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A Son In Iraq
What we miss in the papers, in stories about the war in Iraq, are the stories beyond the stats and the politics -- stories about the soldiers who are there, and what they and their families go through. I get to read some of these stories because my column runs in the Stars and Stripes, and I get amazing letters from soldiers; some asking for advice, some just writing about their experiences or commenting on my column.

Here's a mother's perspective. Rochelle Reed, my editor at the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune wrote a moving piece about how she tries to cope with her son being in Iraq for the Karen Stabiner-edited book, The Empty Nest, about kids leaving home (some for college, some in less orthodox ways). Here's an excerpt from Rochelle's chapter:

Now Evan is serving in Iraq. I wake up early these days. I make coffee, retrieve the morning papers and then compulsively read every story about murdered soldiers, beheaded soldiers, tortured soldiers, wounded soldiers, soldiers with missing limbs and damaged brains, soldiers who have gone berserk and raped and murdered innocent civilians.

I purposely teeter on the edge of fear and grief, bracing myself for whatever the future brings. I hate surprises, so I plan for worst-case scenarios. Would I be able to widen the doorways in our home if Evan comes back in a wheelchair, I wonder?

Every time I take a trip, I worry how the Army will find me to tell me that he’s dead if I’m out of town. I’ve promised Evan that if the worst actually happens, I’ll bury him in a coffin next to my parents and grandparents in rural Wyoming. But would Evan really mind if I placed his ashes in an urn so I could keep him close to me?

“Please oh please let him call me” is now my daily mantra. I breathe, I exhale. Put this in perspective, I demand of myself. Evan volunteered for the Army. He wasn’t conscripted like my father’s father in Austria. Or my mother’s father, who returned shell-shocked from the Great War after he watched his hometown buddies blown to bits. My father’s mother sent four sons to World War II; one didn’t return. A cousin died in the Battle of the Bulge. My mother’s only brother, a jovial test pilot I dimly remember, was killed at the beginning of the Korean War. How many mothers throughout history have seen their sons off to war, I ask myself? I’m merely one of millions…no, probably billions.

If only my thinking could stop here, but I must grow tough, tougher, toughest. Evan volunteered for this, I remind myself. He’s promised to defend his country at all costs. My son may hesitate before he pulls the trigger, but he’s trained to shoot to kill. He’s donned the uniform, so whatever happens —ambush, rocket fire, mortar attack, an insurgent’s sword — he must face the consequences. Now I must accept that the son I raised to be a gentle, caring soul is somewhere in the Iraq desert, a loaded M3 in his arms. At this very moment, he could be exalting with his buddies that he killed the enemy, ending the life of another mother’s son. If, God forbid, another mother’s son kills Evan, will I share the same empathy — “He was only doing his job” — that I’m willing to extend to my own flesh and blood?

Posted by aalkon at September 28, 2007 10:29 AM

Comments

When Cindy Sheehan was going at full tilt, it occurred to me that my own mother was probably completely sympathetic to her. I was a peacetime soldier years ago but I was a paratrooper and the headlines of the time were full of "brushfire wars."
My mother worried about me even though the lay-abouts I had gone to school with were back home dying in drunken car crashes and doing time in the county jail for drug possession. I tried to explain to her that I was doing what I wanted to do and that life could sometimes be dangerous and that it wasn't the Army's fault I wasn't her little boy anymore. She was not persuaded.
She went to bed each night sticking pins in a little Ronald Reagan doll for stealing her baby and putting him in danger. If I had died in a training accident, she'd have never stopped hating. To this day I point out how this is a bit of an insult to me and she just laughs. Cindy Sheehan is her hero.
Ken Burns' new documentary "The War" is largely focused on the impact the war had on families back home. Part of the reason we won WWII was the support of families. They grieved as much as Cindy Sheehan ever pretended to but they placed the blame for their loss on the enemy, not their own country.
The aims of this war can be hard to understand. We are not at war with a specific country but with gangs of criminals. Many people are so blinded by their hatred for George Bush and his lack of support for the Liberal agenda that they look for any opportunity to demonize his actions.
All that is required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. (Burke) The same holds for nations. If young men and women do not see the honor in service, they will not serve and their children will be dhimmis, slaves to a nuclear caliphate.
So, men and women in uniform: write your mothers and tell them you love them and that you are being careful (only don't just be careful, be strong too, good hunting) and that you hope to see them soon.
Mothers: send your children cookies and tell them you are proud of them; do not be consumed by fear.
We will win this fight.

