Twenty-five years ago I was in the first grade at Father James B. Hay Elementary School in Alamogordo, New Mexico. New Mexico, because my dad was stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico – he was (and still is, for that matter) a sheet metal mechanic in the US Air Force. At that time, Dad was in a squadron of sheet metal mechanics who could deploy worldwide in short notice to build mobile bases in support of military operations at airfields with little to no infrastructure.
On the morning of August 2, 1990, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein put into action a course of events that would interrupt my childhood halfway across the world when he ordered the invasion of Kuwait, a tiny neighboring country on the Persian Gulf. Within hours, my dad’s unit was put on alert and their bags were packed for a flight to the Mid East at a moment’s notice. I don’t remember the exact date when he left, but I remember going to base, waiting around for a transport, it not coming and us returning home as a family, left wondering when Dad had to leave. This happened a few days in a row, so when we finally dropped him off at his hangar and shared hugs, it didn’t seem like he’d be gone for long.
His unit loaded their plane and left; he’d be back by Thanksgiving, we were told. Thanksgiving 1990 came and went. He’d be back by Christmas, we were told. Christmas 1990 came and went. The whole time, my dad and his unit were flying in and out of airfields all across the Arab Peninsula. We’d get to visit with him every now and then on the phone, but all I knew was that he was near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and we had no idea when he was coming home.
On January 16, 1991, I came home from school to find the TV on and neighbors in the house. The United States and Coalition forces had begun bombing Baghdad. Too young to fully understand the implications, I found the green grainy footage of Baghdad on the TV to be mesmerizing. Within hours Baghdad launched the first of its nearly 90 retaliatory SCUD missile attacks. The air war continued for a full month and on February 24, 1991, Coalition ground forces invaded Kuwait. After 100 hours of ground war, the Iraqi forces were in full retreat and on February 28, 1991, ceasefire was declared and Kuwait liberated.
The war was short – just over a month – but for me, it was 9 long months of uncertainty, fear and separation from my father. In the days after the war began, my classmates told me repeatedly that my dad either had died, or would die from SCUD missile attacks. Since Riyadh was within SCUD range I worried every time another SCUD attack was launched on Saudi Arabia; I repeatedly asked my mom if Dad had died or would die. She once told me, “if God decides that He needs Daddy more than we do, then He will bring Dad to be with Him in Heaven.” My response was, “If God decides he needs Daddy, then I guess he can take him. But I hope that God knows we need Daddy more.”
I worried and wondered; I wrote letters to him. I still have a letter I sent to him dated “Nov-3-1990- PM 1:58” that reads: “Dear Daddy, I would like you to come home soon…I love you Daddy, I miss you.” You get the picture. I got to talk to him in tin-can sounding conversations with a long delay between our words. But it wasn’t until the visual images of the war streamed into my living room that I felt anywhere close to my dad in those nine months. His world was right there, in front of me… and it was scary.
One of the best days of my life will forever be the last day of March, 1991 when he flew into El Paso, TX on a chartered flight and we met him at the airport terminal. We convoyed to Holloman AFB with his fellow returning airmen and were met at the gates with a police escort and led to the NCO Club where base honor guard stood in full dress uniform in the middle of the night, swords drawn creating an archway illuminated by the flashing red and blue strobes from the police cars for the men and their families to walk under into the welcoming ceremony.
A little over ten years later my dad and I stood side by side on a bright fall morning watching the Twin Towers collapse and the Pentagon smolder on TV, unsure of what was to come. I tried not to pay attention to the war during his deployment to Iraq in 2005, tried to act like I’d been there and done that and I didn’t want to pay attention to war again. I followed stories of Taliban and al-Qaeda advances and battles during his time in Afghanistan in 2012 but, by then, war was such old news it was buried deep in the papers or the TV news cycles, if covered at all. Nobody seemed to care anymore.
What does all this have to do with hope and hockey?
The past Tuesday, I got to see my dad’s world once again through the lens of the television camera. This time he was in St. Paul, Minnesota, standing on a red carpet on the ice at the Xcel Energy Center in full Air Force dress blues. Twelve of the world’s best hockey players stood facing him while he was announced as the Minnesota Wild and Minnesota National Guard’s “Guardian of the Game.” The public address announcer recited his military history and the crowd cheered; the players tapped their sticks on the ice in appreciation of his service and welcomed him as a representative of all Minnesotans who serve and have served. As the Star Spangled Banner was sung, Dad stood at attention and snapped a salute. During the game, numerous fans thanked him for his service and afterward they met the team’s star defenseman Ryan Suter – whose own Father wore a different uniform for our country as a member of the famed 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic team – who also thanked my dad for his service.
All in all, it was a far cry from Advent and Christmas twenty-five years ago. The biggest concern on Tuesday night was safe travels home before the snow hit. Instead of uncertainty and fear, there was pride and gratitude. Instead of being halfway across the world from his family, he got to enjoy a Minnesota Wild victory with his youngest daughter in tow, while the rest of us followed the game on TV or computer. To be sure, the game would’ve gone on regardless of if my dad was there and the world remains just as dangerous as when my dad took an oath to protect our country thirty years ago; at the same time as the game, CNN was broadcasting a presidential debate focusing on national security. But for me and my family, there was something redeeming and hopeful in getting to watch him, his world, on TV once again on Tuesday night. It was a small, celebratory reward for a career of sacrifice and service and a moment our whole family relished.
Instead of grainy green images of a Christmas past, or presidential candidates trying to outdo each other in responding to the dangers our nation faces, the screen we watched last night was a world of joy and peace, however momentary. And if we can take a break from the fear and darkness to find joy in a game of hockey, then there is still hope after all. Hope in the One who orders all things to work for Good. Yes, even hockey.
Wishing you all a blessed Christmas next week.