Coin of the Covenant
It's hard to believe that I will soon be going home. I am conducting my RIP now with my successor. R-I-P means relief in place.
I have to help him and his team as they are assuming control of the mission from those of us in the New York National Guard's 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The Illinois National Guard's 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team is arriving in increments to replace us, so this is a handoff of duties.
And as my successor takes on more of the day-to-day responsibilities, I have been preparing to leave by packing gear, organizing my personal items and … thinking about what it will be like to come home and see my "someone."
Due to the work level on my section during this mission, neither my deputy or I took leave. We served straight through without a break, a pass or even a day off. We made a pact with each other early on, when we saw how much responsibility and work confronted us, that we just couldn't take time off and leave each others' work for the other to assume.
The key moment came when we started suffering so many casualties and there was so much for us to do in this public affairs section. My comrade, Maj. Kathy Oliver, and I knew that we couldn't possibly take a break and be home on leave when the next tragedy struck. So we stuck it out and worked through.
I was concerned about this possibility from the beginning and discussed this with my wife when I came home on a pass at Easter. This was after we had completed our Fort Bragg training and before we were shipped overseas. Everyone in the 27th got a four-day pass. So its been almost nine months since I have seen my wife now, and I admit that has been the hardest part of this deployment for me.
My wife is disabled. She can take herself to routine medical and therapy appointments, go shopping and visit some friends and relatives from time to time, but she cannot work.
At home, I am the one who does much of the cleaning and housework, takes out the garbage, unloads the groceries and more. But I haven't been there for most of this year now, and so much has fallen to her. But she got help and on her own developed a system that works.
I remember when I came home one March day in 2007 and sat down with her and told her that I had been selected for deployment. It shocked her. With more than 30 years of service and retirement in sight and the nature of my assignment at the state headquarters being what it is, she thought it unlikely I would be tapped. But I was.
For my part, I was pleased to be given the chance, even though I was apprehensive in a nervous way and concerned for my wife. But I knew that I was finally being given the chance to do what soldiers - National Guard soldiers - are supposed to do during war: mobilize and deploy. To her great credit, this is something she understood, too, and within minutes of hearing the news from me, she got behind it.
So we have approached this duty together and as a team, even though it placed me on the other side of the world from her.
The day after Easter, she drove me to the airport so I could fly back to Fort Bragg and then prepare to move out. As my flight time approached, I had to say goodbye outside the security checkpoint at Albany International Airport. I took her aside to give her something.
We have a tradition in the military we call the "challenge coin." Commanders and various leaders and units produce special coins that bear crests and inspiring phrases that are usually handed out to rank and file as a sign of respect, appreciation and gratitude for service. Soldiers love to collect these. I have quite a few now myself.
But I and others with the 27th had been given a very special coin to take home with us and share - yes, share with our one special someone, a soldier's spouse or significant other. It's called the "Coin of the Covenant" and was created by a New York National Guard chaplain, Lt. Col. Eric Olsen, someone who I have long appreciated and respected.
I planned to do an article about this but never got around to it. But writing it about it now was probably a part of the plan from the beginning, though I didn't know it.
Eric sent me an e-mail months ago about the coin that he created and had mass-produced for the chaplains assigned to the 27th. Here is what he told me:
The coin was first used while deployed to Egypt years ago on active duty. The original was two coins and a promise to be faithful (but the coin he developed for us is split in two and comes in a small clear plastic holder.
This coin was an inspiration with the split and the redesign. The purpose is that someone holds your heart and someone's heart is in your hands. The design was my wife Susan's along with the unit crest. It is a small reminder that you are not alone and that you are not whole while away. It is a token of faith and love.
We throw in with someone and take the risk of something going wrong or horribly wrong with the relationship. If we didn't throw in, we wouldn't hurt at death or other partings. But the wonderful feelings of the binding of hearts is worth the risk of losing and worth the price of grief if we have to pay up.
So I brought the coin out and gave half of it to my wife. She was surprised and pleased when I explained it (I remember that someone was watching us - a woman who worked there - I can only imagine what she was thinking because I was in uniform).
I have the other half and it is with me every day. I keep it in one of my chest pockets that is velcro-sealed, along with a small folded American flag that was given to me by another comrade. His wife and others at an American Legion auxiliary created them for us.
I can feel the coin in that pocket with every movement and it gets pressed against me whenever I don my body armor for a trip off base.
I met my future wife for the first time when I was about 18 - about 35 years ago. We were friends but our lives evolved differently and we were apart until 1992. I feel a great force pushed us together then. We married in 1995.
I feel this deployment and everything that has happened was another great force that came upon us, but I believe we have proven to each other that we are stronger than what separated us.
I can't wait now to see her and put both halves of our coin together - a symbol of reuniting. This won't be the first thing I will do when I see her, but probably the very next.
Lt. Col. Paul Fanning is submitting photos to accompany this blog in a gallery, "Pictures from the Front." To view the most recent photos, which accompany this blog entry, click here. To view the entire gallery, click here.