My father joined the Royal Air Force in the late 70’s, he joined before University and they sponsored him through his 3 year degree. Typical of my father he picked a degree with the least amount of lecture hours, I think it was 12 hours a week in the first year!
Whilst at Office Training, he met my mother. She was a fresh faced 19 year old who was studying to be a teacher. In time they married and had 2 girls, me in 1981 and my younger sister 5 years later. My father starting losing his hair shortly after I was born, something he blames me for (jokingly of course). In that time he trained as a fighter pilot. It was, therefore, evitable that he would be deployed to war zones. Over the years he has gone to the Falklands (he was there during the conflict); Balkans; Middle East and many other places where there has been heavy conflict.
My mother fondly tells me of the time my father was a display pilot and was ‘performing’ at an Airshow. I was still in a pushchair so was about 3 years old and my father was (with 2 other planes) doing a particularly dangerous manoeuvre. After the display had ended, I proceeded to ask my father (these are my exact words) “When are you going to crash?” It sounds like I was a charming child doesn’t it!
I have grown up knowing my dad goes away to ‘fight the baddies’ and that there is always a possibility he may not come back. My parents have always been brutally honest about my dad’s job. Even when my father rose through the ranks and started flying desks more, it was still hard when he was deployed. There was still that risk. When I became an adult and understood the principles of war more, it made me worry more.
I am shortly about to turn 30, I am going to give you a grown up Forces child’s view of a parent being deployed to a very active war zone.
In 2002, shortly before Bonfire Night, my father was at the end of his tour as Station Commander of a busy RAF base. I was, at the time, just 22 and was an E1 (Admin Officer) MOD Civilian on the same base. A few months before he had told us all that he would be going out to Afghanistan for 6 months after this tour had ended. I was fearful of him going out there having lost 2 friends out there in the same year. I actually knew before my mother and sister of my father’s deployment because I was the Movements Clerk on base, I had to ensure my father’s prep forms were completed so that he could prove his readiness to deploy for theatre (military term for war zone). It did not make it any easier that I was involved in such a way, I actually knew where he was going and what he would be doing there and the risks involved. I knew more than my mum.
Ok so I was lucky in one respect, he would not be driving tanks or flying planes over the war zone and dropping bombs. I did know he was deployed to a camp where there had been heavy hits by the enemy, the enemy being the Taliban.
On the day of his deployment I said goodbye to my dad. I fought back the tears, I felt sad my younger sister would not be there (she was at boarding school) to give him a big hug. It was our Standard Operating Procedure, or SOP’s as we called them, to give him a HUGE hug and kiss before he left. As usual, he promised he would write every week and ring when was possible. The following 72 hours without knowing whether he had got there ok was awful, it was like waiting for bad news from the doctors. I had blocked out the previous tour abroad having been really poorly and had forgotten just how bad it was. Eventually my mother sent me a text to say she had heard from Dad to say he had arrived safely. ‘Normal’ life could resume as such, whatever ‘normal’ was.
As it drew nearer to Christmas, I knew it would be hardest for my sister. I tried to figure out ways in which I could stay away from home at Christmas, I did not want a reminder that my father was away. I tried to convince my boss that I should be Duty Sgt meaning I would sat in the office on Christmas Day. He knew what was happening (i.e. my father was away) so he insisted I should be at home with my family. On Christmas Eve I went out with some of the lads from work, I got so drunk I ended up in Accident and Emergency. Needless to say my Mother was not impressed with having to pick me up at 4am! Shortly after New Year it was my sister’s birthday, she was turning 16. As usual, when she was home from school, we went for a meal to celebrate. It felt weird to celebrate without my Dad around but we had a good evening. I would find myself watching the news and reading the newspapers obsessively just in case there was news of an RAF officer’s death. I dealt with the separation from my father by going out and getting drunk a lot, it did not ease the pain and it did not stop the fact my dad was away. My dad was, and still is, my rock. He is the only man I will ever love!
At the end of February I learnt my dad was coming home for a few days R&R (rest and relaxation). I could not wait and began a countdown. The night before he was due to come home I stayed at the parental home, I do not think either my mother or I slept that night. I remember running into my dad’s arms, I was longing for a hug from my dad to make it all better. Albeit a short trip, it was lovely to know my Dad was home but I knew he would be having to go back for another 10 weeks before he was home for good. Time passed and it was, yet again, time to bid him farewell. I was hoping the next 10 weeks would pass quickly.
In the days that followed I ploughed myself into work and going out to get drunk. I shut myself off from my Mother and sister. Admittedly I know this was a selfish action on my part but it was, I thought, the only way I could deal with life without my dad. Every time the doorbell went or the phone rang I wondered whether it would be ‘that knock’. In my father’s previous jobs he would often have to visit loved ones to tell them their husband/wife/son was injured or killed, I knew the process and I knew exactly the words they are meant to say. I longed to speak with my dad, to have that father-daughter chat. It had always been awkward at home, my mum had had mental health problems which often meant she displayed unreasonable behaviour without realising it. I would speak to my dad on a frequent basis because of this.
Eventually the time came for him to come home, I remember not being able to sleep with excitement for 3 days. I was like a kid before Christmas. I think I spent 5 minutes hugging him when he got home. He always, irrespective of where he went, brought back gifts for ‘his girls!’ He had bought me a beautiful silver necklace but I found myself thinking it did not make up for the fact he had been gone all this time. After a family meal (my sister was home from school), my dad and I went to the Mess to share a drink as well as have that much needed chat. A father daughter chat that had been very much missed in those 6 months.
Because of the things he had seen on this tour his behaviour changed, I had seen it in my colleagues. Some would need counselling and some just ploughed themselves into work, my dad did just that. He immersed himself in his new job and my parents moved away from me. This was not due to me being a total cow, it was due to my father’s new job.
Sadly my parents are in the process of divorcing but have both found love with their respective partners. My dad is actually with someone who is still in the RAF and is due to go back to Afghanistan at the end of October. My mum has settled with someone who is not in anyway connected to the Armed Forces. My whole paternal side are connected – whether it be through marriage or my uncles being in the RAF. My cousin was a rebel so to speak and is an officer in the Army. He went to Afghanistan in 2010 and is due to go back out there early next year.
It does not matter whether you are 3 or 23 or 33, a parent being deployed to a war zone is daunting prospect. Obviously if you are older you do understand the world far better, and are more likely to have seen the news. Do not be afraid to speak with your family or friends about how you are feeling because believe me not dealing with it is the wrong way, as is going out getting drunk. It is more than ok to say you need support and there are plenty of places/people who can do this.