Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve in Fallujah

It’s Christmas Eve in Iraq and I’m sitting here in my “office” the converted bathroom 7000 miles from home. Right now, Nancy and the kids are all at my mom’s house in New Melle for her annual open house. I can hear the wind rustling the dead leaves in the trees and the kids playing. If Mike hadn’t run over the basketball backboard this summer, they’d be playing basketball. I see Mike sleeping on the couch and getting up to stoke the fire in the fireplace. I can smell the tamales that were made yesterday and served steaming hot. I can see the fruit cake that my mom still makes only because I ask her to make it every year that reminds me so much of my childhood. Tonight, they will play “rob your neighbor” that in true Lozano-style includes smack talking. I see my wife with her seven babies home together again. AJ has been driving Nancy crazy asking her if Santa has “gotten here yet?” Tonight she will not get much sleep.

Here life has slowed down for a couple of days. Last night I went to a variety show because someone asked me. It was cornier than hell and not many people were there but I enjoyed myself. We were entertained by the “Camp Fallujah Brass Quintet (rein)(SOC)”, which meant they had six people. We had people sing a capella and a very fine saxophonist. But, the highlight was a “band” made up of rugged recon Marines, who brought their recon buddies to cheer them on as they banged out an excellent version of “Broken” by Evanescence on barely audible instruments meant for church. The song was dedicated to their buddies no longer with them. The evening ended with singing some carols.

Today we were on a holiday routine which meant I sat and worked in my sweats, then changed into my uniform around 11. This afternoon the Executive Officer, a burly former college football star I call “Hammer” hosted an “open house”. The officers of the regiment were beckoned to come down for mandatory socializing. Never mind we eat, sleep and work with each other seven days a week. It was held in his office and featured such delicacies as sliced up Slim Jims and cheese from the chow hall. I did contribute my venison sausage which went fast. I also noticed that Hammer was at his desk working on something not even paying attention to what we were doing. So I said, “Nice party, I bet your wife does all the entertaining at home” and everyone died laughing.

So, now I will go to my room and put on Holiday Inn, a Christmas Eve tradition Nancy and I have shared with each other for around twenty years. I’ve also saved two presents my mom sent me wrapped so I’d have something to open tomorrow. Then I’ll go to Mass and spend the day in my office doing some work and watching a movie or two. I’d like to wish a Merry Christmas to my wife, my kids, family and friends. Thank you for praying for and supporting me. I hope this is the last Christmas I spend away from home. Nancy says I’m grounded from war.

Cigars and Mortars

Life in Camp Fallujah isn’t difficult by most standards. I have a decent bed to sleep in, my own bathroom, hot water, decent food and my own internet connection. Not having to walk in cold mud to take a shower is heaven. Heck, close to where I work is a pond with geese. But, it’s still Iraq and this is still Al Anbar province, so it can be deceptively and suddenly dangerous. Our principle danger on base is indirect fire, or “IDF” in Marine lingo; mortars and rockets. The insurgents aren’t good shots, but they are persistent and the sudden scream of the base alarm system blaring “Incoming! Incoming!” is a fairly regular event.

Now, there are very few things that bring me pleasure in Iraq. The first is getting to “chat” daily via the internet with my wife Nancy and the second is the occasional cigar I get to smoke. Cigars are an indulgence in a place where indulgences are mostly non-existent. So, twice a week I climb on the roof of my building with two other Marines on the staff and pull up cheap plastic chairs for a smoke. For an hour we talk about everything from home to life after the Corps to cigars themselves. It’s pure relaxation…most of the time.

Last week “Top” (a master sergeant) and I climbed up on the roof and quickly decided it was too cold and too windy to stay up on the roof. So, we climbed down and sat in a couple of chairs on the ground nearby and lit up.

The chairs we sat down in are up next to some concrete barriers designed to protect buildings from blasts, as long as the blasts are on the right side. I had just started to draw deep on the cigar when the incoming siren began to scream. The warning system is phenomenal and gives us about twenty seconds advance notice of an attack. I stood up disgustedly and said “I am NOT wasting a good cigar” and rather than ditching my cigar to run into the building, I walked a few feet and stood between two nearby blast barriers that are at least 8 feet tall and 4 foot thick at the bottom.