Posted by: martin at September 28, 2007 6:48 AM

Ah, martin, I so hope you're right.

Posted by: Flynne at September 28, 2007 7:38 AM

I am an Army Veteran with 6 years in as Military Police, not the gray haired Vet as depicted on TV but a 33 year old usually mistaken for a 23 year old. I can only relate my situation to this by giving my reason to join. Signing up (for service) is indeed voluntary but the reasons are often a big mix of possibilities. Growing up in a less-than-advantageous environment (a hillbilly in West Virginia); joining gave me an out, from something other than trailer life, which is a good enough reason to run from the hills and straight to boot camp. My assumption is that the son, which this woman has hope for the safe return of (as do I), had some kind of need to "get the hell out" of where ever he grew up. You can play word games like "honor and serving god & country" but I have yet to meet the kind of idealistic person that would gratefully "eat a bullet" for his country. **Please- We do not need to fill up this blog with the "I would do it, you got no idea what honor is, etc" banter. You want to live, I want you to live. All that can be said is to support your loved ones who are willing to take the great risks involved with military involvement and be blessed, should they return a whole being.

Posted by: kbling at September 28, 2007 8:36 AM

>> You can play word games like "honor and serving god & country" but I have yet to meet the kind of idealistic person that would gratefully "eat a bullet" for his country.

Pat Tilman.

Posted by: eric at September 28, 2007 8:40 AM

Martin,

"All that is required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. (Burke) The same holds for nations. If young men and women do not see the honor in service, they will not serve and their children will be dhimmis, slaves to a nuclear caliphate."

Iraqi insurgents could use this as their slogan if they just changed "caliphate" to "capitalists". The only reason you win the any armed conflicts is because you were better armed with guns or ideas than your enemies. There are no other reasons. Calling your defeated enemies "evils" make you saints conveniently. But I am not fully convinced as your hand is still dripping with fresh bloods of lives, who "were doing only their jobs" to make it through the end of the day.

We must find a way to coexist. We will never reach that stage as long as you call your enemies "evils".

Posted by: Chang at September 28, 2007 10:39 AM

Chang -

Coexistence with Islamists is not possible.

Coexistence requires peace. Peace requires negotiation. Negotiation requires compromise.

The Islamists have no compromise they are willing to reach. They offer us only this choice: submit, convert, or die.

They are unwilling to compromise on their demands. I am unwilling to accede to their unreasonable demands.

Of course, if this was 1941, you'd be arguing that we ought not label the Japanese and the Germans as evil.

Posted by: brian at September 28, 2007 10:56 AM

Thank you, KBling.

And here's what Rochelle wrote about her son's reason for going:

What finally hooked him was a recruiter’s comment that if he thought the country’s role in Iraq was so screwed up, he should try to fix it.

And on a deeper, personal level, he signed up hoping that somehow the Army would help him find what young men these days often try to fill with alcohol, drugs and video games: a sense of purpose.

A teenager when his father filed for divorce, he’d never had anyone to teach him what it meant to be a man, he told me when he explained his decision to join the Army. He couldn’t concentrate on college courses, he was resisting promotion at his job, and he not only wanted but needed challenge and discipline, he said. The only way to get it, he’d decided, was to pit himself against drill sergeants, armed insurgents and improvised explosive devices. If he could do it, he told me, he’d have the self-assurance he hadn’t found in his old life.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 28, 2007 10:59 AM

F-in' recruiters. I was going to rail on that lot of spinsters but I was trying to be on the up and up. That is another part of my "reason" to join. Those guys sugar-coat it just to the guy/gal's taste. I wanted to kick the sh!t out of my recuiter. But I learned to grin and bear it (duty, challenge, discipline)-crap.

Posted by: kbling at September 28, 2007 11:41 AM

brian,

"Coexistence with Islamists is not possible.
Coexistence requires peace. Peace requires negotiation. Negotiation requires compromise."

