After years of the mainstream media’s glass-half-empty reporting of the Iraq war, antiwar protests on college campuses, and the increasing appearance of “politics over mission,” today’s very real wars seem to have become almost theoretical to the American people. In Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War, David and Nancy French rehumanize war in what should become a must-have for every freedom-loving family’s bookshelf. The French couple epitomizes the seemingly forgotten values—faith, service and selflessness—of the American soldier and family.
Moving you from the edge of your seat, cramping from laughter, to the corner of your couch, dabbing the tears off your cheeks, David and Nancy take turns recalling their wartime separation—David in Iraq at a base near the border with Iran, and Nancy at home with two kids in Tennessee.
No one expected David, at the age of 36 and president of a well-known free speech foundation, to join the military, not even the Army, until it boosted the Reserve’s age limit to 39 in March 2005.
David describes his decision to serve:
“After reading an article about a wounded officer—exactly my age—who’d called his wife and kids on a satellite phone to tell them that he was hurt but not to worry, I felt stricken. How was he different from me? Why was it right for him to sacrifice and not me? After all, he no doubt loved his children as much as I loved my children. He loved his wife as much as I loved my wife. There was simply no good reason—no reason that made any sense—why I should spend my life secure in the knowledge that ‘someone else’ would volunteer. So I turned to my wife, Nancy, and declared I wanted to join the United States Army Reserves.”
Does this not completely embody John F. Kennedy’s call to action, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”?
Did he really know what he was getting into? Being the Harvard Law graduate that he is, David read the State Department’s “Smart Book” on Iraq. But when he arrived, much of the government’s information did not match up. The “unknown” David encountered was nearly impossible to describe, let alone survive. Iraq was a scorching netherworld of 130-degree temperatures in a cramped vehicle in full gear with no air-conditioning, the stench of feces-filled streams and the sight of garbage scattered on village roads—trash in which the terrorists often hid IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the single-greatest cause of death for U.S. service members. And, communicating with loved ones from Iraq was not a given, but a cherished luxury. At Forward Operating Base Caldwell in eastern Diyala Province, there were:
“… eight telephones and fifteen public computers for almost a thousand people. These computers were so slow that most soldiers could surf perhaps three websites in their allotted twenty minutes of time, with entire ten- and fifteen-minute periods dedicated to watching screens load pixel by pixel. In the evenings (when it’s morning in America ) and in the early mornings (when it is late in the evening at home), there was a minimum two-hour wait for twenty minutes of phone or computer access.”
It was only through the creativity, ingenuity and determination of David and his fellow soldiers that the era of severely limited communications came to an end. In a swift manner, David’s unit purchased, maneuvered and installed a satellite dish another unit leaving Iraq was looking to unload. Keeping in touch with family and friends while deployed is a huge morale boost to soldiers and their families. In what would normally go unnoticed in an average person’s time on a computer, Nancy and the kids waited with great anticipation for the notification that indicated David was “online.” It produced an instant jolt of joy—and internally, an overwhelming, but brief, sense of relief. Through David’s posts on National Review Online, many readers were able to better understand what was really happening in Iraq .
As she lived life under an abiding cloud of uncertainty at home with the kids, community and work, Nancy managed to tackle debt and projects, and join a presidential campaign. (And, since discussing David’s work in Iraq was mostly off-limits, discussing the political developments leading up to the 2008 election was precious bonding time.) Nancy soon found herself inundated with offers of help, and learned how to accept and channel them into productive efforts. Fixing the car, watching the kids, and more, filled a list of at-home projects. But, it was during an online conversation with David that she realized her mission was to provide those soldiers without strong family support networks needed supplies. Operation Send-A-Box was conceived.
“Instead of asking a thousand of my best friends to each send one box, I decided to get ‘area coordinators’—people who could send twenty-five boxes—and had the post office send the military pack straight to their homes. There’s nothing like twenty-five empty boxes staring at you from the front porch to make you remember your patriotic duty. And so, with all the details of the project laid out on the website, a mechanism to get packaging materials to our volunteers, and a way to distribute once the boxes got to Iraq, we were ready to launch.”
But Nancy’s new role as “Captain French’s wife” was not always smooth sailing. Have you ever been thrust into a challenging position without any prior knowledge or experience? It’s downright frightening. Accounts of sadness, hers and the children’s, and a long-distance spat with David are gut-wrenching. Marital disputes are tough enough to resolve in person. Nancy’s sharp and lucid style puts you in her shoes, invites you into an essentially human story without making you feel like an accidental intruder.
Through David and Nancy we have a window into a year of new responsibilities, friends, fears and unexpected lessons. Being able to better understand soldiers and the strains military service puts on their families, we can all better serve our military as individuals, as communities, and as patriots.
Not to trivialize David and Nancy’s story of a family during war, but it reminds me of the MTV “Real World” tagline, “You think you know, but you have no idea.” Home and Away is an invitation into the life of a family at war, and an intimate and needed reminder that these men and women not only protect America’s timeless and treasured ideals, they—and their families—sacrifice much to live them.