence, someone shooting at you. You have to be flexible and able to respond to situations, not react to them. As parents, we know that things will change. The second you pass that exit, someone has to go potty. Someone will spill their drink all over themselves 3 minutes before you have to leave for an appointment. You go upstairs for bedtime and every toy in the room is scattered to the four winds. Even the bus coming early can throw a wrench in the works. What is most important is that we don’t get mad about this, but respond to the present situation in a way that best solves the problem in front of us.
Troops Eat First. If you are a leader in the military, you always take care of your troops first. You are always last to eat, last to sleep, and last to play. You set the example. As parents, we do the same. How many times have you sat down to cold food because it took so long to get the kids settled, happy, and, finally, eating only to have them leave the table as soon as you sit down. Yeah, that’s kind of what it’s like to be a leader in the military.
Constant Vigilance. Part of living in a combat zone is always being aware of what’s going on around you. You never know when or where you might find explosives or enemy combatants. Every person, vehicle, corner, etc. was a potential threat. To be honest, this was one of the hardest things for me to get under control once I got back stateside. As a parent, every sound that I hear could be a child choking or breaking something. Every car that comes into the driveway could be someone trying to take one of the kids. If the kids are too quiet, stickers are all over the walls. Too loud and someone is about to trip over something and start screaming. Every trip to the mall further develops your child GPS. You can’t see them, but you know right where they are!
Packing. I was “straight leg Infantry”. That pretty much means that, if I wanted to have something, I had to carry it. We didn’t have a lot of vehicles to tote our stuff around. As such, you learn to pack what you need and you learn to pack it well. No gaps, shirts and socks rolled tight and protected well, and no unnecessary bags. As a parent, you learn what you need to take with you and you learn how to limit the number of bags that you carry and fit what you must carry in exactly the right way to maximize your space. Most importantly, as the kids get older, you learn to start making them carry their own stuff.
Austerity. In a combat zone, you have what you have and not much else. It’s hard to even beg, borrow, or steal because there is nothing to beg, borrow, or steal. You learn to live with what you have and little of that involves comfort. When you are a parent, you can be very limited in what you are able to have or do. Maybe you’d like a new car, but someone needs braces. Maybe you’d love to eat out, but can only afford what you have in the fridge. Don’t even get me started about the cost of preschool. At the end of the day, you learn to be happy with what you have because you know darned good and well that your nothing is a lifetime of wealth for someone.
Hurry Up and Wait. This is kind of a mantra in the military. Everyone gets all dressed up, all packed up, all ready to go. And then you wait…and wait…and wait. Either the helicopters are late, the mission has changed, or you are just waiting on the final order to go. In our house, maybe everyone gets ready for dinner and is sitting at the table, but the chicken took too long in the oven. Maybe we left to get somewhere on time, but the event starts late. Maybe we planned on traffic, but had none. Either way, when you are a parent, you are likely to be rushing to get everyone together only to wind up waiting on something or other.
Accountability. In a combat zone, being accountable for every member of your team and every piece of equipment is incredibly important. You cannot leave behind a radio or night-vision for the enemy to get a hold of. Neither can you leave a member of your team behind. As parents, this is very obvious. We cannot forget our children or leave our young children alone. What is not so obvious sometimes is making sure that everyone has their stuff. We cannot leave the house without everyone’s drinks, blankets, etc. And you can never leave the special blanket at Grandma’s.
Calling Reinforcements. In combat, there are times when you know that the job is just too big. Maybe you’ve come across an enemy that is too strong for a small group to handle or the distance is too far to travel by foot. That’s when you call for help. Maybe you request vehicles or helicopters. Maybe you call for more troops or even for specialists to handle a job that you aren’t trained for. As parents, we need to know when we need a break. Whether it’s a trusted friend, a reliable babysitter, or the loving grandparents, we all need to have reinforcements available to help us out when the job gets too big.
I think that I partly learned how to be a father through my time in the military. The similarities between the two are pretty uncanny. While the jobs and the stakes are obviously very different, I think it’s easy to see how much we can learn about parenting from our troops living in a combat zone.
Have you or anyone that you know served in a combat zone? Did you find any other similarities? Let us know what you think.