Actually, I think peace requires freedom. Otherwise, it is slavery just like good old peaceful days in the South before the civil war. I think Iraqi insurgents are the nationalists rather than Islamists, who seek freedom from the foreign powers. And I do not blame them. How would you like the Chinese soldiers patrolling the streets of Washington D.C.?

If I learned anything in this country, anything is possible. Last weekend, I saw a Muslim girl with head scarf listening to an I pod on a roller blade. That was a beautiful sight.

Where I live, Muslims and Christians do not kill each other. That does not happen in Dubai either. I believe that we can coexist. Or we should die trying.

Posted by: Chang at September 28, 2007 11:42 AM

Chang,
The "evil" comes from the Burke quote but you make a valid point. I don't consider the pawns of radical islamic post-ottoman thugocracy to be evil, only profoundly misguided and I think our forces are taking a remarkably constructive approach to correcting their thinking. A huge percentage of military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq are infrastructure building projects.

And I despised my recruiter too. Not for showing me where to sign the forms I already wanted to sign but for not doing more to help me pick the right military job. He was only interested in getting me in. The high school guidance office shares much of the blame. They considered a student who joined the military to be a failure and provided no information whatsoever about different jobs within the service.

Posted by: martin at September 28, 2007 11:56 AM

My husband is Navy special ops, and he's been deployed for most of the last two years: 8 months battling Al Qaeda in SE Asia, followed immediately by another 8 months fighting Taliban in Afghanistan. He's getting ready for a possible deployment to Iraq right now, and I know exactly how this woman feels. It's terrifying to send someone you love into such dangerous places.

I suppose the biggest thing that helped me through those last two deployments was knowing that he strongly believed in the missions he was supporting: his feelings on the Iraqi war are the same as yours, Amy (actually, as are mine), and he's not thrilled about the possibility of getting stuck over there, but he was so proud of the positive changes he saw every day in the other theaters. "Putting things in perspective," as Evan's mother advised, is important: it's not like there's a draft or forced enlistment or something. I think it's also important to become involved with the soldier's unit and mission from back at home: I begged all the local dentists' offices for hundreds of plastic children's toothbrushes for my husband to distribute to Afghani kids on MedCap missions, and the pictures he sent of grinning children waving toothbrushes like medals made my heart melt.

I know I'm rambling...I guess, what I'm getting at, is that it IS hard to be the family member of someone in the military, but it's also incredibly humbling and amazing to "participate" in the success of some of our current missions. I also find it incredibly reassuring to know that, while a lot of Americans don't approve of Bush or of these wars, many of them still support and encourage members of the military.

Posted by: Sarah at September 28, 2007 12:14 PM

And we support and encourage people like you too, Sarah. Bless you for all you do.
My warmest hopes are with you.

Posted by: martin at September 28, 2007 12:25 PM

"Those who beat their swords into plowshares will be forced to plow for those who do not."

Posted by: winston at September 28, 2007 1:17 PM

Sarah, thank you and please tell your husband thanks -- for being there on behalf of the rest of us.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 28, 2007 1:57 PM

I passed your kind words on to my husband, and he was as appreciative as I am. Thank you. ;)

Posted by: Sarah at September 28, 2007 8:53 PM

Chang -

Coexistence with Islamists is not possible.

Coexistence requires peace. Peace requires negotiation. Negotiation requires compromise.

The Islamists have no compromise they are willing to reach. They offer us only this choice: submit, convert, or die.

They are unwilling to compromise on their demands. I am unwilling to accede to their unreasonable demands.

Of course, if this was 1941, you'd be arguing that we ought not label the Japanese and the Germans as evil.

If it were 1941, and she were arguing that the Japanese and the Germans are not evil, she'd have been proven correct less than 20 years later.

Posted by: Patrick at September 29, 2007 2:01 AM

That's so great, Sarah...thank you so much.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 29, 2007 3:09 AM

Sarah and Rochelle - Thank you both for your sacrifices, and thank your husband and son respectively for risking their lives for us.

I am humbled that men I do not know would be willing to risk their lives for my benefit.

Posted by: brian at September 29, 2007 7:27 AM

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