Ribbons and signs: Reflections of a reluctant war mom

A mock funeral for the U.S. and Iraqi dead.: Photo by Charles Russo

A mock funeral for the U.S. and Iraqi dead.: Photo by Charles Russo

The hardest thing I’ve ever done was take my son to the airport the day he deployed to Iraq.
We set off at dawn, the hour that most dates with the Army begin, exhausted after a sleepless night in which my son packed his gear, put on his military fatigues and assumed what my daughter calls his “soldier’s face,” an expressionless, unnaturally calm look.

The sun rose, Led Zeppelin began to sing, “Dancing days are here again/As the summer evenings grow/ I got my flower/ I got my power/ I got my woman who knows” on my car radio — and I began to wonder how I could be helping my son in joining Bush’s surge.

Isn’t this kind of dysfunctional? I thought, wondering if my son’s militaristic tendencies were the universe’s way of jokingly paying me back for a lifetime of peacenik activities.

I know he says he wants to go, but he is young and innocent and doesn’t know what he is getting into, I thought, glancing at my son, who had always shown an interest in war since he was a small child, and was already looking like some kind of psycho-killer, thanks to a pair of black-rimmed, ballistic glasses he insisted on wearing on the plane.

And now he was reminiscing about the time he almost melted a machine gun barrel.
“I let off 300 rounds out of a machine gun without a break,” he explained, his newly shaved head as fuzzy as a chick. “By the time I was done, the barrel was glowing orange and red at the tip. They were blanks, but they still create that much heat.”

For a moment I wanted to turn and drive in the opposite direction. But I knew that there was nothing I could do to stop my son from going on his mission, the modern day version of the medieval knight’s quest.
It wasn’t until after we’d hugged and he’d disappeared into airport security that I broke down and cried.
When I got home, I took out the yellow ribbon magnet I got at the Camp Roberts PX store. I bought it last summer, when I attended the California National Guard farewell ceremony. And now I wrote on it, in black marker, “Til they all come home.”

Then I stuck the magnet on my car, between the “Prune the Shrub” and the “Yes to Coexistence, No to Violence” bumper stickers. I’d finally come out as a military mom.

A few weeks later, I was filling up my car when the guy behind me at the gas station commented on my bumper sticker collection.

“Don’t you think that sometimes there has to be violence for there to be coexistence?” said this guy, who looked younger than me, but older than my son.

“Last weekend 14 U.S. soldiers were killed by roadside bombs,” I said, my voice suddenly on the edge of tears. “What good does that do anybody?”

“Nobody,” the guy agreed, evidently attuned to my distress. “What’s your son’s name? I’ll pray for him.”

Precious treasure
These days, I pray for my son all the time, and all the people who are in Iraq, too. I pray in elevators and bathrooms and coffee stores. I pray when I’m driving across the Bay Bridge toward San Francisco and the towers on the bridge’s western span loom like archangels.

“Protect him, protect them all,” I say to the towers, the angels, and anyone else who might be listening.
Until my son enlisted, I had no idea of the daily nightmare that military families endure. The pain they feel when they read the paper or see the news and hear that some soldiers have been killed, and wonder if folks in uniform will show up at the door with bad news.

And until I went to the National Guard’s farewell ceremony last summer, I had no idea what the 800 guardsmen, who were deploying with my son, were like. Then I saw them marching in formation toward me across a dusty parade field under the anxious gaze of their families. A shiver went up my spine.

They were so young, these soldiers — boys, most of them, just like my son. And they were so representative of the racial demographics of California, so many colors and ethnicities gathered there that day. And most of them didn’t seem to be rolling in money.

But they were precious treasure in the eyes of their wives and children, siblings and parents, who all would really rather not see them leave. And they continue to be a mighty rare resource in these days of no military draft, a body of soldiers who should only be deployed when all other avenues have been exhausted.

Most of us are disconnected from these soldiers, their families and this war. We see images of burning tanks, charred buildings, and stunned Iraqis on the television. But there is no smell of burning flesh. No fear that the person walking toward us is a bomb, about to go off.

And without the draft, most Americans aren’t worrying that Iraq will devour their children. It’s a dangerous disconnect that could allow this war to drag on for decades — its burden to fall on the backs of the same soldiers and their families, over and over again.

Watching these young men prepare to deploy, I felt sick, remembering that when Bush first tried to make his case for the invasion, I naively believed this war could be averted. All it would take, so I thought, was people listing the many reasons why a preemptive invasion was illegal and how it would have long-term counterproductive repercussions for Iraq.

