color: SOME SOLDIER'S MOM: December 2004

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Prism of Knowing

Some people see the world through rose colored glasses. I can be one of those people. It was a more common occurence when I was younger. Age does indeed make us more cynical. And less rosy, I guess.

For the time that our son has been in the Army, we have robustly accepted each of his assignments. When the sitting around and waiting for a new training period to begin wore his patience thin, we were encouraging and tried to make light about his predicament ("yes, it's called hurry up and wait, son.") We cheered his successes with gusto and volume. When there were awards and ceremonies, at least one of us was always there to cheer, clap, slap him on the back. He's our son. We're very proud. It is his chosen work and we're ok with that.

Then his unit got the orders we knew would come but had dreaded nonetheless. The world changed. Perhaps the world has not changed... just the way we see it.
He began to plan. What to do with his car. His motorcycle. His mail. Notifications to phone companies, insurance companies. Papers to complete.
Our shopping trips are now replete with stops to check out the selection of travel size toiletries because he will need them. Prices of batteries and his favorite candies are compared because we will be sending them. What camera to buy him for Christmas was done in consultation with soldiers who had already been there. A stop at a local shoe store included a request to save boxes for us so that we will have them for care packages.
We see the world through the prism of knowing.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Not Wanting Christmas to Come

Sounds bizarre, I know. Christmas is my most favorite holiday. Not because of the presents, but because of the extreme sense of family it engenders.
When I was really little and my father was still with us, we had the most spectacular Christmas mornings: the tree (white flock with the most dazzling golden ornaments -- but only gold ones!) would be piled high with the most incredible presents -- Chatty Cathy, dancing dolls, miniature pianos, personal record players (remember record players?), bicycles, baby carriages, Barbie dolls, dollhouses... When my father was gone and my mother was left to raise 7 children under the age of 10 by herself, there were Christmases when there wasn't even one store bought present under the tree but only our most cherished possessions, each wrapped in newspaper and given to each other. So when I became a wage earner in high school, giving presents in our house took on a special meaning. I can't remember many presents I received, but I can recall almost every present I ever gave my brothers and sisters.

When we (now grown) officially became "middle class" I spent too much money to make sure that our children squealed with glee upon viewing the tree each Christmas morning and it made my heart soar when one of the children each year would exclaim, "This was the best Christmas EVER!"

And it's still not the presents. We have honored family traditions -- the cookies and cakes, who will play Santa Claus (sometimes the oldest, sometimes the youngest, this year the soldier) to dispense the bounty from under our tree, the stories we tell, the decorations around the home, the prayers we recite.

But Christmas getting here faster this year just means that the day he will deploy will get here faster, too. Maybe I don't want Christmas not to come, but get here and not go. Just stay. I know in my head that I can't keep "that day" from coming, but I want time to slow down so that I have more time with him here. Here where he is safe. Here where no one is shooting at my precious man-child. Where he gets three squares a day and all the stuff in between... Where a cold drink of water is just steps away and the bed he sleeps in is soft and warm and bug free. Here where no one is trying to blow him up or propell a rocket through him or his vehicle. Here where he is but a phone call or quick plane ride away. Here where we -- I -- can touch him, hug him, laugh with him. Here. Not there.

It's not like one or more of our children haven't missed a Christmas at home now and then. Our Navy sons have been stationed away for Christmases, and our daughter has had commitments as an EMT (and now as a medical student) that have prevented her from being with us on Christmas. It is different when your loved one is in a war zone. It just is.

When this Christmas comes, it means it will be mere days until he is wisked away from us. If Christmas comes.. and then goes... his last Christmas with us for at least a year... next Christmas will be the first ever he won't wake in our home...

