My son might come home from Iraq. But then again, he might not. He's been there a year, and seems to narrowly escape more often, the closer it comes to his return. He will be 21 on March first, if he makes it.
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They say a picture's worth a thousand words. I agree. When my younger son, Joey, printed an eight-by-ten photo that his big bro, Jason, sent him by e-mail, I looked into Jason’s eyes -- still handsome; somewhat harder. Serious. Focused.
As I studied the picture, I was in the delivery room again, counting fingers, making sure he was physically intact. He'd always been a kid who played down any kind of physical pain or injury. Even as a little tyke, he’d ask for a Band-Aid, saying he had a scratch when he clearly needed stitches.
The day his distant voice came into my office over an Iraqi satellite phone telling me that it was his convoy involved in an “incident” –- in case I heard anything on the news, he wasn’t at liberty to say anything except that he was fine, although the media was already releasing details as they understood them. He said he was “okay” but I didn’t know what that meant, exactly. I did worry that Jason could lose an arm or leg and never tell me about it until he came home, as not to worry me.
We heard that a bomb had exploded beneath a Humvee on convoy outside of Mosul, where Jason is stationed, and there were injuries to soldiers of the 133rd -- his unit. Jason regularly went by Humvee to Diamondback for provisions from the PX and to pick up the pay for civilian workers from a bank there.
Reports indicated that one soldier from Maine was killed, others wounded. So, hearing is voice lifted a huge weight from my chest. Yet it was another month before I heard from him again and could ask all the questions that had been haunting me. Was he there when it happened? How close? How much had he seen? Even then, he didn’t tell me that it was *his* Humvee that had been bombed and ambushed, but luckily, he had been pulled from his regular detail that morning. He hadn't mentioned that the man who usually sat two feet from him, was blown to pieces.
Still, that was last April, and it turned out to be a dress rehearsal, seemingly designed to break me in. It's always something; especially now. The media coverage there is so thorough.
He's eating in his room these days because his chow hall is missing some walls, and another buddy of his was killed there, in a recent attack. One of the cooks from the Iraqi food service -- paid for by the US military in an effort to create peaceful relations with the Iraqis, and funnel revenue into their economy -- who served Jason his food, daily, walked in wearing a suicide vest that day. Jason had luckily left the mess hall just before eating, to lend an item to a friend. He felt the blast from his room. Someone called me and told me to turn on the television to channel 6, where I watched the report as they continued to account for soldiers, one at a time. After many hours when they reported that all the soldiers had contacted their families, and I had still not heard from Jason, I chose to think the best: if he had been hurt or killed, I would have been officially informed. Footage showed mangled bodies being loaded into helicopters headed for German hospitals. I never heard from Jason for a full month. Being allowed to call families was the result of special permission. Phone access was otherwise denied. Jason eventually told me that the reason he had not called, was that he wanted his fellow-soldiers who had children, and husbands and wives to call first, and ran out of time.
There were been other reports too, that kept me channel surfing with wadded tissues and a raw nose, on the edge of my sofa.
We, objective parents of soldiers, expect our sons and daughters to come home changed. We also know how the grim snapshots of war, close enough to touch, can change a man –- or woman -– in ways one can’t fully understand unless they've been close enough to smell it.
A letter –- snail mail -– is a precious gift, written in his hand. Yet, it seems to come via camel and the news is cold by the time it reaches my mailbox. E-mails and instant messages are more than comforting because they are current, and I can chat with Jason in “real time.” But those, too, are rare, and there is such a long delay for security purposes as the calls are monitored, that it seems we spend most of the time saying, "What was that? Excuse me?" as we talk over each other and have two conversations going at once.
Still, a photo says things that a 20 year old soldier may not think to mention to his Mom. His trapezoids are bigger –- he’s been working out. He has a farmer’s tan –- he has spent long hours in the Iraqi sun.
His walls are adorned with the sheets of random photos I'd attached to his e-mails over the past months: his brother’s school portraits, his sister making a dorky face, and his five-year-old brother flying kites and petting his new kittens. He actually made the effort to print them and hang them up. He does love us.
Is he homesick? And... are those my Oakley sunglasses hanging on the wall, that I had forgotten in his hotel room in Portland that bleak and snowy, pre-dawn morning he left for Fort Drum to prepare for his deployment to the war zone?
Jason, my firstborn –- who I vividly remember as a toe-headed three year old, carrying handpicked bouquets of dandelions across the field to Grandma -- now sports two tattoos.
