WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Maybe it's appropriate that Father's Day -- a secular holiday supported by Calvin Coolidge in 1924 and officially designated as the third Sunday in June by Lyndon Johnson -- is so close to Memorial Day. This year, both occasions were observed with tens of thousands of dads absent from their offspring -- because they are serving in our armed forces far from home, often in harm's way. Some of those children and dads have never met each other.
Today, Marine Corps recruiting ads would have the uninitiated believe that the only thing that matters is being a "warrior." And while that is certainly a crucial ingredient in being a Marine, there is another aspect that pervades all of the military services today -- concern for the families of those who are serving.
While I was covering the 5th Marines in Iraq for Fox News, a sergeant major approached me after a live broadcast and asked if one of his young corporals could use my satellite phone to call home. "His wife gave birth last night, and he wants to call so she and his new son can hear his voice," the grizzled veteran of two wars and many gunfights explained. I handed him the phone.
The young corporal's new son won't remember that phone call. But hopefully, in the midst of one of life's inevitable challenges, the Marine corporal and his wife will recall that all-too-brief conversation as evidence of a father's love for the son he wouldn't hold for months to come.
That's always a challenge for those in our armed forces -- reconciling the willingness to serve our country with the need to be a dad. Today, tens of thousands soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines who are fathers are serving overseas without their families. They serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Japan and the Balkans, and at sea around the world, defending this country from the threat of terrorism and offering others the hope of freedom. Many, like that young corporal, instead of helping mom, handing out cigars and buying every stuffed animal in the hospital gift shop, will be working 20-hour days and avoiding sniper fire when their child is born. For those fathers, the chance to hold their newborn will have to wait.
When he visited the sailors on board the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) on May 1, President George W. Bush pointed out that while these sailors were at sea, back home their wives had given birth to 150 babies. That was true at every port hosting a welcoming home ceremony. When the USS Reuben James (FFG 57) and USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) returned to Pearl Harbor, 11 fathers had the opportunity to see their newborn children for the first time. At Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, Calif., more than 100 sailors disembarked the USS Constellation (CV-64) and met the new addition to their families.
Understanding the importance of a father in a child's life, the military is trying to relieve some of the stress families experience during long deployments. Programs like United Through Reading help fathers to serve both their country and their family. It may not replace the warm feeling of sitting on daddy's lap while he reads a bedtime story, but while on board ship, sailors can videotape themselves reading books to their children and ship the tape home.
For the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq keeping the peace and restoring order for the Iraqi people, the hope is that their absence from home will only be temporary. For most of them it will, but Iraq is still a dangerous place. To date, 181 American military personnel have been killed in Iraq, and at least 85 young children -- some of them not yet born -- lost their fathers during this war.
As President Bush said in his Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery: "Americans like these did not fight for glory, but to fulfill a duty. They did not yearn to be heroes, they yearned to see mom and dad again and to hold their sweethearts and to watch their sons and daughters grow." These men are called heroes and rightfully so.
But largely forgotten still are the many others who have sacrificed, and continue to do so -- the children left behind. Birthdays, ballet recitals, their first at-bat in a Little League game are just a few of the important events in a child's life that are performed or celebrated without the love and guidance from Dad. Their sacrifice is the lonely home whose quiet night is pierced by the sound down the hall of Mom crying herself to sleep.
In their teen-age years, they go to the movies with their friends only to see their dead father's courage mocked on the big screen by leftist producers like Oliver Stone. They struggle to save for college, trying yet again to accomplish in their life a goal they know would have made their father proud.
The 1st Battalion of the 181st Field Artillery of the Tennessee Army National Guard is a unique unit. Among its ranks are seven fathers who are serving with their sons. For them, this Father's Day will be a special one.
As you celebrate with your father today, or when you give him a call on the phone, say a prayer for those children who are marking this day as the first that their father is no longer with them.