I think I hate Christmas. Maybe not this Christmas. Maybe I hate next Christmas. Maybe I'll take Grisham's advice and skip next Christmas. Maybe we'll simply reschedule next Christmas until he is home again.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

You Always Worry

As a parent, you always worry about your kids. First when they walk - those little stumbling steps... tottering, weaving while you tried to keep your hands as close as you could so that when they did fall, they didn't fall too hard. Or into some piece of furniture. Next running. Then on to playing in the yard. Then riding bikes. Skateboarding. Rollerblading. Snowboarding. Then the worst --driving. Each new progression with a little more danger, a little more speed. A little more independence.

Looking back now, it's plain to see that those steps in their abilities were also steps in their independence and steps in my trust in their growth ... let the rope out a bit... let go of the back of the bike... And not a little of why you worry and the basis of your fear is that you have "been there." You remember what it was like to suddenly realize that no one was holding onto the seat of that bike. First the panic and then the elation. You remember what went through your head the first time you hit that mogul... or how fast your heart was beating the first time (hell, every time) a pitcher decided you needed to be brushed back off the plate.

And you do those mental gymnastics of balancing the need to protect with the need to let them achieve. Those split second calculations in wee recesses of your brain between the "you" part of the exercise and the "them" part. There are parts of every parent that never accept that their child's successes and eventually their complete independence from you is total validation of the fine job you did as a parent. At that moment, all you are aware of is the worry.

This is especially difficult for me as a military mom. My sons were so completely confident in themselves and so willing to serve, that they each volunteered to serve in the US military. I admit that I am exceptionally proud of my children (as if I were unique in that regard!) Even though my husband was a career Navy officer, most of his 24 year career was ended and his civilian career begun by the time the oldest was in high school -- the youngest barely remember it -- so I did not really consider us a "military family". That is, until all three sons enlisted in the span of five years.

While both of the oldest boys joined -- and one completed his stint -- before the war in Iraq, the youngest joined immediately before the war. He didn't join because the country was going to war. He joined in spite of it.

After having survived the usual "raising your children" worries, I have come to realize that there is a whole new level of worry associated with being a military parent. When they go off to basic training (or boot camp, depending on what branch of service), you start your day -- every day -- wondering what they're doing and whether they're doing it well enough. You read everything you can find on the training. You talk to the people who know. For mothers like me who have "been there" before, you worry more. You seek solace from the other sons who tell you, "Don't worry, Ma. He'll be fine. He's tough. He can handle this." You're not so sure.

You know the brothers and their Dad have talked to one another. You think it must not be that bad -- otherwise, why wouldn't one brother have talked the others out of it? You talk over the dinner table about what the training syllabus says they're doing that day. The letters come fitfully. An occasional phone call when permitted. You worry he's sleep deprived. You worry he's cold and wet... his feet hurt... he's hungry. Or maybe he got the DI who hates his job and therefore hates his recruits. Or maybe just your recruit. You discover that there are an endless supply of things to worry about. Then, the same way you forgot the pain of childbirth and had another, the pride that explodes from you when you get to pin on that blue braid -- and watch as your son parades with his new brothers as Honor Platoon erases every ounce of worry.

Now it's Airborne training. You worry about how quickly they learn to jump. Shouldn't they take like 6 months to train people to jump out of perfectly good airplanes with 100 pounds of equipment tied to them? You take little pleasure in the descriptions of what it's like to jump and how great he thinks this is. Once again, the pride that overwhelms you when you get to pin those wings on and stand next to that beaming man erases all trace of the worry you endured every day.

And the whole time your son was in training, soldiers and marines have been dying in that war. You guiltily tell yourself, "ok, by the time he finishes his training, the worst of it will be over... and maybe he won't have to go." And you know your son is feeling poorly about the situation because guys he went through basic with are there. Some are wounded. Some have died. Others may yet be wounded or die. He feels that deeply. He worries for them. He wants to go and contribute to the effort.

Now he's with a unit just back. He sees first hand the effect the war has had on his new compatriots. And you worry that this will affect him, too. The rumors come and go about where they will deploy and when. You worry. He tells you that they are out in the field training. He tells you they are going to Louisiana to train some more. You worry while he trains, but you know that the more they train the safer he might be... and the longer it will be until they go. You worry they're not training enough.