I also remembered how I began to grow desperate in December 2002, when Bush continued to talk about assassination, regime change and first-strike nuclear attacks, despite the fact that inspectors found no evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and despite the fact that millions were marching against an invasion.

I helped organize and participate in a naked peace sign on a beach in Santa Cruz County, along with my friend and fellow peacenik Jane Sullivan.

I know that getting naked to stop the invasion sounds terribly lame in retrospect. As Jay Leno joked at the time, “Good idea. Wrong president.” But it wasn’t likely to trigger any nuclear build-ups, either.

At the time, my son was 16 and wasn’t talking about joining the military. That happened in his first year at college. It was January 2006, and I was hopeful that since the war was becoming increasingly unpopular, the Democrats would be able to take control of Congress and force Bush to bring the troops home, before my son could be deployed.

My son’s recruiters apparently had no such illusions.
“Run away, boy! They’ll send you to Iraq!” they said, when my son showed up to enlist.
“I couldn’t expect you to understand,” he said, the day he broke the news of his enlistment, adding that he believed his ensuing experience would be “like a crucible.”

Crucible is certainly an accurate way to describe my odyssey as a newborn military mom. As I wrote in my diary in Spring 2007, when my son got his deployment orders and came home on leave for a week, “Since last week, I have learned the difference between the cavalry, the field artillery and the infantry. I have helped my son draw up a living will and power of attorney documents. We have had conversations about death, maiming and vegetative conditions.”

We also had plenty of sweet and funny times, the way people do when they don’t know how much time they have left together. Like the day we took a road trip to Mount Tam. We laughed ourselves silly when the person in the passenger seat of the car ahead of us turned out to be a giant poodle. After we climbed to the top of the mountain and looked out at stunning views of the Bay and ocean, my son said, “If everyone could go into space and see the planet Earth from a distance, they’d probably become very spiritual.”
Then he skipped down the path with a hop and jump, like a leprechaun on vacation.

The next morning we delivered him to the National Guard Armory in Walnut Creek (at dawn, of course) so he could hurry up and wait until he and his fellow soldiers were bussed away to Paso Robles for three months of pre-deployment training.

The streets were deserted, except for a TV crew filming families like ours saying goodbye. This was the biggest deployment of the local Guard in a long time, and it was making primetime news. I didn’t feel much like talking, and afterwards, my daughter and I caught BART to San Francisco. The first stop was Lafayette. When we looked out the window, we saw a hillside covered with white crosses, one for each U.S. soldier who has died in Iraq so far.

It was May 9, 2007. The sign said 3,367.
“Unspeakable pain, grief and discombobulation,” was all I wrote in my diary that night.

The pain goes on
By June 5, 2007, I noted that the number of U.S. casualties had risen to 3,495.
Today, it’s past 4,000 soldiers, and no one even knows for sure how many thousands of Iraqis have been killed, maimed, or displaced by this war.

During the months my son has been gone, I have reached out to the other military moms and wives I know in the Bay Area. To them, I offer my profound thanks. They alone understand what it’s like to go weeks without hearing anything, then learn nothing of what is going on when you do get to speak with your soldier by phone.

When I told Kim Mack, whose 23-year-old son Bobby just returned from a yearlong tour in Iraq, that my son hopes to be home by the end of April, she said, “People don’t understand what it does to the family. I know what you are going through.”

Mack is executive director for Sacramento for Obama and supports his candidacy in large part because she believes he’s the only Democratic front-runner who is serious about withdrawing combat troops from Iraq as soon as possible.

Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq on April 4, 2004, observes that none of the presidential front-runners are talking about a complete troop withdrawal.

“I cannot bring my son back to life, but your story is what keeps me motivated to get the troops out of Iraq and start the reconciliation process with the people of Iraq,” Sheehan said.

So here I sit, tortured by unspeakable worries on the fifth anniversary of the invasion. Does the trail mix in my son’s care packages soothe his nerves or fuel random acts of violence? Will he and his buddies get the care they need when they come home? Will we be out of Iraq by 2009? When will the Iraqis get their country back?

I don’t know, but I’ll keep pushing until I have answers, and all the troops are home, and the black marker pen is completely worn off my yellow ribbon magnet.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian (www.sfbg.com). Contact the writer at [email protected]