When a Son Deploys


The below guest blog entry was submitted by Col. Rivers J. Johnson Jr., Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Cyber Command 

When I deployed to Iraq in August 2007, I didn’t think too much about my own safety or how my family felt about my deployment or the dangers I could find myself in just by the very nature of going into a combat zone.

After all, I was an Army Colonel with years of experience in my career field and I would be stationed in what was formally known as the “Green Zone” now called the International Zone or “IZ” for short.  I would be deploying as an individual augmentee assigned to a large headquarters element within the relative safety of the “IZ.”

Over the years, I had literally watched (through the media) tens of thousands of young men and women deploy in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Servicemembers who voluntarily joined the military – many of them after the events of 9/11 – to serve their country.

LCpl. Rivers III

I had friends, a few relatives and a lot of my public affairs colleagues deploy.  I saw the faces of the young Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq on TV in the news coverage.  I remember my own experiences being deployed and the several close calls I encountered.  Even in the relative safety of the IZ where indirect fire was always a constant threat.  And sadly, I also remember attending the memorial services for three of our unit members killed in action.  Those memorial services are a constant reminder that military service is a commitment and a sacrifice and that not everyone comes home safely.

So when my son, Rivers III, told me that he had enlisted in the United States Marines Corps, I was both proud and apprehensive.  Proud because he had made a decision, a commitment, to become part of something bigger than himself.  I was apprehensive because there were two wars going on at the time and there was no doubt he would be in harm’s way sooner than later.  My son was much older than the average Marine recruit having graduated from college several years prior, and he already had a government job at Fort Meade, Md.  So you can imagine, I was surprised when he said he had joined the Marines.  As a military brat growing up, he had never really expressed an interest in joining the military.  Now all of a sudden, he had joined the Marines and would soon be heading off to war.

The first question I asked him was “Son, you do know that there is a war going on”?  He said he understood that, and this was something he wanted to do.  For my deployment, I hadn’t given it a second thought.  But for my son, now that’s a whole new ballgame.  I hadn’t thought about the other “sons” who had deployed, clearly they had loving parents, most with brothers & sisters and many were probably dads and uncles as well.  But this was my son who had volunteered to go into harm’s way and for personal and maybe selfish reasons, the war in Afghanistan took on a whole new meaning.  I had no doubt in my mind that he would soon find himself in Afghanistan.

Not only had my son joined the Marines, he was going into the Infantry as a machine gunner which was something I didn’t

On Patrol

know until the day before he shipped out for Parris Island, S.C.   He said the reason he didn’t tell us he was going into the Infantry was because he knew we would try to talk him out of it.  I started my active duty career in the Infantry and I knew the commitment it required & the places you could find yourself.

I had the honor and privilege to enlist Rivers III into the military at the Military Entrance Processing Station at Fort Meade, Md.  He completed boot camp at Parris Island, the School of Infantry (SOI) training at Camp Geiger, N.C, pre-deployment training in the Mojave Desert, and within nine months of leaving home, found himself in the Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan with the Marines of 1/6.  The Helmand Province was then and still is, a hotspot of activity.

Communication – phone calls & letters – with the unit was sporadic at best as they were deployed forward to one of the many isolated FOBs (Forward Operated Bases) they operated from.   There were times when we didn’t know what the unit was doing & quite frankly, as a former infantry officer, I didn’t want to know.

His seven months in combat were a strain on us as it would be for anyone who has a loved one deployed.  But for a military dad, it was especially hard on me having spent 12 months in an uncertain environment and knowing the risks involved.  He was a Lance Corporal in a line unit, so I knew the risks for him would be greater than those I experienced in Iraq.  From his letters, I could tell that they were in the thick of things there in the Helmand Province.

Any news out of Afghanistan was nerve racking – especially when it involved Marines.  His mom would spend time on the unit website looking for any news of unit activity.  When the Marine helicopter crashed in January 2012 in the Helmand Province, we couldn’t sleep comfortably until the names had been released.

More than I care to remember, the Family Readiness Group sent out the name or names of Marines in his unit who were killed in action.  Even though I didn’t know these young men personally – my heart would sink each time because they were all so young just as my son was and a family somewhere had been notified of a tragic lost.

When a son is deployed, simple things like a knock at the door takes on a whole new meaning.  On one occasion there was a knock at the door and Michelle (mom) refused to answer the door because she didn’t know what awaited her on the other side.  I answered the door and it was one of our best friends just stopping by.  For seven months, any knock on the door sent our hearts racing.

LCpl. Rivers III and Col. Rivers Jr.

One time we missed his phone call (we only received four during his seven months of deployment) because we were at church & Michelle didn’t have her cell phone with her.  His voice mail indicated that he was going on a mission soon and that he didn’t know when he’d be back or be able to call.  Imagine listening to a voice message like that and realizing that this could be the last time you heard his voice.  Needless to say – it was a very emotional day for the Johnson family having missed his call and not being able to talk to him and hear his voice before going on a combat mission.

When Rivers III graduated from this Infantry training, Michelle bought a silver “Marine Mom” pendant which she probably considered to be a good luck charm.  She wore it every day and never took it off.  One day at work, the silver chain on the pendant broke.  Michelle saw this as an omen that something had happened to Rivers III.  She called me and I could tell that she was beyond upset.  I repeatedly reassured her that Rivers III was OK.  I did not succeed in my job of reassuring her otherwise and because she was so upset, her boss told her to go home.  We replaced the silver chain immediately which helped the situation a little.

LCpl. Rivers III returned safely back with his unit to their base in North Carolina after almost seven months of combat in Afghanistan.  At the early morning homecoming ceremony, hundreds of family and unit members gathered to welcome the Marines home.  When Rivers III was finally released, he hugged his mom and I thought she would never let him go.  I also remember her screaming the loudest of all the mom’s there.  He then saluted me and we embraced as well.  Words could not describe how proud I was of my son and the Marines of 1/6.  Ironically enough, my first active duty unit was 1/6 Infantry.

The “Welcome Home” ceremony was a great occasion, a proud moment – a father welcoming his son back from the field of battle.  It’s one of the feelings only a father who’s served in harm’s way can understand.  His Marine battalion lost eight Marines and two Navy Corpsman.  These brave men gave their all, they gave the last full measure of devotion.  I salute them and their families for their sacrifice.

Welcome home son, Love Mom and Dad.