Then you hear. They're going. You know where (well, the country). You know when (kinda). A whole new set of worries. The news -- which you have followed religiously since he enlisted and which has always brought to mind the other mothers -- becomes unbearable to watch. You try hard not to read too much into the stories. You avoid looking at the pictures. At least you try.

You spend hours making up mental lists of things you want to say.... things to remind him to do about his car, his insurance, his phone... lists of things to send once he's left for there. You try not to worry. You try not to do or say anything that will worry him. You try to stay upbeat, positive, encouraging. Don't want to do anything that might distract him from the mission -- staying alive. But the worry takes up a little more of your time -- my time -- every day. I am more emotional whenever a brother or sister asks and I wonder how I will be able to hold it together for the holidays... Then I tell myself "Today I will do what I can do today."

I worry. As a parent, you always worry.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

He is a soldier

We always thought he would grow out of it. The wanting to be a soldier. It was going to be just a fad he went through. Like most boys.

When he was 10, he had to complete this assignment for his English class. It was a typical assignment in his school -- one older brother had done it, too, years before. They called it "The Ego Book". Tell about your family, places you'd lived, pets, and things you'd like to be when you grew up. I recently came across those books while we moved. Fully a third of his list was related to the military -- Navy pilot, soldier, Marine, Navy officer, Army officer... And we noticed, too, not long ago, that the photos of his Halloweens were dominated by Army, Marine and Navy uniforms (and an occasional ninja... once a vampire.)

When the youngest of our children started high school, he began to talk about how he couldn't wait to be old enough to join the Army. Like most parents of 13 year olds, we nodded and said "uh-huh". The military has always been an honest and honorable avocation in our family, but we certainly never pushed any of our children to join the military -- it was simply always a viable option.

In his sophomore year, the United States was attacked and it seemed to strengthen his resolve to enlist. We still thought it would pass.

By his junior year in high school, as he and his friends and classmates began to prepare for the SATs and everyone started looking at colleges, he began to visit the local recruiting station. Although his two older brothers were in the Navy (one after high school and one during college), we actively discouraged this son from enlisting. It wasn't that his Dad and I objected to the military, but we wanted him to consider all his options. At his insistence, enlisting remained a part of every conversation we had with our son about his future.

By his senior year, we were certain that he could be distracted from enlistment as his and his friends' attention turned to colleges and graduation. By November, we had become so tired of his insistence that we sign the consent for the Army's delayed entry program (DEP), that we forbade any mention of it until after the first of the New Year. He honored our wishes. Until New Year's Day. Then the floodgates opened. And every day after that, multiple times each day, he implored us, begged us, pleaded with us, argued with us to meet with the Army recruiters. We refused. After all, he was still about 90 days from his 18th birthday. No amount of cajoling or urging on our part could convince him to apply to colleges. With the talk of war escalated, he never wavered. His friends talked to him, but even they will tell you that he wanted to serve, that his highly developed love of his country and his patriotism drove him.

Three weeks before his 18th birthday, accepting that it was unlikely that he would change his mind, we agreed to meet with the Army recruiter. But we made no promises other than to hear them out. After Sgt. C's presentation, we grilled that recruiter with every degree of cynicism we possessed. We reviewed the ASVAB scores and the positions available to our son. He wanted infantry. He wanted Airborne. Straight. Square. Bold. Certain. He looked us firmly in the eyes and said, "Yes, Dad. Yes, Mom. This is really what I want." We signed. My son enlisted not because we might go to war, but in spite of it.

What was gratifying to us was that we felt that the recruiter was straight forward. Truthful. And when we told our son that we would sign the papers to join after graduation, applause erupted in the outer room. There, despite the lateness of the hour, most of the other Army recruiters, and a few of the Marine and Air Force recruiters whom our son had befriended over the previous two years had stayed to see if he would be one of them!