I have been in Iraq now for nine months – minus two. The minus two occurred during the months of July and August. Ironically, they were the scariest.
Down dark alleys hidden within the sinister underbelly of cities like Ramadi, Fallujah and Haditha lay enemies of the American and Iraqi reconstruction and reconciliation efforts. Despite the gradual end of violence, increased peace and improved lives of those who live in Al Anbar Province, random rocket strikes, small arms fire and improvised explosive device attacks continue.
Although we operate within a permissive environment and under the guise of cooperation from the government of Iraq, the situation here is fragile and the military doesn’t take for granted the days that pass when everyone has exited the base and returned safely to their units.
Yet the most feared and mortal enemy I’ve faced during this deployment is my father’s cancer. This adversary has instilled a fear in me far greater than the fear of being victim to indirect mortar rounds that have been fired into the forward operating base where I live. My father’s cancer scares me more than running over an IED on my way to and from the Ramadi government center. This foe is scarier than receiving small arms fire while walking exposed into a courthouse to meet with a local judge.
The insurgency is an enemy I have willingly taken on in volunteering to join the Marine Corps and in deploying to Iraq. I did not, however, sign up for my father’s cancer.
Months before I learned of the disease, a friend loaned me a book entitled The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan. Passing free time during deployment is best spent reading books and watching complete seasons of television shows one would never have time for stateside.
In The Middle Place, Corrigan provides a narrative of her struggle with breast cancer and the shared battle of her father’s bladder cancer. I quickly related to Corrigan and her love for her father. Like Corrigan, I’ve always been “my father’s daughter.”
My father isn’t a Marine. In fact, he never served a day of military service in his life. But from a young age, he always instilled in my brother and me a strong sense of pride and appreciation for our country. His generation was the first to attend college in his family, and he did so with a football scholarship to Northwestern University. He and I attended the same law school, and one of my most memorable gifts from him is a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution, which I have since sworn to defend and protect.
My dad wasn’t drafted during the Vietnam War, but the sacrifice of his generation wasn’t lost on him. One of my clearest memories of my dad was during a trip to Washington D.C., my senior year of high school. Dad took me to the Vietnam Memorial. He pointed out each one of his friends, classmates and childhood neighbors who died in Vietnam. We cried together as we remembered the fallen.
I think it may have been Dad’s love for his country and appreciation for what it means to be an American that inspired my brother and me to join the military. But it is a true tribute to his sense of loyalty to our family, physical courage and mental toughness that led my brother and me to become Marines.
So despite all of my military training and education, immediately upon arriving in Iraq, I found myself calling home to my Dad, just grateful I was still somebody’s daughter.
For Corrigan, the middle place is “that sliver of time when parenthood and childhood overlap.” This place is a little different for me in that I’m not yet a parent. But I think as a Marine Corps officer, I can understand the immense sense of responsibility and obligation that parenthood entails. The strength of the Marine Corps is in its junior Marines, in their willingness to follow orders and their tremendous sense of duty and loyalty to their country and the Corps. They take an oath to follow all lawful orders of the officers under which they serve.
Corrigan writes, “And that is what this whole thing is all about. Calling home. Instinctively. Even when all of the paperwork – a marriage license, a notarized deed, two birth certificates and seven years of tax returns – clearly indicates you’re an adult, but all the same, there you are clutching to the phone and thanking God that you’re still somebody’s daughter.”
Throughout this deployment I’ve called home to my dad. He always answers his phone when I call, responds immediately to e-mail, writes inspirational cards and sends care packages with all of the stuff that reminds me of home. One quickly realizes how many people really truly care for you like your parents when 7,000 miles away from home and in the middle of the desert. With the “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers out of sight and friends too busy taking care of their own families back home, parents are forever faithful in sending their love and support across the world to their service members.
So when I learned my biggest fan back home had mouth cancer, and that it had spread to his lymph nodes as the Type IV variety, I knew that no war would keep me from the battle for my father’s life. I was lucky enough to be in a position that allowed me to return home for a short duration. Not all deployed service members have this opportunity. I owe the Marines with whom I serve a great deal of gratitude. Because of these unselfish men and women, the mission continued to be met in my absence. Traumatic events occurred. I will always regret not being there to share the burden with my Marine Corps family, but I needed to be home to fight for my dad’s life.
Every weekday, my dad and I suited up and showed up to do battle together at the University of Washington radiation center. We would walk together, hand in hand, from the parking lot to the radiation center, knowing that inevitably his condition would worsen before it would improve.
Ever the optimist and charming entertainer, he wore his Hulk amulet on a purple ribbon given to him by a close friend. With his charisma, gregarious laugh and large presence, he quickly became the favorite of the ward. Although he stands at 6-foot-2-inches tall, he was able to get down to the same level as his fellow patients. He would always offer words of encouragement to them, regardless of their condition. I knew he was convincing them as much as he was himself.
Dad’s ability to let down his guard and fully experience the shared vulnerability of cancer with the other patients gave them all the courage to face their fears.
After seven weeks, 35 pounds, nearly third-degree burns to his neck and chest, lymph edema, the loss of taste and sole intake of fluids and nutrition through a tube inserted into his stomach, the treatment ended and I returned to Iraq.
Just last week “the Hulk” paid a visit to his doctor and was told the radiation had effectively prevented the cancerous cells from spreading throughout his body.
Within the last 30 days, other Marines have had to go home to help their family members fight similar battles. Cancer doesn’t stop for anything or anyone. And no matter what the mission or the conflict, when a loved one at home faces cancer our Marines will move mountains to get their brothers and sisters into the “trenches” with the ones they love.
As for Corrigan, I know her dad eventually lost his fight to cancer. But I want to thank her for giving words to this place where I have found myself, here in the middle, between childhood and adulthood, between the war in Iraq and the war against cancer at home.
Thank you, Kelly Corrigan, for offering courage with your story. Thanks to fathers for making warriors out of their daughters.
Dad, we’ll continue to win the fight against cancer. We will beat it together and we’ll spend the coming years making more father-daughter memories that I hold so dear.