Spc. Cesar Zertuche Jr. noticed a certain look in his dad’s eye the day he deployed to Iraq – a look that said his father was nervous to see him go.
Sgt. Maj. Cesar Zertuche Sr. knew exactly what his son was getting into. By then, the older man was a senior Army noncommissioned officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord with multiple deployments behind him.
“I could see it in his face,” said Zertuche Jr., 22, recalling his dad’s expression that betrayed his thoughts: “He’s a soldier, but he’s my son.”
At the time, both Zertuches were serving in Lewis-McChord’s main artillery unit, the 17th Fires Brigade. Senior had returned from Afghanistan in late 2010 and Junior left for Iraq in the middle of 2011.
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It’s uncommon for blood relatives to serve under the flag of the same artillery brigade, but finding multiple generations at the local base is not. Lewis-McChord has many service members with family ties across the military.
They’re represented among junior soldiers all the way through the base’s highest ranks. Lewis-McChord senior Army officer Lt. Gen. Robert Brown’s daughter is an Army captain. Two of the base’s Stryker brigade commanders have sons at West Point.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the deputy commanding general of Lewis-McChord’s I Corps, has a son serving in Afghanistan this winter with the elite 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Buchanan’s dad was an Army colonel, too.
Buchanan contends that soldiers who follow in the footsteps of relatives are committing to more than the “family business.” He thinks they know the Army best and are willing to join because they want to be part of a cause greater than themselves.
“It’s the values, the things they value, in seeing an opportunity to serve,” he said.
He and other soldiers with relatives in the military express nothing but pride in their families, praising them for making sacrifices during the nation’s two wars over the past decade.
Yet an insular Army has its drawbacks, too. Soldiers notice it when civilians show little understanding of their service, or of the wars.
“If you don’t know anything about the military, it can be kind of intimidating,” said Lt. Travis Bisch, 22, whose father and grandfather served in the Army and earned the rank of colonel.
Zertuche Jr., for instance, notices that civilian friends and even family members sometimes bring up morbid questions when they talk about his service. They want to know if he saw anything that could damage him during his six months in Iraq at the end of the war.
He deflects those questions and carries himself as “happy go lucky” when he returns home to Texas. He’s trying to convey that he’s proud of his service.
Buchanan, who served on four tours to Iraq, believes that civilians today are far more supportive of the military than they were for his father’s generation.
His dad, the late Col. Paul Buchanan, flew helicopters on two deployments to Vietnam. When the war ended, veterans did not feel they had the full backing of their civilian neighbors.
“That’s not the case right now,” Buchanan said. “Regardless of people’s politics, they have been steadfast and strong supporting our service members.”
“I can’t walk through the airport without being thanked by someone,” he said.
Yet he also notices civilians jumping to conclusions about military service, such as viewing overseas tours primarily as sacrifices. That’s not always the case, particularly for service members who view deployments as opportunities to live up to their ideals and prove themselves.
“Our troops don’t want sympathy for the fact they deployed to combat; they want to be appreciated,” he said.
Zertuche Jr. gets excited when he talks about his Iraq mission. On the way there, soldiers told him things were going well and he’d have an easy deployment.
He started hearing explosions almost as soon as he landed. His artillery battery had to handle fast-paced work supporting Iraqi security forces in the violent city of Kirkuk.
He thought back to his days as a young boy when he visited his dad on training exercises. He rode with his old man on powerful Army vehicles, imagining the day he’d have the same responsibility.
“This is me. I saw my dad doing it. Now I’m doing it,” he said.
Bisch, the new lieutenant whose father and grandfather became senior Army officers, likewise takes heart in his experiences growing up in the Army. His dad, Col. Frederick Bisch, swore him into the service when he earned his commission.
He now calls the other young lieutenants from his Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program “his brothers.”
“The best part is having each other,” he said.
Buchanan said his dad did not push him into the service but encouraged him to follow his heart.
Buchanan was surprised in the fall of 2003 when his own son, Matt, called during his first deployment to Iraq to announce that he wanted to join the Marines.
“I had a hard time envisioning my son as a Marine,” the general says, describing his son’s independent nature.
Matt Buchanan ended up joining the Army in part because he could not get into a closed ROTC program that year for Marine training. His father said Matt was eager to get moving, so he chose an Army ROTC program that was ready to admit him.
The younger Buchanan’s first deployment took place in 2009-10 with Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The war was winding down, and the Stryker brigade had a successful and largely safe mission.
Maj. Gen. Buchanan knew Iraq well because of his deep experience in that country. He could advise his son, who was then a lieutenant, and could envision his assignments.
Afghanistan is a different story. The older officer has never been there, and he says he learned about the restive country through the eyes of his son.
“When it was just me deploying, I saw it as business as usual, this is what we do,” he said. “When it’s your kid and you don’t have control over the situation, it’s different.”
He feels that vulnerability when he attends funerals for fallen service members, an assignment that he and all general officers share. He says he has a different connection with parents at those ceremonies since his son started deploying regularly to Afghanistan.
“It is an opportunity to understand some of what they’re going through,” he said. “The fact that my son is (in) the military helps me connect, and hopefully bring some level of comfort to them.”
Buchanan admires his son’s Ranger unit and trusts it to prepare for each mission. “They are the silent professionals, like all Special Operations Forces,” he said.
“In the end, I’m extremely proud,” Buchanan said, “but I’m happy when he’s not in Afghanistan.”