My daughter Aubrey was born in the Army, to a short-term soldier and an airman’s daughter.
She was born in the Army and raised in a small town, where she made friends, set records, and always stood up for the little guy.
She was a tough kid, and a tender kid. She could cry, but she could fight, and life put her through hell, horrific headaches and the divorce of her parents, and out of it all she came up aces, sharp as steel and as bright as the sun. If there was a pile of bodies on the court or the field, she was in the center of it and probably the cause of it, but if there was a kid on the periphery, alone or outcast, she had his back and stood by his side, and if you ever saw tears in her eyes they were typically for someone else.
She mucked out horse stalls, captained the rugby squad, worked her way through college, battled life’s demons, and signed up to be a soldier.
All while I watched in wonder and awe, amazed at the miracle of life and its living, the growth and development and flowering of a child who soon outgrows and outshines the home from whence she sprang.
There was Basic Training and Arabic school and after a few years the drill sergeant academy and then Fort Sill where, at graduation after graduation, new soldiers introduced their parents to her and posed for pictures beside her. She yelled at them and cried with them and prayed for them, and helped them become men and women of character, the adults they wanted to be, soldiers who could fight and serve and stand. And when one of them crawled through the gunfire of the Las Vegas music festival shooting, leading two others to safety, she told the TV cameras it was because of Drill Sergeant Lonsberry, who taught her what to do and to not be afraid.
Then there was Officer Candidate School and artillery school and jump school and the patch of the 82ndAirborne Division on her shoulder.
The one she wore three weeks ago when they got into Kabul to clean up one hell of a mess.
She looped her mother and I together into one phone call, shortly after she got the word. I was out for a run, in Syracuse, on James Street headed toward downtown, and there was emotion in her voice. We said the encouraging things you think you’re supposed to say and she went off to gather the last of her gear. She was supposed to take 10 magazines for her rifle but the Army only had three so she went to sporting goods and military surplus stores gathering what she could.
You could see those strung out across the front of her web gear in the first photo we saw.
There had been no word, no access to technology, and the first we knew of her in this Facetime war was a picture tweeted out by the 18thAirborne Corps. Then a couple of more from the 82ndAirborne Division. First on social media, then for a couple days on the network news and on the 24-hour channels. My daughter was the B-roll to the escape from Kabul.
In one picture, she reaches out to a worried woman with a baby in her arms. In another, she directs people down a corridor. In a third, her eyes are intently focused and her jaw is set and her arms are up and reaching, a moment of seeming tension frozen, her soldier instincts triggered.
But the first one we saw was with the magazines. There was a child in her arms, held on her right side, in her gun arm, and she was calming an Afghan woman anxiously extracting her passport from a fanny pack. That picture was used a lot, because of the child, but I focused on the gear. She wasn’t dressed to receive the ladies from town at a meet and greet, she was kitted out for an all-day fight.
And it came the night after the pictures came out.
“Hey dad,” the first text in two weeks said, “I’m safe. I love you.”
That was the first I was afraid. Because I’ve heard that before. “I’m safe,” or, “I’m ok.” Usually right after one hell of a spill, or when life had kicked her in the head, or there had been a brush with death. “I’m ok.” As much a reassurance to herself as to us. “I’m ok,” only just barely and not quite.
And there it was, out of the blue: “Hey dad, I’m safe. I love you.”
Later, the news told about the bomb at the Abbey Gate. A couple of days after, word that she had been there.
“When I get home, I’ll talk it all out with you,” an explanatory text said. “Feelings are turned off at this point.”
Over there, and back here, too.
As a handful of American heroes try to clean up one hell of a mess.
Soon to be home, ever to be warmed by the ones they saved, and probably haunted by the ones they couldn’t.
My daughter Aubrey was born in the Army.
Each night we pray that she doesn’t die there, too.
Like every other military family.