I turned to Top and said “if it gets us it’s just our time” and we both laughed. Then ‘WHUMP!” the distinctive sound of incoming impacting nearby. “Damn, that was close” Top said matter-of-factly, followed a few seconds later by two more impacts that appeared to be a bit further away. Knowing that insurgents never launch more than a few rounds before they run we waited a few minutes then sat back down and finished our cigars. The first round impacted about 100 yards from where stood, but plenty of protective barriers stood between us and it so we were never in danger.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Convoy to Nowhere

The last time I was in Iraq we had just invaded and we were riding across the desert just as I had envisioned it in my childhood memories of Rat Patrol. The Humvees were primarily fiberglass with canvas doors, soft tops and no armor. Interiors were barren except for personal gear. Only a few vehicles had radios and the wind blew freely throughout. Just prior to the invasion we were directed to remove the canvas doors in case we had to jump out to engage the enemy. With those adjustments made away we blazed, choking dust billowing into our goggle covered eyes. I rode to Baghdad with my feet dangling out the door.

Now it’s 2006 and everything has changed. As the Marine Advisor for a Seabee regiment, I travel throughout Al Anbar province to observe our battalions, consult with their staffs and advise the regimental commander and his staff on the regiment’s state. Occasionally I fly, but more often I move by ground convoy provided by the Seabees “convoy security teams”. These Seabees have been selected for a mission none of them joined the Navy for; escorting people, supplies and equipment across the most dangerous province in Iraq, Al Anbar.

Our four convoy security teams are organized into seven vehicle 48 man teams. Each is lead by a Navy chief. Most vehicles have a driver, vehicle commander, gunner and assistant gunner. Our large 7-ton trucks have a crew of 3. Teams are a mix of 7-ton trucks and up-armored Humvees. “Up-armored” means these Humvees carry 7,000lbs of ballistic armor.

The run I am going to go on this time is a short run of fifty miles from Fallujah to Ramadi, on a road called MSR (main supply route) Mobile, a divided six lane highway. Sounds easy right? Nothing is easy in Iraq, nothing is normal and nothing goes quickly. In the U.S. that would take how long? Half hour? Well this isn’t O’Fallon and tonight this trip will take much longer. The team I am riding with tonight is “Piledriver”; each team has a unique name that identifies them in communications and tracking.

At 8pm we begin with a convoy brief. During the brief, the convoy commander, Chief Burroughs, briefs his team on the mission, paying particular attention to intel about recent threats. Details like route, radio frequencies and actions for various situations are briefed. The brief takes place in the “chapel” a meeting room with rough pews that doubles as the chapel on Sundays. I glance around, everyone is loose but serious. They have a certain swagger that tells me they are now seasoned to a job only two months before they had never done for real. The mission is to haul “green gear” from Fallujah to Ramadi. “Green gear” means military gear only and that means a smaller group.

As usual I sit in the back of the chapel. Having an officer usually makes enlisted nervous but I’ve earned their trust for sharing these rides with them. I am dressed in a tan Nomex flight suit. Outside are my flak jacket with ceramic plates, kevlar helmet and pack.

The yard is abuzz with last minute preparations as vehicle commanders check everything from fluid levels to making sure there are ice and drinks in their coolers. I find the vehicle I have been assigned to and shake hands with the vehicle commander.

The Humvee of today is a massive cocoon of steel, armor and ballistic glass, bursting with electronics and is twice the weight of the old vehicles. It has more in common with a tank than the Humvee I rode into Iraq on. To counter the added weight they’ve added a much larger engine and industrial air conditioner. The interiors are jammed with new radios, electronics to combat IEDs and computers to communicate with virtually anyone in theater. It’s cramped and obvious from the moment you get in this was not designed for ergonomics. Before I get in I put on my PPE, which is “personal protection equipment”.

The flak jacket with ceramic plate inserts and side plates weighs thirty pounds and is awkward to put on. I hoist it up and slip my arms in. With a shrug I get the flak sitting right then fasten the large Velcro flap on the chest and then my throat protector. I check my pistol magazine pouch to make sure it’s fastened properly and I have all of my magazines. Inside where the breast plate goes I have placed a small picture book given to me by my daughter Ali that has pictures of all my kids. I always pat it for good luck. Next, I insert my ear plugs, put on my helmet and snap my chin strap. Finally, I pull on my Nomex gloves and ballistic goggles and I’m ready.

