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At War: My Deployment Was Not an 'Adventure,' as a Children's Book Tried to Tell My Daughters

By Zachary Bell

Nov. 1, 2018

One of the hardest parts of parenting is reconciling what I did during the war with who I am now in the eyes of my children. I served as a rifleman in Alpha Company, First Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment. My time in the corps took me to an especially violent area of Afghanistan and left me emotionally and mentally numb. When I came home, my wife said that I never smiled anymore. When my daughters, Alyssa and Audrey, asked what I did while I was gone, I said, “Daddy helped fight bad guys and slept outside.”

The first time I deployed was two days after Alyssa was born. I did not return for seven months. Audrey was born during my second deployment. I didn’t meet her until I got home. The only exposures they have to that time are the photographs from a strange desert land that adorn the walls of our home, and the people they call “uncles” who visit me. Some of these men are covered in tattoos. Others have prosthetic limbs.

This summer I found myself grappling with what I know about war and what my daughters, now 10 and 8, know about it in a way I didn’t expect: via a children’s book called “War in Afghanistan: An Interactive Modern History Adventure,” which they brought home from the local library. The history in this book, which was published in 2014, intersects with my own. My first deployment was to Garmsir in Helmand Province in early 2008, and the second deployment, when I was an infantry squad leader, was in 2010 to the farming town Marjah, where we were a part of Operation Moshtarak, a major offensive for coalition and Afghan forces. Our mission was to seize an agricultural zone that was both a Taliban stronghold and the center of the opium production and trafficking network, and then turn it over to Afghan forces and the government they were supposed to usher in. It didn’t turn out that way. But it did forever change many of us who fought there.

The book is part of the You Choose series published by Capstone Press, a popular children’s format in which young readers are asked to make decisions throughout the story that lead them down different paths. The “War in Afghanistan” edition, written for children aged 8 to 11, includes a chapter set in Marjah in 2010, in which the reader is a squad leader with First Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment — this was my old unit, on a deployment I was on, as part of the offensive operation I fought in. My daughters’ adventure began with a helicopter insert into the fields before sunrise: “You and the three teams that form your squad, along with the Afghan soldiers, climb into the CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters. Their blades whir, drowning out all other sounds. Within minutes you are airborne and speeding through the night.” The next few pages have the reader navigating a perilous battlefield, with decisions and canal crossings culminating in the sighting of two military-age males, the military’s euphemism for people whom troops profile as possible threats. As we went page by page, Alyssa’s first question startled me: “Dad, Captain Sparks ordered you not to fire unless you are fired upon. But what if the men are snipers?”

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