“I signed up for this,” he said to himself. “I can do this. I was bred for this.”
O’Brian smoked a lot. Most of the guys did — before breakfast, in the middle of the night, on patrol. It helped them to process events, to calm their nerves. For a few minutes, the focus is solely on the inhale and exhale.
The guys drink, smoke, and fight when something tragic happens. Testosterone runs high when you realize that you’ve been spared, that your timing was right, that you’ve been given another chance at life. Soldiers have to blow off steam, pound their chests, and many times pound on each other, shouting, “I’m alive!” The fighting helps. Listening to heavy metal soothes. Smoking calms.
O’Brian spent his first 15 months serving in Iraq. His tour was supposed to be for a year, but in dire need of more men on the ground, the Army extended his duty an extra 3 months. He wasn’t even aware that his tour was extended to 15 months until his wife Sofie called. She found out on the local news.
“They didn’t tell us yet,” he said to her, a calm tone veiling his disappointment.
Sofie had moved in with her parents in San Diego after Tom was deployed. She’d just had their second child, a boy, and being a single mom with two kids under three years of age was taking its toll. Base living was tough. There were daily scenes of domestic violence next door, and there was nothing she could do about it. With a newborn boy and a 3-year-old daughter, she needed the love and support of her family. So she stayed with them until Tom returned.
She hated having to learn the fate of her husband’s future while watching the local news.
“Many times the media would know things before we did,” she said. “We [the family] are sworn to confidentiality, but the media would sometimes broadcast their whereabouts and give out other critical information.”
After months of living without him, the news that he would have to endure an additional three months more in the field, where every minute counts, almost broke her spirit. But when she and Tom spoke, she didn’t show it.
“I couldn’t show disappointment or exhibit any fear,” she says, “because I didn’t want him to lose focus. I didn’t want his mind anywhere other than where he was.”
With everything else out of her control, this was the only way Sofie knew how to keep Tom safe. Three more months on deployment was like an eternity. But she wouldn’t dare complain. She had a mission, too.
As team leader, Sgt. O’Brian also never complained. He was on the front lines, and as part of the “needs of the Army” in the infantry, he had to go wherever the Army needed him. His orders were to stay longer in Iraq, and so he did, without objection.
Iraq was hostile. It was the height of the Bush era in 2006 and 2007, and the Iraqi people were in general agitated and angry. The missions came fast and furious. The Army rolled into towns, hoping to keep the hostility down and avoid open combat and spot IEDs resting roadside. They mounted support of air-assault missions. The raids kept Sgt. O’Brian determined and focused.
It wasn’t the probability of dying that kept him awake at night, but thoughts of losing his wife and family. With so much time and distance between couples, “Dear John” letters arrived for soldiers each day. Getting an email or a letter about a significant other cheating or breaking up with a soldier while at war was common. Guys would post them on the Wall of Shame, the most prominent wall in the mess tent. It was their way of helping each other get over it.
Meanwhile, Sofie wasn’t going anywhere. A bright, beautiful, cheery person, she found living with loneliness hard, but she kept busy in order not to miss her husband quite so desperately.
The days passed, and Sgt. O’Brian’s homecoming, November 28, 2007, approached. Every soldier in his company was going home. In 15 months of fighting on the front lines, no one on O’Brian’s direct team had died. He was part of the reason why. He’d done everything within his power to be well equipped, so that he would survive, and so that those serving with him would too. He’d helped keep them all safe. He’d made good choices and was quietly proud of it. Now, he was strapping on his boots. He and his boys were going home. His mission was accomplished.
Homecoming is one of the biggest, most celebratory days of a soldier’s life. Families don’t know exactly what time their soldier will arrive home, only an approximation. They have to wait for instructions.
Patience is demanded of you and your entire family when you join. You no longer make decisions about your
future, and you have to be okay with that. Living in the moment is the only thing you can do. Plans are not an option. You have to get used to a life in limbo.
The wives try, but when you haven’t seen your husband in 15 months — aside from a two-week leave midway through his tour — the waiting is excruciating.
It was 3:00 a.m. when the white buses full of returning soldiers pulled up to the Ft. Hood base in Texas. They lined up head to tail on the base’s floodlit field, where the soldiers perform drills. Then there they stood, flesh and blood, 100 yards away, home at last from the brutal war in Iraq. After the General said a few words of inspiration and congratulations, he shouted, “Soldiers, at ease!”
Sofie sprinted across the field. Amongst the more than 1000 soldiers, she found Tom. He scooped her up in his arms and held her to his pounding heart. Finally, they were together again. She could breathe. All fingers, all toes, all parts, safe from war. He had made it. He had survived. He was home.