Once inside, I put on a head-set that is designed for internal communications. From here I can talk to people inside my vehicle or in all vehicles. Mostly, I just listen to what is being said, it gives me a sense for the fluidity of their operations. Except for the soft glow of a subdued computer screen the interior is dark. The vents are blowing warm air into the vehicle, just behind my head. Without the head set on it would be hard to talk without yelling. My knees are pushed up against the seat in front of me. My left side is jabbed by the sharp edges, rods and knobs of the latest armored door they have put on this vehicle. There is no place to put my arm and it soon aches with discomfort. Before we leave, I test my door several times to make sure it works properly. The sheer weight of the door is mind blowing, weighing several hundred pounds. It feels like a bank vault.

Once staged in order, a command is given to head for the ECP (entry control point) and we bounce through base. Each vehicle has a machine gunner in an armored turret planted right between the four seats. This gives me a view of his legs and the gunner constantly moves his turret.

Just before we leave base we step outside of our vehicles to load our weapons. Marines never leave base without having their weapons with a round in the chamber. However, this team loads their magazines of their personal weapons but don’t chamber a round, which strikes me as odd. As we get back in I ask over the headset why they don’t. The driver, a kid from the south drawls; “the way I figure it sir, these vehicles are designed to stop bullets…if they can’t get in, they sure as hell can’t get out”. I can’t argue with the logic and we all have a good laugh. The convoy commander radios the Marines and announces that we are “Oscar Mike”, phonetic for “OM” or, “on the move”.

Things start to get dusty as we navigate through the ECP and off base, or as we call it “outside the wire”. Two miles down a dusty and rutted road we are on MSR Mobile. The teams move fluidly as some vehicles set “blocks” and others “bump”. When a vehicle “blocks” he places himself to prevent traffic from entering our convoy. When someone “bumps” he is replacing the first blocker and therefore bumps him forward. Whether these seven vehicles are taking themselves or escorting fifty tractor trailers, their first priority is security of themselves and their cargo.

As we enter Mobile the dust recedes and we pick up speed. The single biggest threat for convoys are IEDs (improvised explosive devices). To counter that threat we have adapted vehicles in many ways, as well as adapted our tactics. Piledriver’s gunners act as the eyes of the convoy trying to pick out that one object out of 10,000 they see in a night that might be deadly. It could be simple like an artillery shell in plain sight but more likely, a device hidden in debris; under gravel, dirt, in dead animals, disguised to look like trash or even parts of the highway itself.

I glance through the thick ballistic glass into the night. I can’t see much but keep my eyes out for suspicious items or enemy forces firing on our convoy. The ride is loud and alternates between being smooth and sudden jarring thuds, as we hit a seam or hole. This isn’t I-70 back home. The shoulders are littered with evidence of past explosions with twisted guard rails and blackened holes. While we travel down the center lane, we periodically have to move around something and even cross the highway.

The roads are mostly deserted because of curfews. The Iraqi government allows over the road truckers, but they are limited and they have to pull over as military convoys pass. Periodically, we encounter another military convoy passing the other way. The gunners continuously scan shoulders, roads and overpasses for signs of trouble.

About half way through the trip we enter an area that is known as a “hot spot” an area where we have had a great deal of trouble of one kind or another. Suddenly, one of the members of the lead vehicle says he’s seen something suspicious. We all brake and lights go out as the gunner in the lead vehicle tosses a chem stick to mark the spot.

Stopping in Iraq is never a good feeling, stopping for a long time is even a worse idea. The report is called into our higher headquarters and an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team is dispatched. All traffic on the highway is blocked. Think of EOD as plumbers on the coldest night in the winter. They spend their days rushing from one problem to the next. As we wait for EOD to arrive we all scan the area for suspicious activity. A couple of hours later EOD arrives. They determine that we have encountered a “speed bump” IED, which is pulled onto the highway in the hopes you roll over it and detonate the device. EOD removes the device for further study and we are cleared to go. It turns out to have contained 200lbs of explosives.

The lights come on and we begin rolling. We travel only around 500 meters when I see a chem stick fly towards the shoulder of the road. Because we had not gotten up to full speed and spacing we are within five feet of the light and object. I glance out the door and there within feet is a plastic bag and the nose of an artillery shell of some sort. The two vehicles past the object move quickly forward to a safe distance.

