Bill Riley is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He served in the military from 1985 to 2011, serving 22 years in active duty plus time served as a reservist, in a number of critical roles. He was an intelligence analyst during the Cold War and has worked with intelligence and in special operations. His deployments included combat zones in the Middle East, including Kuwait and Iraq. He was the first U.S. electronics warfare officer in Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom and led the Air Force’s network operations and security center and was the first cyberspace operations officer to receive the Air Force Combat Action Medal.
He holds degrees in literature, public administration and strategic leadership, among others.
But, Riley said, his most significant roles have been as husband to his wife, Jodi, and as a father to his two sons, Xander, 20, and Sam, “about to be 15 years old.”
In his memoir, “Baghdaddy: How Saddam Hussein Taught Me to Be a Better Father,” Riley writes about his firsthand combat experiences in Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia — and about the feelings of isolation from his family and frustration at being a father thousands of miles away from home. It is a candid and heartfelt account that also includes the retelling of the author’s childhood, that included his Vietnam War vet father at times overcome with his own bouts of PTSD and his mom, loving but mentally ill with schizophrenia, creating her own worlds of beauty that crashed into reality — and sometimes spilled over into violence.
I recently sat down and talked with Riley over coffee about his book and the fatherhood lessons he learned from his experiences — and when that hour or so wasn’t enough, conversed with him via email. The following is an edited version of both conversations.
And happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there!
Jeanne Huff: You had a pretty rough childhood. You write about living in awe and fear of your mother, and of being somewhat intimidated by your father, who once told you “one definition of adult is surviving your childhood.” Can you describe a specific moment from that time that stands out as pivotal in your own journey to become a parent?
Bill Riley: Children of abusive parents often become abusive parents because we do what we know. So I prepared as best I could. I watched friends’ parent, I read books, and I sought advice from fathers I admired, but that was all just reconnaissance. The first pivotal moment in becoming a father happened after I cut my firstborn son’s umbilical cord and held him in my arms. I had raced halfway around the world to meet Xander, and as I held this crying baby boy, the only thought I had was, could I love him? I wanted to, but I didn’t know. I’ve seen terrible things, and not knowing if I could love him scared me more than combat. But then he reached up and touched my face with his warm, tiny hand, and I looked into his limitless eyes, and I knew. I loved him. I don’t know why, or how, I just did. I loved him, and he loved me. That moment changed something inside me for the better.
JH: Did you have inspirational figures who helped you along the way?
BR: In “Baghdaddy,” I cover amazing friendships that changed my life for the better. I’ve talked about them before, so for Father’s Day, I want to talk about my grandfather. He was a wonderful man, and huge influence on my life. My warmest memories are full of his smile and jokes and the advice he always peppered with Italian words. He came to America when he was a little boy, made a great life here, and he was so proud of the Italian-American community. He didn’t get to go to high school, but he was one of the wisest men I’ve ever known. He taught me how to grow a garden, break down a chicken and how to pour drinks for guests. He taught me to appreciate the beauty in a moment when everything else felt like it was falling apart. He was an island of light and calm when my life was angry and dangerous.
JH: You and your wife have two boys, Sam, almost 15, and Xander, 20. Were you worried or did you have trepidation about being a dad?
BR: The thought of being a father scared the hell out of me. I was the reluctant one who kept pushing it off. But my wife and my dear friend Lucy finally convinced me. They both told me that I didn’t have to be my parents and that I wasn’t that scared, angry little boy anymore. They said I had a lot to offer a child, and that I would be a great dad. Maybe I was in the right place to hear it, but I finally believed them. Yes, they flanked me and attacked me from two fronts until they won, and it was unfair; but I’m grateful I have wonderful, strong women in my life who care about me.
JH: Did military life prepare you for fatherhood?
