Constantine von Hoffman

Constantine von Hoffman
Writer -- journalist for 25 years, poetry & fiction & essays for my entire life. More info at


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NOVEMBER 11, 2009 9:56AM

Iraq: 10 Lessons Learned During My Brother’s Deployment

Rate: 12 Flag

1: I can hold my breath for six months. It’s not that hard, really. I just inhaled when my brother shipped out and exhaled again when he returned for R&R. I did it again when he went back until he returned from his tour. This is a convenient literary description of what it felt like – but in my memory it is the literal truth. I know people who’ve done it for 15 months, several times.

2: How to listen to the news. A mental flow chart I followed whenever I encountered any reports about Iraq. An answer of “that’s not my brother” at any step allowed me to return to my daily life.

  • Has somebody died?
  • Iraqi or American?
  • Civilian or military? 
  • Was it someone in the Army? 
  • What part of the country?
  • Is this near where he is stationed?
  • Is it my brother?

When I reached that final question, I felt relieved and then horrible. I knew my reprieve was someone else’s loss.

3: What to send. Batteries. Hot sauce – MRE’s are bland. Hard candy. Chewing tobacco – it’s a form of currency. DVDs. Baby wipes – help people clean off when they’re in the field. My son sent some of his toys and stuffed animals to give to Iraqi kids.

4: What not to send. Don’t send chocolate. It will likely melt during shipping because of the temperatures in Iraq. There have been many reports that the military is trying to develop a chocolate with a higher melting point. Officially you’re not supposed to ship porn, alcohol, and/or anything with pork in it. While there are serious doubts as to whether or not anyone actually checks for these things, people at home disguise them anyway. A friend of my brother’s got some mouthwash in a box from home, screwed the top off and took a swig out of it. He spit it out and said in total surprise, “It’s mouthwash!”

5: Nothing bigger than a shoe box. That’s the optimum size for shipping. Anything bigger than that will take forever to get there. For some reason speed of delivery mattered even when he was going to be there for a year.

6: The US Postal Service is very helpful. When shipping overseas you have to fill out one of two different customs forms depending on the weight of the package. I was always filling out the wrong one. No matter how long the line behind me, when the clerk saw the address on the package he or she invariably said something kind and didn’t mind waiting while I filled out the right one.

7: People are very kind. You send things because there’s nothing else you can do. I asked other people to send things, too. And they did. Lots of things: packages and dozens of birthday and Christmas cards and prayers. Always prayers. You send those, too, because there’s nothing else you can do.

8: I don’t care what you think about the war. Before you tell me that, tell me if you’ve had someone over there. If you know what that constant dread is like or what it’s like to be terrified when the phone rings late at night, then I’ll listen to what you have to say. I’ve disagreed with people who’ve been through this, but I’ve never argued. We have too much in common. It’s irrational, but I think we are the only people who should get to discuss the topic. Anyone else – even the ones who agree with me – I tend to view as a clueless fool.

9: Many people have it worse. And it’s not just the families that have had someone killed or injured. He is my brother but he is Stacy’s husband and my parent’s child. The times they were awake at 3 AM were much darker than the times I was.

10: I am a hypocrite. If truth is the first casualty of war, then the first truth to die is the fact that your opponent is human, too. I passionately believe that all human lives are equal. For the entire year my brother was over there I didn’t care how many Iraqis died or what else happened to them. Now that he is back, I am compassionate again.

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Good tips on how to really show your support for the troops AND the ones they leave behind. I'll send you some chocolate.
You've learned well. This take me back to when I served in Desert Storm. Baby Wipes? ABSOLUUUTELY!!! It might be weeks before we get a shower but with those wipes the stinky parts stay....less stinky. All of this brings back such memories. I know what it's like to BE there. I can't imagine what it would be like to be at home waiting..... At least I KNEW if I was alive or dead. Rated!!
Your post inspired me to send some packages overseas to the soldiers. Thank your brother for his brave service to the U.S. I can't imagine what it's really like, for the soldiers and for their families. You've shed some light on the family part though.
Well done! I never would have thought of baby wipes, but they absolutely make the best sense.
Excellent post. Very good tips and very moving. I laughed my ass off at the mouthwash thing. My korean war vet buddy used to send me "Engine Cleaner" in containters of "Coffee." I always appreicated it.
You did well to support your brother, and I know that what everyone does in the way of prayers and care packages makes a difference.
There were days when I marked the calander in anticipation of that next box containing twinkies from my Rose.

I too learned how to hold my breath, and use the flow the chart. The guilt of knowing it was someone else's husband/ son/ wife/ whom ever flowing through me once the questions had been answered. Your post is well written; a wonderful balance between humor and humblness. I laughed with Andy as he read it and teared in rememberance at times as well. Rated and thank you to your brother
If you want to send a package, but don't have a particular recipient, where can you send to?
Contact the USO --
Great article. I sent packages like crazy when my grandson was first deployed to Iraq, then slowed down after I got the message he was overwhelmed by all the stuff. It's hard to be the ones left behind at home, not knowing, even harder to be the ones there.