“Back up….back up!! BACK UP!!!!” the vehicle commander shouts over his headset as the driver throws the Humvee in reverse and stomps on the gas. We stop a football field away, and then slowly the entire group continues to move backward until we are several hundred meters away. Once again, we turn off our lights, notify higher headquarters and they call EOD. We can still see the tail lights of EOD in our rear view mirror, but they are on to the next busted pipe and we have a long wait. For hours I peer through the ballistic glass with my night vision goggles. I see some small hills but no movement. As the hours pass I fight to not fall asleep and my head aches from the weight and pressure of the helmet.

An Army convoy gets tired of waiting behind us and crosses onto the opposite road, violating all the rules, but this turns out to be very common among their troops. We just shake our head.

Several hours later I can see the first rays of dawn on the horizon. I tell the Convoy Commander he needs to make a decision. He keeps three of his vehicles and sends the rest of us back towards Fallujah. We have a VIP package and we need to get it back in a safe spot.

We cross the median and pray there’s nothing there. Soon we are on our way back. The sun’s almost up and the roads are filling with local Iraqis about their regular business. We make it back to base seven hours after we left for a 50 mile trip and never made it. I drop off my gear, eat breakfast and get a couple of hours of sleep. This is not uncommon, nothing is easy here, and nothing is taken for granted.

Later that day I stop in our combat operations center to check up on Chief Burroughs and those who stayed behind. EOD finally had made it. The object in the trash was a 155mm artillery shell. When they blew it up in place, it uncovered three more 155mm artillery shells underneath. As they traced the wires, a lone man on a motorcycle shot out from behind one of the hills I had been staring at in the darkness. Where he had likely been, they found a wireless phone base station, often used to detonate IEDs. The reality hit me hard, the man on the motorcycle had been trying to kill us; and if not for the electronic systems our vehicles have on board somebody would have been vaporized.

Chief said that after the IED was fully destroyed, they got in their vehicles and crossed the same highway median we had earlier. As they did they hit an IED and were attacked with small arms. They engaged the enemy and as they broke contact hit a third IED. But today, the good guys won and the only casualty was some vehicle damage. When I talked to Chief he seemed nonchalant. But that’s how you deal with uncertainties here, you trust in your equipment, your training and your team. The rest is up to God.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

When Warriors Weep

When Warriors Weep

I went to the memorial service last week for a young Marine killed by a sniper while working to make life better for Iraqis in a little poop-water town in western Iraq. This was my third service since I arrived six weeks ago. Each one has been stark in its raw emotion; each a farewell to a warrior from warriors. But this one touched me very deeply, even though I did not know him.

The Regimental Commander, Command Master Chief and I flew to Al Taqqadum from Fallujah to attend, arriving the day before. The fallen Marine was from one of our subordinate units, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, commanded by a friend of mine. The service itself was to be held at 5pm, to enable many of the young man’s comrades to attend. Through their grief, the young men of Bravo Co., carried on the difficult mission at hand, only stopping long enough to pay tribute to their brother Marine.

The “chapel” is a low slung building of small metal tubing and plywood walls with homemade wooden benches and cheap plastic chairs. As we arrived I wondered where everyone was, there was nobody milling about outside. When we entered, I understood. Jammed into every space possible were several hundred Marines and sailors, sweating profusely in silence.

Many in attendance were covered in dirt and grime, some still in flaks and helmets. They were overwhelmingly young men and women in their late teens and early twenties; yet they did not look young. Bravo Co. is a reserve outfit based in South Bend, so many of these Marines had grown up together. At the front of the chapel was the traditional symbol of rifle, bayonet, helmet and dog tags and next to the tribute was a large picture of a smiling young man, framed by an American and Marine Corps flag.

“Chaps”, as the battalion chaplain is called began the service with an appropriate invocation. Then the lights were dimmed and a video tribute came on. The melancholy notes of Green Day’s “When September Comes” drifted across the chapel as picture after picture gave us a sense of who this young man had been in life. There were the typical pictures of a young man at war, but mostly, there were pictures of an engaging young man with all-American looks and a huge smile. Then quite abruptly there appeared a video clip of the Marine doing the “Duck Dance” with one of his buds as his friends laughed, taken only days before his death. That stupid dance you see at wedding receptions, which never fails to look absurd, shook me. For that moment he was still alive and through the sniffles I heard chuckles in the crowd.