BR: Military service had a huge influence on me. I was in the Air Force for 22 years. It’s a world of structure, discipline and teamwork, and it definitely helped prepare me for fatherhood. My service taught me the value of sacrifice for a greater good. And being a father often means sacrificing some of your wants and placing the needs of your child above some of your desires. It could mean something material, but in my experience, it was almost always time. I’ve been guilty of working to excess. I’ve been away too long where I had jobs to do, or missions to complete. I’m not proud to say that there were times when I had to force myself to stop and carve out moments just to play with my boys, because I thought I was needed somewhere else. It was tunnel vision. I wasn’t making time for what mattered to me the most. But know what? A few minutes after I started fishing, hiking, or just throwing a ball around with my boys, I realized they were happy to see me, and I was happier than I’d been.
JH: What specific lessons did you learn that you were able to apply to fatherhood?
BR: Being a father is hard because it’s about teaching your child problem-solving skills, and then letting them fail until they can figure things out for themselves. And that’s ridiculously hard. You see the train wreck coming but your kid can’t. And even though you CAN stop it, it won’t do them any good if you do. So you have to watch someone you love try and fail at little things until they develop the skills they need for life. But that’s the job. A father teaches a child to problem-solve. Then gives them a thousand opportunities to fail at minor things, so they finally have the skills to succeed at what’s important later in life.
JH: In your book’s title, you say Saddam Hussein taught you to be a better father. How?
BR: It’s ironic, isn’t it? Saddam taught me to be a better father in two ways. First, more often than not, we learn from the worst people we encounter, and they teach us what not to do. Think of everything you’ve learned how to do right after working for one horrible boss. Saddam is a great example of that. He was a ruthless dictator and a cruel and indulgent father who raised terrible boys. Just in that one sentence, there are great examples of what not to do, if you think about it. And, second, every time Saddam rattled his saber I deployed to the Middle East. In between missions in and around Iraq, I had time to think about what kind of father I wanted to be, and what I might do to be that man I wanted to be. Those deployments gave me amazing and terrifying experiences, and in between, time to think about what was truly important to me in my life. That’s how the title came about.
JH: Do you think the lessons you learned can be applied to help others in their parenting?
BR: Absolutely. Parents have been raising kids for thousands of years. Sometimes successfully, sometimes screwing them up. Every family’s different, but consistent structure, fair discipline, clear communications, a healthy home, and good intentions go a long way. Let your kids know you love them, and that you’re there for them. Hug them whenever you can get away with it and say the words “I love you.”
JH: What has been the biggest challenge in being a dad?
BR: Teenagers. There’s an old adage that goes, “When your kids are 13, they fire you as their manager; if you’re lucky, in their 20s they hire you back as a consultant.” Every family is different, but my relationship with my boys in their teens was stormy. Teens are trying to figure out who they are day by day and between body changes, hormones, social pressure, etc., they live in the moment. Their life is tactical, battle by battle. A father’s job is strategic. We’re here for the long game, to make sure our children can become men and women who survive and prosper in a chaotic world. Teens live in the moment, but they’re still physically and emotionally growing, and parts still under construction are in their brains.
JH: What has been your biggest reward as a father?
BR: Watching my boys grow into men I admire. Xander, my oldest, is 20 now. After a few frustrating years of teen conversations that mostly went:
Xander: “You just don’t get it, Dad. Why can’t you be like other parents? You’re a horrible tyrant!”
Me: “Tyrant, dictator, father. You’re just now realizing?”
Xander: “I can’t even talk to you.”
Me: “So ... I’m confused. Are you saying you’re going to take care of (fill in the blank)? Or ... Are you asking to be grounded for another night?”
Xander: “Ahh, I hate you.” Stomp, stomp. STOMP. Door Slam.
Today Xander and I have conversations I enjoy and look forward to, and he’s become a fine young man. Now he says I was a great dad and he’s not even being sarcastic. Sometimes he even asks me for advice. I live for those days.
JH: What advice would you give to other fathers?
BR: Find things that you love to do together. It can be anything. You just have to be excited about whatever it is, a little patient, and those memories will stay with your kids for the rest of their lives. Show them you love them, that you’re there for them, and listen especially if you don’t agree. You won’t get everything right — no one does. Being a father is a tough job. Learning to be a father is like building an airplane while you’re trying to fly it, but it’s worth it.