Me & You Against The World (6/14/13)

BY JON LUJAN

My dad and my daughter at the FDNY training facility in Sept. 2012
Emily and my parents at the Lincoln Memorial

With Father’s Day taking place this month I wanted to write about my great pride of being the father to an amazing young woman named Emily Linn Lujan. Our journey, as with many of the Generation Z kids, is a non-traditional one. Her mother and I divorced in 1995 while I was still in the Marine Corps and thus her guardian ad litem and the court decided that since I was still deployable that her best interest was to live full time with my parents. I became the non-custodial parent and although my pride was hurt by the court’s decision, in the long term I see that it was for the best. When I was discharged from the Corps in 1997, I returned home and tried to find work in a career field that would support us as a single family. I learned very quickly that without a college degree I was struggling; again my parents stepped in and I lived with them. Helping in the raising of a now 7-year-old Emily, over the course of the next four years we managed to re-learn each other and I became a better, more involved father. I helped coach her soccer team, went to back to school at night, and we rekindled our love for each other.

The events of September 11, 2001 changed all of that quite quickly. I made a huge decision to re-enlist in the Marine Corps and had to try and explain to a 10-year-old Emily that there was a chance that I would be deployed to a war zone. I don’t think she quite grasped exactly what a war was. I got orders to Camp Fuji, Japan, where I would spend the next year. The operational tempo was gearing up for what we all predicted to be some sort of deployment. I returned to the United States and checked into my new unit on January 7, 2003; 20 days later I was on the ground in Kuwait, assigned to Task Force Tarawa. Phone calls to loved ones are never easy to make and this call to my family telling them I was being deployed to Kuwait was not an easy one. How do you explain to your 10 ½-year-old daughter that you are going to war and may never return? The long and short of it was you just have to be honest. When I was injured and flown to Kuwait City to the Army Combat Surgical Hospital (CSH), I was able to call home to let them know I was ok. The unit I was with had failed to follow procedure and my family was supposed to be assigned a Casualty Assistance Officer, but for some reason that never happened. Anyhow, the first they had heard of my injury was a middle of the night phone call from me. I had to keep things brief and also couldn’t provide any of the details due to what’s called OPSEC (Operational Security). I am sure Em didn’t really grasp that I was ok. It had to be a pretty terrifying phone call, and as it turns out I am happy that it was me who informed them and not anyone else.

Long story short, my daughter and I have been through some pretty hard times together, but we have always managed to stay very close. As she has grown older we have become better friends and that relationship is something I really have been enjoying. She is sure becoming one heck of a great young woman and her drive, determination and work ethic seems to rival that of her old man! I know every parent thinks that their child is the best, but I know that Emily will one day make a very big impact in some way or the other on society. She honestly is a difference maker. I recall one story about when we were stationed in California and the kids at her school were making fun of her because of her clothes. Well, first of all, I have never been much of a fashionista; therefore, Em suffered from my lack of fashion sense. But she never told me about it because she knew that we struggled financially to just make ends meet. In retrospect, she knew that it really didn’t matter what kind of clothes she wore, but that she was just happy to be with her Dad. That’s the kind of kid she is! I would wager to anyone that she is my biggest fan, and I’m looking forward to having her and my parents watch me race in Sochi!

Below are her own words; I thought it would be good to get her perspective for this blog...

I still remember the day my dad told me he was rejoining the Marines. He was wearing a red shirt and glasses and I was sitting in our family room recliner. After he had gotten out we had become best friends. “Me and you against the world,” and although I had gotten so used to having him home, I knew it was time to share him with the world. Right away he was shipped off to Japan where he would serve a whole year away from home, but then we got a phone call...

Me and my daughter Emily at the... 9/11 Memorial
 ... Washington Monument
 ... New York Stock Exchange

I remember hearing it ring. The echo of the ring could be heard throughout the whole house. I knew it was him because he was the only one who called in the middle of the night. You would think after being in Japan for a whole year he would have mastered the time difference, but nonetheless I shot out of bed and ran down the hall to my grandparents’ room. I stopped when I saw the look on their faces. My grandpa took me into his arms as I was handed the phone. Minutes later I learned Dad was being relocated again. I didn’t know where Iraq was, but from the looks on my grandparents’ faces I knew it was even further than Japan. All I could think of when they said ‘war’ was my history book; Dad was going into that? For months we avoided the news and waited for letters. Letters were our only means of communication while Dad was there, but then the phone rang...

Everything after that was a blur. I knew this was the worst phone call yet because Nana couldn’t even look me in the eye. Everyone kept telling me they loved me and holding me tight. I got on the phone only to hear my dad say four words, “I love you Emma.” My world went fuzzy as the phone was taken from my trembling hand by the even more unsteady hand of my dad’s hero. My grandma took me from the room as my grandpa learned why my dad would be coming home early.

As soon as he was home I was determined to get my best friend back. I moved in with him in California and went to school while he stayed working on the base. It was a struggle to watch him go through so much pain. He was in constant agony from the injury in his back.

Dad had to wait two whole years when he got back before he finally got the surgery and help he needed. Three of the discs in his back had slipped out of place and shattered into his muscle while he was in battle and surgery would fix it. Except things went wrong and Dad came out of surgery even more broken than when he went in. I remember waiting for him to come back to consciousness. Sitting next to his bed I held his hand; the steady beat of his heart put me at ease as we waited for him to wake up. I could smell his cologne, Acqua di Gio. I had sprayed that cologne on just about everything I had when Dad left – a smell that will forever remind me of being in my dad’s arms. As he awoke we learned the doctor had accidentally nicked a nerve in his back leaving my dad unable to feel the bottom half of his body. I watched my hero break down as the doctor told him we would never walk again. I don’t have enough words to emphasize the weight that lingered in the room as we all processed the news. Yes, my dad was paralyzed, but he was still alive and that is something I will forever be grateful for.

Dad was never much of a quitter though. Instead of letting the news get the best of him, he made the best of it. Determined to walk again, he didn’t let a day stop him. The very next day he took a tumble as he insisted that he would walk himself to the restroom. He didn’t walk right away, but eventually he got it; a slow, painful gimp, but a walk nonetheless. Five years and four months later puts us in November 2012, when I not only watched him walk, but run in the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers walk in New York City. It’s been a long five years, but the best five years I could ever imagine. I brag about my dad on a daily basis, and rock that devotion on my arm with numbers of tattoos dedicated just to him. My dad’s become one of my best friends again, and just like when I was a little girl I tell him just about everything. I’m so proud of the person he is and I can’t wait to make him just as proud of me as I am of him. I love you Dad! You and me against the world!

For those fathers out there, Happy Father’s Day! To my dad, thanks for all of the support you have given me over the years financially, emotionally and physically … and for supporting myself and the rest of us that are on the #RoadToSochi. Go Team USA!!!

Feel free to follow my journey on Twitter: @JonnyVolcano44, or Facebook: Jon Lujan Adaptive Alpine Skier.