There are those moments in life that you will never ever forget. And there are those moments when, for the briefest instant, you can absolutely see into the future. And sometimes … you have a moment when both things occur and you realize your life has just taken a turn.
Like many, I had that experience on September 11, 2001. My commuter train had just arrived in the Chicago depot and I walked over to the bank kiosk to deposit a check. There were 100 or so people gathered around the TV monitors. Surprising, I thought to myself as I proceeded to fill out my deposit slip. I asked a man what was going on and he said, “A plane hit the World Trade Center.” Oh God, what an awful accident I thought as I continued my paperwork. I glanced up and saw another screen filled with smoke and fire. “What’s that?” I asked him. “The Pentagon” he replied. I dropped the pen. In that split second I knew this was a moment I would never forget – everything had changed. And I knew my life had just taken a turn … my son was going to war.
And to war he did indeed go. As a young officer in the WI National Guard he had a platoon of even younger men to lead to Iraq and back. Just as he was preparing to leave and I was trying to figure out how on earth I could “let” my “child” go to a war zone, my other son – my baby – told me he quit college and had joined the Marines and was leaving in 8 weeks for boot camp! I burst into tears and said “oh Honey, I’ll call them and tell them you made a mistake, I’ll get you out of this.”
But that didn’t happen.
My Army son went off to Iraq for a year and did some incredible work. Many of his stories made me cringe thinking of the danger knowing there was nothing I could do about it. He returned home and so did each and every one of his young soldiers. He was awarded the Bronze Star. We threw a party and served Homecoming Chili to everyone who stopped by to welcome him home. Three very short months later, my Marine deployed. Seven more months of hell with sleepless nights, obsession over news reports, putting push pins in the over-sized map of Iraq that hung in my home office trying in vain to keep track of him. He was in a far more hostile territory than his brother had been (that was hostile enough!) and the Marines in his unit were facing some daunting challenges.
Not all of them returned. He lived up to the tough Marine mandate and did the work he was sent to do. His homecoming was tempered with sorrow for those who did not come back but we felt such relief and joy to have him home again. We threw a party and I made Homecoming Chili!
The peace and quiet of sleep-filled nights returned for a few months. Then he called and told me he was going back for another tour. Oh dear, I knew I had to gear myself up once more to be supportive, and vigilant, while my baby the Marine, was headed back to the war. It wears on a person, all that worry and fright not knowing what
he was facing, what he was asked to do, not knowing if he would eat on Christmas Eve, or even get to sleep indoors. I don’t know how our military personnel remain so brave and forward-thinking especially when they know the hell they are returning to. He went off and did his duty without complaint. And thankfully, he returned safely. This time we had the Honor Guard escort him home – the fire department, police, the motorcycle riders, local townspeople all making it a truly joyful celebration.
Everything they were doing mirrored what was happening in my heart. I was overjoyed to have once again been fortunate enough to be welcoming my son home safely. We threw a big party and I made Homecoming Chili.
You know this isn’t the end of my story…
Just as I was telling people we had finally closed the chapter of our lives called “Iraq Deployments” and I was taking the map off my wall, I heard that dreaded word. Deployment. Yep, we were back at it again. My Army son was leaving. He was a higher rank now and had more responsibility – and a new bride that he was leaving. So for another year, I gave up any hope of sleep or calm. Indeed we fretted and pushed pins into that map
and did what we could to support each other and our new daughter-in-law. Then with grateful hearts and tears of joy we were able to welcome him, and all his soldiers, home yet again.
We threw a big party and I made a batch of that Homecoming Chili … which by now I didn’t even need a recipe for.
It is with humble admiration that I offer up heartfelt thanks to all our military men and women who served, are serving and who will serve in the future. From my front row seat I can honestly say it takes a great deal of self-less courage and undaunted determination to serve in the military. I’m glad to know two of our very finest.
Homecoming Chili – serves a platoon.
1 pound each: beef tenderloin and ribeye steak, cut into 1/2” cubes
2 1/2 pounds sirloin steak, cut into 1/2” cubes
1 pound ground beef
2 pounds zesty Italian sausage
1 1/2 cups each: chopped celery, carrot and onion
1 1/2 teaspoons each: garlic powder and dry mustard
3 heaping Tablespoons each: cumin and chili powder
1 1/2 Tablespoons of dark molasses
1 small can of tomato paste
2 large cans of crushed tomatoes
2 cans of cannellini beans
2 cans of black beans
2 cans of dark beer (one for the chili, one for the cook!)
10-12 cups of beef broth (or more if needed)
Add sausage then steaks and vegetables to large stock pot. Cook on high heat until meat is no longer pink and vegetables have softened, stirring often. Add tomato paste and let cook for 2 minutes then stir in crushed tomatoes. Add seasonings and cook for 2 minutes. Add beer, broth and beans and let simmer for 3 hours until meat is tender.
Thickening: 2 Tablespoons of flour mixed with 2 Tablespoons of corn meal. Slowly add 1 cup of hot broth from the chili. Once smooth, drizzle back into the chili and stir to blend.