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A Duty...

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“Bryce!” her scream pierced me as if it was a knife, but when my eyes opened they only found the darkness of the tent above. The nightmare was only in my mind, but I lay there on my cot with my heart racing. As I lay motionless, silently, I could hear the quiet sounds of breathing around me. Most were deep in the comfort of their dreams…
But not me.
Yet again I was awakened at some random hour after watching that same reoccurring dream.

How strange it seemed that mortars were going off not so very far in the distance, and yet my worst nightmare was one that consisted of a petite, angelic little five year old whose golden ringlets danced when she walked. But it didn’t matter the nightmare persisted. She was in danger, and I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t see through the fog where danger lurked, and when I finally found her it was too late. She was gone. And then I woke up.
The knot in my stomach would leave me lying there for ages. I couldn’t dissolve the guilt I felt as I heard her call out to me. I wasn’t there. I had abandoned her. I couldn’t see myself as the heroic big brother she deserved. I was the traitor who left her, who left my mother, just like my father had done.
A multitude of memories rose to the surface of my mind—vivid—real. And instead of falling back into the world of sleep, I was quickly drifting into visions of my past. I had no control over my memories, and it was as though someone had placed a slideshow of images before my eyes.
“Please Dad! Please, don’t cut it!” I pleaded. I watched as my father buzzed my blonde hair into a short, cropped cut before the bathroom mirror. I had begged, almost to tears, against the cutting of my hair, but the sergeant refused to listen. So, at age ten I sported the hair cut I would have until my service was complete.
I had hated him for that but soon he left, and I was placed in charge. I could not continue to hate him while knowing there was a chance he might never come home to us. But he made it back. Again, I couldn’t be angry. We were united—a whole family once again—even if only for a while. Soon it was back to the sergeant’s boot camp. It was back to the training I’d learned to loathe.
“Dad please! I’ve already done 150 push-ups. Can’t we take a break?”
“The enemy never takes a break—neither can you.” I wearily lowered myself down to repeat another repetition. One…two…three… My body became lean beneath his strict gaze and my muscles toned. I would be ready to uphold my duty he would say.
What if I didn’t want to uphold this duty? It was never a question I dared voice aloud. Duty wasn’t an option to ignore. But I fought my fate as much as I could.
And yet, when the sergeant left us for months at a time I stuck diligently to his routine. It was what I knew, and I was good at it. But even as I struggled against my civic duty, there was a different responsibility that seemed second nature. It was my job to take care of my family, especially when the sergeant left for duty.
“Mom, I can help you. What do you want me to do?” She was folding laundry, and I caught her off guard. I heard her sniffle and caught sight of the tear tracks on her cheek.
“Oh—Bryce. Umm… go play sweetie. Everything is fine here.”
“Okay.” I paused but I knew she didn’t want me to see her tears. “I love you mom.” I gave her a brief hug and a kiss on the cheek before heading out to run.
I worked hard to be strong for my mother and battled with my very self to please my father, but he never seemed to notice. He couldn’t see my struggle. He had taught me to be tough—never show weakness— and I guess over the years I had gotten pretty good at it. But even though I could mask my pain there was no denying the torment.
“How’s school?” my mom asked me over dinner.
“Fine. I think I’m doing okay.”
“Yes, I went to conferences and your teachers are really happy. I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks.”
I was smart, but I worked hard to do well.
“A good citizen is an informed citizen,” my father would say, but he never saw my countless hours of studying.
I saw my thirteen year old self alone in the lunchroom cafeteria. It was a new school. Just another one out of the numberless I had attended. This school was no more mine than my bedroom. My bedroom was not so much my bedroom as a hotel room. We would check in, and when my father’s assignment called him elsewhere we would check right back out again. I never even had time to empty the cardboard boxes from the last move.
“Bryce! Are you finished packing?” My mother called up the stairs.
“Yes mom, nearly. I’ll bring them right down and then pack up the car.”
With every move the lesson of light packing was practiced. I was assigned a limited number of boxes in which to pack—another piece of training for my future ahead. But I had very few items of significance so it didn’t matter. There were the couple boxes for clothes and then maybe two smaller ones for personal effects. Those boxes held mostly books and journals along with a football, baseball and catcher’s mitt. The sports equipment was lightly used if that. I never had anyone to play with.
I learned very young that making friends was pointless and painful. I would only end up leaving them anyway, and how good of a friendship could you really form over only a few months? My transitory friendship couldn’t compare to those of years in length. But I did have the fleeting memories of the sergeant actually taking me outside to play ball.
“Bryce! Go long!” I sprinted the distance and caught the ball securely.
“Good catch.”
I could have been a great football player, but the moving made it impossible… Those moments of tossing a football or baseball were few and far between, but they were the few moments I could actually relate to a normal family.
