My stepdaughter Marjana is an army captain in Afghanistan, as is her husband John. When they deployed, they had to leave their six-month-old son with John’s parents in Ohio. Aidan will spend nine months — longer even than his age at that point — with his paternal grandparents. Marjana and John will miss his first birthday, first words, first steps.
Everybody, including Marjana’s mom and dad and me, wanted to take care of Aidan. But nobody could have done a better job than John’s parents are doing.
They set up a Facebook page devoted just to Aidan, where they post highlights of his days, descriptions of funny moments, milestones, and photos. For instance: “Hello Mommy & Daddy. I am officially crawling. Up on my knees and head up. We can put a date of 2-2-13.”
The page is a gift to Marjana and John that is thoughtful beyond measure. Because of his grandparents’ frequent postings, Aidan grows by increments before his parents’ eyes, rather than by an unfathomable amount all at once. Marjana also visits with the baby and her in-laws once a week on Skype, work permitting.
Looking on, I realize that this war is a wholly different experience for the troops. In previous conflicts — through the Vietnam War, which was still before the advent of cell phones — a soldier would have brought a single wrinkled photo of his family with him overseas, and waited weeks for letters.
I try to imagine not seeing my own daughter Olivia, now five, for nine months when she was a baby. As it is, I hadn’t spent a single night away from her until last year. And that first time, I tore back to Albany early the next morning, just so I could get her ready for preschool.
While digital communication makes it easier for soldiers to stay in touch with their loved ones, it also must make them super-aware of the dangers they face. Some time ago, Marjana posted tributes on Facebook to two classmates who were killed in different parts of Afghanistan on the same day. In the past, service members would have been unaware of deaths happening elsewhere in the country, wouldn’t they?
Marjana doesn’t talk about this, so I ask her in an e-mail: “Wouldn’t it be better not to know? Doesn’t it add to the stress?” She writes back that she would learn of the deaths through word-of-mouth anyway — and she would rather know. “My goal is to help ensure that the soldiers in my unit get home safely to their families.” Hearing about a soldier’s death makes her that much more resolved to keep driving the fight, she says. That’s one reason I’m sure she’s an excellent leader: she worries about her comrades — and their families.
I press her for her feelings about Aidan. What’s it like communicating with your own small child through social media? Sometimes there are great moments, she says. In a recent Skype call, he smiled at her image on the computer screen and said, “Ma-ma.”
There’s no doubt that being connected digitally makes deployment a little less painful for soldiers and their families. Yet no matter how much technology a soldier may have access to, it’ll never be a substitute for burying her nose in her baby’s neck and drinking in his smell.