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What Serving Two Tours in Iraq Taught Me About Being Present for My Family

"When I'm home, I'm absolutely home. I'm not on my phone or I'm not doing other things. But I’ll be the first one to admit it's been a real struggle for me as a parent."

Military families face a unique and difficult set of challenges. Service members with kids quickly learn that a predictable family routine is one of many things they need to sacrifice in the name of duty. While advances in communications technology have allowed military dads to keep in touch with family members half a world away, they’re still, well, half a world away. They miss the daily occurrences other fathers take for granted. Like watching their kids savage a bowl of Cheerios. Or consoling them after they strike out in Little League. These fathers must work harder to be part of their children’s — and spouse’s — lives.

Fatherly spoke to a variety of military dads about their service, their families, and how they managed to balance the two. Here, Army First Lieutenant Jeremy Boeh, a father of three, explains the difficulty of serving when you have young children, missing first moments when thousands of miles away, and how he deals with the guilt.

I deployed for 15 months in 2007 to 2009 and came back for about six months before deploying again. My first daughter, Kylie, was born about six months prior to leaving that second time.

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I missed basically the first year of her life, and then I transitioned into a program with the army where I got sent back to school to become an officer. During that time, I did a whole bunch of training and my second daughter was born. About a month after she was born, I left for about five months for the army.

My last daughter was born last year, and the ongoing joke is that she’s the favorite, not because she is the youngest, but because I’ve been here for the entire period of her early life — give or take maybe a week or two away, but never more than 30 days, which is something that my older two have not experienced.

I’ve been to Iraq twice — Sadr City and then Kirkuk. Any milestone that has come within the first 13 months of a child’s life? I’ve missed those.

When I’m home, I’m absolutely home. I’m not on my phone or I’m not doing other things. But I’ll be the first one to admit it’s been a real struggle for me as a parent.

It’s hard to kind of even think back now on what that was like, ’cause it’s such a blur. When you’re deployed, you’re living in this silo of what your life is versus, in my case, what my spouse and my daughter were going through. And so, watching the first crawl, and the first words, and the first steps through videos, and learning about them in emails, was a surreal experience. There was a bond, but there isn’t a bond like when you’re there every day and you see those.

You can always see, even in our family, the difference in relationships between the three of my daughters and myself. Not for better or for worse, but I’ve been around a lot more for my 3-year-old and now my 10-month-old than I ever was for my 8-year-old. I’ve been in the Army for 12 years now, so her entire life has been basically full-time military.

[When I was deployed], primary communication was a phone call or an email. When I leave for four or five days for training, there are often times where I’d go four or five days without talking to my kids. I always tell people the easy part about deployment is for the soldier deployed. I’m in Iraq every day and I know what I’m doing every single day and, when something changes, I know that. My wife, on the other hand, would go days without knowing what’s happening with me.

When I’m home, I’m absolutely home. I’m not on my phone or I’m not doing other things. But I’ll be the first one to admit it’s been a real struggle for me as a parent. I’m not ashamed of it, but my children rely heavily on my wife as the voice of reason and the voice of consequence in our house, because she is primarily there and with them. Now, I’m gone a couple days, if not close to a week every month just training and going around.

I think where I benefit is that my wife is a saint and has instilled this great sense of pride in my children for what I do, which allows me to do what I do. You know, the military is not for everybody. About two years ago, I took a year off of full-time military and just did the civilian thing. But there’s just a big part of me that feels compelled to serve. So, my daughters are very proud of that because my wife instills that pride.

What I have to keep telling myself is that Kylie will be eight in a couple days and I think we’re just, we’re kind of getting to these points where we’re forming these kinds of relationships and memories that she’s gonna remember.

I think, with my kids so young, there’s a very fine line that I’m not willing to cross between allowing them to know specifically what I did versus what their perceived reality of it is.

I’m very vocal and okay with letting people know that I battle with PTSD. And how do you leverage that in your parenting? Because that’s not just something that turns off. It can affect the way that you do things. It was funny, we were sitting in the hotel at Disney and it was the night before we were gonna leave, and my 3-year-old just started crying. She’s like, “Dad’s always yelling at me,” and I’m like, “I’m not even yelling. I was just like, ‘Let’s not eat the cupcake at 9:00 at night.’ That’s all I’m saying.”

Then there are times where you’re the parent, but it’s in this like, you’re kind of the backup parent, right? My kids go, “Hey, mom, can we do such and such?” My wife will be like, “Your dad is sitting right there. Just ask him.”

There’s a lot of guilt. I’m okay with saying that. Even now, as we talk about it, it’s a very emotional thing, right? So, what I have to keep telling myself is that Kylie will be eight in a couple days and I think we’re just, we’re kind of getting to these points where we’re forming these kinds of relationships and memories that she’s gonna remember.

Fatherly prides itself on publishing true stories told by a diverse group of dads (and occasionally moms). Interested in being part of that group. Please email story ideas or manuscripts to our editors at submissions@fatherly.com. For more information, check out our FAQs. But there’s no need to overthink it. We’re genuinely excited to hear what you have to say.