I saw myself in the hospital with a tiny pink bundle in my mother’s arms.
“Here’s your new sister, Bryce.” I peered over at the tiny figure curled close to my mother.
“What’s her name?”
“Mindy. What do you think? Does she look like a Mindy?”
“Yes,” I smiled, “she looks perfect.”
My mom, Mindy and me. The sergeant hadn’t made it back. He was home within the week, but it didn’t change the memory. We were a fragmented family. I could never understand how my mother did it. How could she live a life of floating from place to place? It was difficult for her. I knew that, even while she tried to hide her emotions from my eyes. She had to stay strong for me. She had to live without the person she loved being there beside her. She did love my father. That was a fact. She couldn’t live the way she did without such passion.
I saw a tiny smiling one year old grinning up at me as I helped her to take her first steps. Mindy. Her charm had done nothing but magnify as she’d grown. Hugs and kisses she would remind me constantly at any time of departure, even if it was only for a day of school. Her tiny hands would curl around my neck, and her soft curls would brush against my face with her embrace, but all too soon I had to put her down. I had to say goodbye.
She grew older with every day, just as all things did, but her exit from infancy to youth brought me a greater sorrow than anything before. Every day that passed meant one day closer to my departure. As much as I fought my father’s will there was no denial.
I would leave.
I would serve.
And, I would uphold the duty as my father had before me.
I saw the little girl from his dreams, Mindy; the very way I left her. She ran toward me with outstretched arms.
“Hugs and kisses!” she squealed.
It was goodbye.
She was too young to understand, and she approached it just the same as any other farewell. I swept her into my arms and held her close. I would return. She would be changed, older, but I would be back to see it. I would be back. I knew that fact as well as well as I knew that I had to let her go. She let me set her down, and she returned to mother’s side. With my mother’s kiss and my father’s handshake I turned around. I didn’t look back—I couldn’t look back. My resolve would break and my mask fall to pieces. I would return.
Why had I left?
I rolled over on my side as the gears in my mind turned. It hardly me seemed like I had made a choice.
Duty? Yes, duty…but there had to be something else.
A colored envelope under my cot was just hardly visible in the darkness, but I pulled it toward me. I slid out the drawing colored in crayon and dominated by a messy kindergarten scrawl: I love you! Love Mindy. I took the contents of the envelope and poured them on my lap. I had already memorized them. They were the first mail I had received since shipping out. But somehow in the darkness I discovered a previously unseen piece of paper stuck in the envelope.
Turning on my tiny flashlight I saw a small sketch of an eagle. It was beautiful and I turned it over to see if there was any explanation. On the back I saw the precise handwriting of the sergeant—the handwriting of my father.
Bryce,
On the back of this paper you have probably noticed the eagle I have drawn. I know this symbol is nothing new to you, but I want you to see it for everything it represents. I want you to remember that you are this eagle. You are the peacekeeper and the protector. Every day you fight and serve, but every sacrifice you give is something few can do and even fewer can do it with the strength and ability you do. I have neglected to say this to you, but it is something I have known for a long time: You were born to serve and born to protect. I hope you understand that all I have done and the orders I have given you were for your well being. I know the heart you have, and I hope you can find the pride and strength in knowing that every day you are protecting your family. But even more, you are protecting thousands of families across the world. I am proud of you son, and I love you. I may not have always been the best father, but I have done what I could, and I know I must have done something right. Stay safe and stay strong.




-Dad
I saw my father as though he stood before me. He saluted me before disappearing into my subconscious.
I understood.
It was my duty to my country, as the sergeant would say, but it was more than that. It was a duty to my family and a duty to myself. I finally understood my father’s reasoning as I lay in the darkness among my brothers. My father had been the protector. He was the guardian, the figure of strength, protecting not only his family but also the thousands of families across the globe. Now it was my turn. I was the guardian now. I was protecting my country. I was protecting my family. I could have chosen to serve in some other way, but I now knew that no other way would be as fit for me. I had found my place among the guardians of good. Together my brothers and I could be the protectors, something we couldn’t be alone.
I was protecting Mindy.
I no longer had to fear for her safety. I could see now. She was already protected. She was protected from afar and she was protected by me. I could not see her now but I would in one way or another. And I would return to her with the knowledge that I had protected her in the best way I could.
It may not always have been clear but the duty my father so often spoke of was one simple thing, it was my destiny. I had the power to refuse. but in doing so I would deny who I was. This duty was my destiny, and I finally saw that this was a destiny I was proud to fulfill.





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