In this picture, he’s holding -- with complete ease I might add -- a weapon that may save his life some day, or maybe a fellow soldier’s, or that of a civilian child, but could potentially assist in his own demise, or by its use cause scars to his psyche that may never heal. War is ugly and unpredictable, after all.
I reflect on a conversation I had with my mother when Jason was probably two. I told her that I would not support war -- ever, and if a draft was reinstated that affected him, I would want him to run for Canada. I just loved him too much to sacrifice him for some fat politician sitting behind a mahogany desk. I didn’t understand her surprised and her not-even-remotely-supportive reaction at the time. That was before I became a history buff.
I didn’t have a clear understanding of history back then -- or of the human condition. I didn't understand the potential of evil men in power, who are without conscience, who -- when left unchecked -- cause limitless pain and misery to countless people. Nor did I yet understand the kind of love that willingly looks away from its own sacrifices and pain to prevent the senseless abuses of masses of others.
Thank God I had gained a more realistic perspective of so many things before that day, when Jason, at age 18, signed the dotted line to become a United States Army National Guardsman.
To say this has changed our lives forever is an understatement. It has opened us to the reality of war and the living conditions of people across the globe that is far different from our own.
After six months in Iraq, Jason finally started sharing snippets of his life there with us back home. Now, when I pass a field where someone is burning brush, I'm reminded of the piles of rotting trash and so many more piles of smoldering garbage that litter the streets of Iraq where there is open burning. I think of how suffocating stench can be when combined with high temperatures. Here, we sit beside our fans when it’s eighty degrees, in a plush Maine hamlet, complaining of the unbearable heat, sipping a sweating glass of iced tea with the perfume of petunias wafting in through the dancing window lace. Our soldiers bake in one-hundred-thirty degree weather -– add ten degrees if you are in a Humvee or dump truck -- and try to ration water so they have enough for the day. Still, our guys enjoy luxuries the locals there don’t.
Here, we deem porta-potties a necessary evil and only use them when absolutely necessary, holding our breath the entire time. There, Jason appreciates his access to “port-johns” because the locals have no qualms about crouching wherever the urge hits, leaving their waste behind. You have to respect cats because they at least bury it. The rampant smell of human feces is considered normal. Add to that, their constant loose-bowel condition, because the water is bad. Iraqis wipe themselves with their hand. Some use water. Some use soap. Too many others, don’t.
When the Americans built a new school, complete with flush toilets, the Iraqis didn’t didn't want them. Many people used the same toilet, again and again without flushing, letting it pile up and over the rim; not for lack of understanding how they worked. They wanted to be able to vote. They didn't necessarily want to become soft by Western luxuries.
Many times, when Jason had eaten Iraqi food, he had to follow-up with an antidote distributed by the military for use when exposed to biological weapons. It also works for the symptoms that our soldiers contract from eating Iraqi food. They have to be careful in ways they had never had to think about, here. Rumor has it that an estimated eighty percent of all people living in Dyanna (a city north of Mosul where the 133rd is building a school and expanding an existing school) have worms.
I haven’t even mentioned the obvious atrocities concerning basic human rights because we are all so familiar with them.
But, let’s not talk about any of that. This war is about oil right? That’s all. It's not about freedom, and education, and democracy.
If we were to walk a mile in their shoes, would we be glad for the Americans willing to lift us out of the mire? Jason's comrades were shocked by American coverage of the war. It was skewed and only represented a tiny minority of disgruntled citizens. He was generally overwhelmed by the love and support of the local people. When he first saw the coverage sent to him by parents of a soldier in his unit, he sounded in a letter like he had been pierced through. "This is what they think it's like here? This is what they think we're doing? And against the will of the people? Wow... it's nothing like what we see here every day. Where do they find these people?"
When Jason's convoy passed by, kids would come running, with adults trailing quickly behind, to line the streets and cheer them on. Many held up small American flags that they carry on them, always. A young lady from our hometown sent volumes of video footage of their stay there. She left nothing out. But we never saw images like that on the news. There was, rather, a constant fear of running over a child because they flocked to the soldiers whenever they came through. And it eventually did tragically happen, creating a ban on soldiers handing out gifts, candy or money to the orphans. Jason saw it. And it remains one of the most difficult memories of his tour there.
And… have we already forgotten the absolute sense of vulnerability we all felt when we were attacked on our own soil? Do the numbers 9-11 still send the patriotic blood coursing through your veins? Do we think apathy would prevent more such tragedies?