Then my mind drifted back a couple of weeks to when I found out Cpl. Aaron Seal had been killed. Initially, details were sketchy, but Cpl. Seal was a combat engineer and had been shot while working on the roof of what would become an Iraqi police station. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday when the report first came in and my thoughts immediately went to his family. Somewhere back home in Indiana they were just getting up on a Sunday morning, probably doing Sunday morning things like reading the paper and getting ready for church. They were probably thinking of their young man at war and praying for his safety not knowing what I knew; Aaron was already dead. Soon enough, two Marines would show up at their door in dress blues and change their lives forever.

My thoughts returned to the service as the montage ended and three of his friends spoke in tribute. They were tough, hardened men who openly wept as they recalled beers drank, fights fought, and dreams dreamt. The last Marine read a poem called “Ode to a Marine” which Aaron’s girlfriend had requested to be read at the ceremony. One stanza stuck in my mind:

…Yes, he has chosen to live a life
Off the beaten track,
Knowing well each time he’s called,
He might not make it back.
So, next time you see a Devil Dog
Standing proud and true,
Be grateful for all he’s given;
He’s given it for you…

- Jeannie Salinski

Tributes over, muster was called one last time, …“Corporal Aaron Seal”… a Marine read aloud, waiting a response we knew would not come. We rose to attention as seven Marines outside fired a 21 gun salute in crisp precision, followed by Taps.

The service ended with a benediction from Chaps and then one by one we each approached the rifle and helmet of Cpl. Seal to pay our last respects. Colonels to private, there was no rank now, only Americans. Some knelt and softly touched the boots, others placed their hands on the helmet, most stood in silent thought and prayer.

Having been one of the first to pay our respects, the Commodore and I stood outside the chapel as the other Marines exited in silence. Some gathered in small groups while others stood by themselves and wept, only to soon be embraced by a fellow Marine. Many smoked cigarettes in nervous silence with swollen red eyes, and yet others laughed at memories shared quietly among friends. But, this was not our time and I tried to look away. This was the real farewell.

At the time of his death, Cpl. Seal was just 23 and left behind a beautiful girlfriend and loving family. I did not know Aaron but I will never forget him.

Monday, October 09, 2006

More Jimmy from homicide

“I can’t hear so well out of my right ear” Jimmy said to a group of us, straining to hear the conversation. A scowl came over his face. “How long has it been that way?” one of the guys asked. “Oh a couple of weeks”, Jimmy responded. The next day Jimmy went to the doctor and the doctor pulled out half an ear plug. Turns out it had been there since we flew to Kuwait two weeks before. Now, whenever Jimmy talks we all say “What was that Jimmy? I can’t hear so well”.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Jimmy from homicide

More than anything, life in a war zone is made tolerable by the characters you meet. People here are just larger than life. Most are so in a Chuck Norris sort of way but some are so in a Mike Ditka sort of way. One of those is Jimmy, a homicide cop from Cleveland. I first met Jimmy in July and we quickly hit it off. On the civilian side, Jimmy has been a Cleveland cop for 32 years and will retire next year. In the Navy he’s been a diver for about the same time, rising from seaman to commander during that time.

Like any cop, Jimmy is full of stories; mostly profane, mostly grotesque and all supremely funny. Little does Jimmy realize, he’s unwittingly just as funny as his stories. Life for Jimmy is simple; work, family and the Cleveland Browns.

Last week Jimmy had the opportunity of a lifetime. He was selected to do a “shout out” live before a Browns game, to be broadcast locally and on the jumbotron at the Brown’s stadium. Let’s just say Jimmy has a cop’s way with words, so he decided he better practice so as to not screw things up. After all his family, friends, fellow police officers were going to get to see him.

He practiced his lines anxiously before the broadcast. The camera was set up in Fallujah and he and three other Browns fans lined up and each would get their turn. To ensure good sound they would use a phone to speak into. The producer was on satellite phone and they were given the warning…”3…2…1…” and the lights came on and the camera went live. It would be Jimmy’s big moment.

The first guy went and he spoke his greetings. He then handed Jimmy the phone. Jimmy looked at the camera, smiled and said “Hi this is Jimmy in Camp Fallujah, Iraq and I want to say hi to my wife….” and he froze. A couple of seconds passed and everyone looked at him, but nothing came out. Finally, he blurted out “shit!” and handed the phone to the next guy.

