Christmas visit with soldier son was all too brief

On Christmas Eve our son, Neil, came home for Christmas. We hadn't seen him since he graduated from Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina last year. Prior to earning his Green Beret, he spent 15 months in Iraq during President Bush's surge. Twice, he and his men almost died in combat.

Last year, President Obama ordered a 100-man Special Operations contingent to Africa to stop al-Qaida from making further inroads on that continent. Neil is a captain who leads one of those Special Ops teams. In May, while on a mission to Mali, three of his Special Ops friends died, and he survived a coup as well as a counter-coup. The only contact we had with him during those dark days was a brief call saying, "bullets whizzing, I'm OK."

In the aftermath of the death of our ambassador and his security men in Benghazi last September, we didn't hear from Neil at all until he returned to the states. We didn't know where he was or what he was doing. We since have learned that al-Qaida has put a bounty on the capture or death of Special Operations soldiers in country.

When Neil arrived, my wife, daughter, and I met him. We didn't hang banners or have a cheering crowd to greet him, just his family. We almost didn't recognize him when he exited the arrival gate. His six-foot-one frame with his blue eyes and blond hair were the same, but he looked tired and worn from his experiences. He had worry lines etched in his brow.

During his all-too-brief, three-and-a-half-day visit, I asked Neil his opinions about the fiscal cliff, the senseless murder of children in Newtown and the possibility of a cataclysmic civil war here in America. All Neil said was assault weapons belong in the hands of soldiers defending this country from al-Qaida. These weapons of war weren't meant to make our citizens unsafe going to the mall, a movie, or in school. Mostly, he just talked about wanting to get back to doing fun things like scuba diving, sky-diving, and hanging out with his friends.

At 4:30 Friday morning we got Neil to the Medford airport for his flight out. Just as when he arrived, there was no fanfare, just a family sending their son off again to war. As Neil disappeared through airport security screening, I stood at attention and saluted him. Jhenna stood silently watching her son fade into the crowd with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Our family has lived in constant fear of losing Neil. I'm an ex-paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, and my family has served in every generation since the Second World War. Yet it brings my wife and I to tears not knowing his fate as a soldier, particularly since he was here for only three and a half days before returning to base to begin training for his next mission. As a patient at the White City VA, I see the faces of men and women dealing with the aftermath of service to their country and I wonder how many more wars this nation can endure.

Driving away from the airport, we knew we would pray for Neil and continue to do what we could to honor our young men and women in uniform. Jhenna will help support our local National Guard troops with gifts at Christmastime, and I'll keep counseling soldiers with drug and alcohol problems through a self-help program.

As we enter 2013, our fondest hope is that men and women of good will can reach into their hearts to find a way to end all our divisiveness as a country. Perhaps instead of trying to "secede," we will spend our energy helping our young warriors "succeed." Help a vet at the local VA center, spare a dollar for a homeless vet, and say a prayer that all our soldiers return home safely to their loved ones.

Brian Lewis lives in Phoenix.

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