KIRKUK, Iraq — By the time we fly out of Iraq, this unit will have been been deployed, including training time, for 486 days. Of that total, 333 days were spent in theater.
By my count, our platoon completed almost 400 patrols in that time and about another 200 "logistical package" missions to the local air base. We patrolled almost 18,000 miles of highways, roads and alleys in Humvees.
At four hours per mission, that's 1,480 hours spent on patrol. (But of course the total number of hours spent actually working, cleaning weapons, sitting in meetings, maintaining our Humvees and preparing for patrols is incalculable.)
In between those missions, we also pulled 828 hours of guard duty — the equivalent of 34.5 24-hour days spent in guard towers and monitoring radios.
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My squad also handed out at least 300 toys and 130 pounds of candy to Iraqi children.
But the actual work was nothing to the burden of being gone so long and so far from our loved ones. Not only did we miss them and pine for them daily, but our entire home lives were put on hold. Wives worked double-time to take care of our homes. Civilian jobs went on without us. Families had empty seats at holiday tables. And children grew up without their daddies.
We have 43 men in Third Platoon. In the past 18 months, we missed roughly 64 of our own birthday parties. Eighty-six Fourth of July barbecues were a man short. And 43 Christmases lacked a brother, son or father.
The men of Bravo Company's 3rd Platoon missed about 82 of their children's birthdays and 31 wedding anniversaries.
Spc. John Jolley celebrated his 25th birthday manning an observation post on a Kirkuk rooftop — the fifth birthday the former Marine has spent on various deployments.
Spc. Steven Henson missed his family's annual 30-person Labor Day breakfast. Never before in his life had he missed one.
Staff Sgt. Brad Attebery missed his 30th wedding anniversary. Sgt. 1st Class Rik Williamson not only missed his 15th wedding anniversary, but also the funerals of three aunts and one uncle. He also missed the chance to stand as best man for his nephew's wedding.
Sgt. David Gamaza missed his daughter Morgyn's first day of school. Sgt. James Carter missed his two oldest boys' first hockey starts. Staff Sgt. Don Lamott missed his son's first start for his junior high football team.
Spc. Jared McKenzie missed his son Torrin's baptism.
Three particularly poor saps — Cpl. Lyle Wing, Sgt. Warren Hurt and myself — missed the birth of a child. Wing's third daughter was born as he tromped through the Louisiana mud. My first child, also a girl, was born in December, about one hour before I boarded a transport plane to fly into Iraq. Hurt was on patrol on July 4 when a radio message came that he was now the father of a second child, a son.
One soldier got divorced while on leave back home. Another, Spc. Dereck Birch, got engaged. And a third, Spc. Matthew Timmons, got both engaged and married during his two-week leave.
And that's only 43 men — about 1 percent of the entire 116th Brigade. Extrapolate from that to figure all the things the approximately 4,000 men and women of the 116th missed being away from home during this deployment.
While I can lament all that we've missed back home, I also have to consider what I gained from this long, difficult year.
I shared several thousand laughs with some good men. The majority of these guffaws were over things so incredibly frustrating, so mind-numbingly goofy, or so specific to our situation here that they will probably never translate to anyone who was not here with us.
Under the strains of our work and our living situations, I have forged new, possibly lifelong friendships. Since finding even one true friend is a rare and wonderful achievement, I consider this an accomplishment of great value.
I have a greater appreciation for everything you have at home. There will be a little more joy in my heart each time I flick a light switch and the light instantly comes on. When I gaze upon the bounty of an American supermarket. When I merge easily onto the smooth pavement of our highways. Or choose from our plethora of restaurants.
And I will never flush another toilet without respect for consistently efficient plumbing.
After witnessing two monumental elections here and the way the Iraqi people live, I have newfound respect for freedom. Not just the the capital-F, Four-Freedoms kind that we find in the Bill of Rights. But the simple daily freedoms of sitting at a restaurant patio sipping a beer. Or grabbing my keys, hopping in my car and driving wherever the heck I want.
I have even greater respect and love for my wife. While my situation and living conditions were much more difficult than hers, she was the one raising a newborn baby virtually alone (try just taking a shower when you have no one else to watch over your infant, much less manage a day of errands), take care of our home, start a new job and, worst of all, bear the burden of fears and worries that only the spouse of a soldier in a combat zone can understand.
Most monumental of all, though, I now more appreciate life itself. I will place my family on an even higher pedestal and better let them know just how much I love them. And I will be thankful, each day, when my alarm clock goes off and I wake up in my own bed, looking forward to another mere 8-hour day of mere office work, another day in the company of my family, another day that I am home.