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The Best Decision I Ever Made

In 1996, at the age of 49, I joined the Army National Guard. I had served previously from the ages of 21 to 25 in the United States Navy. Therefore, when I became a soldier, I entered with the rank of Specialist. It was not quite the same as a Corporal, the same pay grade, because Corporals had more prestige, more experience as soldiers. But I had wanted to serve. And I had tried earlier to reenter the service. However, I was unable to make the weight requirement. I was too light, too small. In any case, at my age of 49 they waived the weight requirements for underweight soldiers, and I entered. My mother was not pleased.

My mother had seen one son serve in the Army in Vietnam, and the same son, along with me and another brother, serve in the Navy. While I was serving in the National Guard one of her grand-sons entered the Navy. All of this was during various times that our country was at war in foreign lands. It tended to upset her. She was a worrier. Always had been, and always would be, until her final days.

The unit I joined was a Field Artillery Brigade. I was in the Headquarters group and was eventually trained to be part of a Field Artillery Meteorology section. That did not mean we predicted weather. Rather, we sent up weather balloons that collected data that was used by the howitzers to fire more accurately. The wind direction and speed, the humidity, and the temperature all had an effect on the ballistic trajectory of a cannon's firing.

Later I was also trained to be a part of the Fire Control section. I worked at a computer using data from the Targeting section to give firing instructions to the gun units, telling them which targets to fire at and where they were located. While in that section I was promoted to Sergeant, after the necessary school training.

Of course, when we began our war in Afghanistan, after September 11, 2001, my mother began to worry that I would be sent over to be a part of that effort. I always reassured her that it was not very likely. Regular Army units of field artillery would go first, and not very many of them, from what I understood, due to the terrain.

Then our leaders decided to send us into a war in Iraq. Again, the worries began for her. She knew her grandson was on a ship that sailed in that area. Now she wondered if her eldest son would be going to war in this strange place. She was not a geographer, which I happened to be, but she knew about wars and the loss of loved ones. She had lived in San Diego during World War II. My father and his brother had served in the Navy during that war. Her worries increased. I attempted to reassure her. Most of the troops in both wars were Infantry troops, with some Armor, and some Field Artillery. But the regular Army seemed to be handling the situations.

Then the call ups of Regular Army Reserve units, and of Air and Army National Guard units began. They were being sent over to do what they had been trained to do. In some cases. But in many more cases they were doing jobs they had never been trained to do. On the ground as Infantry troops. Or fulfilling driving and guarding functions with military convoys. Or overseeing captives and prisoners from the opposing forces. I still didn't believe my unit would be called up, but I was ready to serve. After all, I had reenlisted twice after the initial enlistment, in 1999 and in 2002.

In 2005 my term of enlistment was approaching an end. I was 58 years old. Although I had served 4 years in the Navy and would complete 9 years in the National Guard, I would not have enough years to get a retirement pension. One had to have 20 years and one could not serve past the age of 60, except in special circumstances, so I knew that reenlisting would not bring me to retirement age, and I was feeling my age. I didn't think I would be able to fulfill the duties they were asking of soldiers now. Kicking in doors and rousting out the citizens in search of combatants. Or guarding the ones we took captive. I didn't fear the fire fights that one could get into, but I knew I was not in my prime anymore.

I made the decision to not reenlist. I left the Army National Guard as a Staff Sergeant.

My mother could not have been happier. I could say the same for my wife. Her worries had been the same. I took off the uniform for good and became a citizen only, rather than a citizen/soldier.

In 2006 my old unit, the Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, was called up for active duty. They were sent to Iraq for a year of service. And they were not serving as a Field Artillery unit. I would have surely been sent with them if I had reenlisted. Shortly after that my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The kind of cancer is not important. What is important is that her operations were botched and she was slowly dying. She did not know that and neither did her family. She had six children.

It was lucky in one way that she had three children living in the same community with her, along with grandchildren. My sisters and brother attempted to attend to her needs with all their hearts and souls and skills. I lived three and a half hours away. During that last year I made a dozen trips down to visit and help as I could. It was all not enough. She was placed in at least three nursing homes until we found one that was adequate. Shortly after that she approached the end of her days.

We decided to have her brought to my brother's house and to have hospice care for her there. They were lovely people. But she did not last long. In her final few days all of her children were there with her. The three who lived in the same area, and my brother from Arkansas, as well as my brother from Texas, and me from Kansas. I was there when she needed her feet massaged. I was there when she wanted to talk of the old days. I was there when, finally, she passed. So were all of her children. We were all there.

She was 78 years old. Her life had been hard. She had worked happily as a stay at home mother. When my father gave up on their marriage she went to work as a single mother. She used the skills she had. She worked in a tomato canning factory. She harvested fruits and vegetables. She waited on tables and was a short order cook in restaurants. But she had relished the successes of her children. And she had loved and been loved.

Her wish was to be cremated and to have her ashes strewn into the waters off of a jetty into the Gulf of Mexico, in Galveston, Texas. She had spent many happy days there, walking one of my nieces in a stroller along the Seawall above the beach. We arranged for it all. As a family group we went down to Texas and stayed with my brother. Then we all drove over to Galveston and went out on a windy, summer day and tossed her ashes out to sea. Most of them anyway. One of my great-nephews still remembers getting "Grandma in his eyes." She would have been so amused by that.

So, you see, it was a decision I made for different reasons that turned out to be the best I ever made. If I had stayed in the Guard I would have been away for that last year of my mother's life. I would have missed her pain and I would have missed her joy. I would have missed the worst and best year of my life.

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