color: SOME SOLDIER'S MOM: Getting It Together

Friday, January 21, 2005

Getting It Together

I recently returned from a visit to my son's army base. It will be the last visit there for quite some time. I went because his deployment to Iraq was imminent, the base was having a farewell ceremony for his Division, and I wanted to spend a last few days with him, to be there to hug him one last time and tell him (again) how much he is loved.
The farewell ceremony was at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon. Each section of the stadium had signs at the top designating the seating areas for each deploying unit. A local country artist performed. The base's Army band played. Soldiers sang. A U.S. Senator spoke. A Congressman. Two local mayors. The state governor. The Base Commander. Some speakers (two of whom were vets) drew lots of "Hooahs", others just got snickers. There was a rousing rendition of "I'd Rather Be a Dogfaced Soldier." Weather prevented the elite jump team from parachuting into the stadium (which brought more than a fair share of good-natured cat calls and chiding from the Infantry -- LOL) Except for military personnel and family and friends, no one else bothered to attend, and only the local news channels covered the deployment of more than 6,000 troops from this base. If it made the national news, no one I know saw it.

The farewell ceremony was well-attended by the affected military personnel and their families. At least the spouses and children of the married soldiers. There were very few parents in evidence. Not because they didn't want or intend to be there, I believe, but because the word of the ceremony was so poorly communicated to the soldiers. If I had not logged on to the Division's website over the holidays, I would not have known about the ceremony at all. And had I not the instinct to look for the press release on the ceremony, the date and time would have eluded me completely. Some soldiers I spoke with remarked that they had only been made aware of the ceremony that day. While I recall reading somewhere that 60% or more of soldiers are unmarried, parents are an after-thought. Even the unit's FRG (Family Readiness Group)website says "FRGs are designed to provide information to the spouses of Soldiers. Soldier's family members, such as Mom's and Dad's [sic], and friends may find this site useful as well." An afterthought. Sigh.

While my visit was originally intended to last 5 days (through the final weekend prior to deployment), it turned to a 12 day stay when the deployment was delayed. I will forever cherish the time I was priviledged to spend with my son and his fellow soldiers. It could well be a new MasterCard commercial: hotel bill $$$, car rental $$$, meals and other sundry items, $$$. Opportunity to be there when your son deployed: PRICELESS. It was especially heartening to me to have the opportunity to be a little help to these soldiers before they deployed. Since most soldiers had already moved their POVs (personally-owned vehicles) home or to off-base storage, transportation from their barracks to other places they needed to be -- especially off base -- was exceedingly limited and prohibitively expensive.

On their non-working days and on some work day evenings, we drove to uniform stores to acquire last minute necessities: extra PT (physical training) clothing, having names, rank and other insignia added to DCUs (desert camouflage uniform) and backpacks, extra brown t-shirts, extra canteens, second set of boots... and to other local stores to buy batteries, movies, music, toiletries, socks... All of which these soldiers pay for (including all the insignia and sewing) out of their meager earnings. Evenings were spent at local restaurants and movie theatres. It was as if these young men were trying to soak up every last ounce of Americana they could before they left. That and fending off extreme boredom as almost every television and personal piece of electronic equipment had also been dispatched to homes and storage.

Some time was spent packing up the last of personal and civilian belongings and shipping it home, together with issued but non-deployment Army equipment. My basement is now littered with green duffle bags, suitcases, backpacks and boxes filled to the seams with such things. An almost equal quantity of not used, not worth keeping things were stuffed in garbage bags and hauled to the industrial-sized dumpsters outside the barracks. (Trust me when I say that if the things I saw in that dumpster area could talk -- oh my, the stories they might tell!!)
While the amount of belongings shipped and garbage chucked was inspiring, it was nothing close to the overstuffed to bursting duffle bags, ruck sacks and backpacks taken by the soldiers when they deployed. Everything they thought they'd need or couldn't bear to be without for the next 18 months was crammed, banged, stuffed in those bags together with required Army equipment such as DCUs, camelbacks (hydration system), gloves, hats, shirts... one set of civilian clothing (which had to include a long-sleeved, button down shirt with collar). Much of the optional belongings was what I would classify as "entertainment" but which those that have been there say is sanity-saving equipment: music CDs, DVDs, books, magazines, PCs, walkmen, minidisc players, MP3 players, paper, pens, envelopes...
The soldiers' ruck sacks and duffle bags were loaded onto trucks for the journey to the airfield. The backpacks, however, had to be carried. They were required to wear their field vests (without armor plates which then had to be packed at the last minute!), kevlars (helmets), and weapons. It was quite a show. It's an experience I hope to participate in only once.


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