We lived in upstate New York at the time. I sometimes wonder if that had anything to do with his decision to enlist. I had known people who were there when the towers came down. The details are unfathomable. One lady and a pastor ignored the announcement over the loud speaker, to stay where they were and to not leave the building, after the first tower was hit. Despite the warning, the two ran quickly down 43 flights of stairs and out of the building, just as the second plane hit the tower, tearing the landing gear off of the plane. As they ran, it dropped, just missing him. It hit her, splattering what been -- just seconds before -- her body in a watermelon-like explosion, covering him in pieces. All of the people who had heeded the warning to stay in the building, were killed. I was told that the pastor had runr past a severed head, not even knowing what or where he was running to. Just away. The last I heard, he was getting intensive psychological counseling and hadn’t yet slept -- weeks after the attack.
And, could we please stop pretending we know all the variables when it comes to any war? Do we really think that John Q Public is privy to every sordid detail of high-impact information –- the kind that nations rise and fall by? How naive to think we do. We cannot even be trusted with the recipe to Colonel Sander’s chicken. What would we do with sensitive top-secret information?
There comes a time when we just have to say, “Our soldiers are over there, let’s support them, and pray that their effort will not be in vain and that it will save and improve the lives of many others.”
“How’s Mom doing?” That’s a question I get a lot. I say that I’m doing fine. I say that Jason is a very grounded kid and he just rolls with the punches, which makes it easier for me. I say that kids his age die every day in car crashes, drug overdoses and freak accidents state-side, so it’s more a matter of fate than circumstance.
I tell them that our five year old prays for Jason every night and assures me that because he does, we have nothing to worry about –- Jason will be okay.
But more honestly… it’s like this: I find myself staring at the guys in BDU’s getting into a broken down Chevy at Dunkin’ Donuts and wonder where they’re going and how unfair it is that they're paid so little, while renta-cops are going over there because our government pays them a thousand dollars a day. No commitment, they can back out anytime, but they can cash in.
When I stop into the video store, it seems like half the movies on the shelves are war movies and the actors on the jackets all wear Jason’s face. When the GI Joe from his chocolate going-away cake was floating upside down in cold dishpan water that was brown and lumpy with crumbs, had one boot missing, I shivered at the grim images of soldiers dieing in the mud and prayed this was not some horrible preparation for me of what was to come for my son.
When my five-year-old took the same GI Joe from the counter and wrapped its head and feet with electrical tape because he was a prisoner of war, I was horrified. I scolded him and removed the tape as if it were some little Jason voodoo doll.
When I get a patriotic e-mail, I cry –- nearly every time.
The number 133 -- his troop number -- jumps out at me from printed texts, road signs and doctors reports. And I stop and pray for our troops.
When I hear a helicopter, see a military vehicle or even some paint-ballers wearing army boots, I wonder where Jason is at that exact second. I wonder if he has anything for his acid reflux, how his blistered feet are doing and if he still has heat rash so bad he can hardly walk. I wonder if he was mortared today.
When I see a yellow ribbon, I wonder how long it will be before he comes home, and if I will actually see him alive again. I trust I will. But, a stronger, wiser me that lives in my deepest parts, prepares me every day for the possibilities.
I take long rides, sometimes, so I can stop being strong for an hour without witnesses. If I see someone that I know at an intersection in my hometown and I’m weeping, I wonder if they think I’m having problems in my marriage, or if I've been drinking. Small towns are like that.
I check my e-mail every time I pass my computer and I feel a mild sense of panic when we miss a phone call -- in case it might have been him -- never knowing if that might have been the last time I could have heard his voice.
When I thank a veteran for his or her service and give generously when they are handing out poppies, I don’t think they understand my sincerity. I had an intense respect for veterans long before Jason joined up, but this personalizes it.
It’s time for this article to end, because my five year old will be up soon and will want to go to the park. I’ll have to wake up my fourteen year old, because he would never do that on his own, and I have some letters and packages to get in the mail to Jason.
Now, with all things said, if I had to choose two words to sum up all of the thoughts and feelings that I swim in every day, they would be, “no regrets.”
I am proud of my son and all the men and woman serving now -- as well as all those who served before them and those who will follow.
And I hope and pray that there will always be enough unselfish men and women to step up and do whatever is necessary to keep our nation safe. To all of them -– hats off and “Thank You!”
Felicia Stone 2004
Here, I share, with stark honesty, my life.