His wife later called the Cleveland Browns office and asked about getting a copy of the game. “Oh your husband’s the guy who said ‘shit’ on the jumbotron”. I told Jimmy maybe he’d wind up on the highlight tape at the end of the season. Anyway, he’s a local legend now.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

6:09: Wheels Down For One Last Tour

For most of you Iraq is far away and seen through the lens of modern media. It can be distant, abstract and hard to understand. War is a reality that those not in it cannot understand; war is a sensory experience.

For me it has been a struggle since I returned from Iraq in 2003. I left thinking the war was over, having experienced all there was going to be to experience. Of course that wasn't the case. Having been there early I wanted to understand what was going on but things were changing so rapidly I found myself quickly out of touch and wanting to be where the action is. But, no matter how hard I tried it was no longer my experience and I felt a sense of loss.

Six weeks ago, with great anticipation I began my egress from civilian to Marine at war; a transformation that meant leaving everything I know and love and entering another reality; one that I love too. First, I left my family and went to Gulfport to train. The uniform I wore, the language I spoke, the things we spoke of all changed. The thoughts of home were moved to a different part of my consciousness. The phone quit ringing and emails were checked less often. I was beginning to very deliberately detach myself from those things whose absence bring pain.

The move to Kuwait was nothing short of painful, boring, unproductive and quintessentially military. One blast of hot air and the scent of water from the ocean took me back to 2002 and the excitement that had been the preparation for the invasion of Iraq. Now it is different. Gone is the sense of adventure, replaced by a sense of hard work and need to finish what we started.

Then finally the day came to move to Iraq. We left for a late night C-130 flight. I walked up the ramp and sat down with a plane full of Marines in their late teens and early twenties; humbled to be among such Americans. I buttoned up my chin strap as the engines came to life. Off we went...well almost. One engine had developed a rather nasty leak and we taxied back where we unceremoniously lay in the dirt for four hours until a new plane could be prepped and loaded.

The flight itself was rather uneventful; not filled with anticipation nor anxiety, but filled with a sense of satisfaction that I was getting a chance to do this one more time.

6:09 wheels touch down in a decidedly normal descent into al Taqqadum, west of Baghdad. at 6:21 I put my foot on the deck in Iraq. One last time to smell the dust in the nose, the deafening noise of generators and equipment; the bustle of people and the noise of war. One last time to be among people so great I consider myself blessed to be among them. One last time into the breach. One last time so I can write the end to this book. One last tour.

Stupid Is As Military Does

Absurdities abound in the military and they never cease to entertain and annoy me. As a military unit heading into Iraq my unit was typically armed with personal weapons including M16 rifles and M9 pistols. We were to carry these with us on our charter flight. Additionally, virtually everyone brought large and deadly survival knives. So, it was with great amusement that I watched the Seabees searching my bags take my nail clipper and break off the nail file because as they told me "it's against FAA regulations". 250 guys on an airplane with rifles and pistols but thank goodness, the crew is safe from those deadly nail files.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Second Wave

I want to share a story about my 9-year old son Alex.  Alex was just four when I left home shortly after 9/11.  He barely understood why I was gone, other than I was at "far work", and he certainly had no concept of war.  What he understood all too clearly was the pain of separation.  By the time I returned, he had turned 7 and grown enormously in many ways.  I had missed out on some big changes, like his first bike ride, first day of school and first baseball game.

The day I returned home from Iraq he clung to my hand for all it was worth.  He constantly checked to see where I was and if he lost sight of me, immediately asked "where's daddy?"  He seemed unconvinced that I would not disappear yet again.  Eventually the insecurity disappeared, but to this day the pain lingers.

When I am home, it is my responsibility to take the grade school kids to school.  At the drop-off point the children pile out.  Alex is usually dropping something or still tying his shoes, but we have a routine.  I always stick out my hand for Alex to give me "five" and tell him to "have a happy day".  He then waves at me as he leaves.

I'm not sure when I first noticed what I have termed the "second wave", but once I did I realized he did I began to cherish it and to watch for it.
What is the "second wave"? After Alex starts walking to class and before I drive off he always turns to find me, and very lovingly waves one more time.  Each time I gently wave back, an unspoken bond of love born out of pain.

Separation and loss affects everyone differently, but to a child the wounds are sometimes the deepest that hugs and kisses salve but cannot completely wash away.  When I left yesterday for another tour in Iraq I could not help but notice the fresh hurt in Alex's eyes.  By the time I return next March I will have been gone 1/3 of his young life. Time will help heal the hurt but I suspect that we will always share that second wave.