I glanced over my shoulder and saw him grasping a bright pink post-it note, reading a few words scrawled on it, folding it and unfolding it again.
“Notes,” I thought. “Notes for what he wants to say.”
I tried to breathe in that moment — that all important moment surrounded by our Army family. We were there to be “farewelled” — an official good-bye from this unit in which we have spent almost five years of our lives. It was a moment to remember. These were our last moments in the Army before he starts what they called “terminal leave,” or the burning of your vacation time after your last real day.
That post-it note. Folded, and unfolded, and folded again. Then stuck back in his pocket.
Those being farewelled are expected to speak. But what do you say at your last mandatory Army event on your second-to-last day of Army service? How do you mark almost 11 years — the struggles, the loss, the joy, the elation, the sorrow, the pain, the reunions, the breakage. What do you even say?
He was called to the front of the room. The person at the party he had worked with the longest said a few words about his dedication — words that didn’t scratch the surface on the real story, on the real turmoil. Words that could not have possibly do justice to the decision to leave the military after all of it.
They didn’t say that he was rated above his peers, Army speak for “he’s the best,” at almost every evaluation. They did not know that he was chosen as one of 23 from over 1,600 candidates to attend the master’s program of one of the other military service, a huge honor. They didn’t note that he was selected for Major when more than 30 percent of those up for the honor got kicked to the curb.
Ten years, seven months of service. How do you give that up? Why would you give that up if you didn’t have to?
The post-it stayed in his pocket. He stood before the room. Everyone waited.
“Do what makes you happy,” he told them. “Do what makes you and your family happy.”
Flashback, Hollywood style. July, 2015 — We are driving down a country highway in middle Tennessee — green hills, trees and ground overcome by kudzu, air thick with mid-summer humidity, air conditioner blasting in the car.
“I think,” and he pauses. And breathes. And pauses again. “I think, or actually, I know I want to get out of the Army. I think it’s best for our family. I think that’s what would make us happy. Start a new adventure. Start over.”
I wanted to do that, too.
Back to the now. Post-it note folded, then unfolded, then folded again — his second-to-last day in the U.S. Army.
Start over. Be brave.
“Do what makes you happy,” he tells them. “Do what’s good for you.”
In seven days we leave for Alaska to practice what we preach.