Thinking of my son on Veterans Day

On this day, my heart goes out to all the veterans and their families, especially those who have fought the longest wars in American history and continue to fight their own personal battles as they struggle to fit back in to a civilian world. I ache for the ones who can’t find jobs in this bad economy; who have trouble relating to the trivial concerns of civilian life; who have no response to the accusation from a spouse who says, “you’re not the person I married”; who seem to overreact when their kids fight over the video game controller; who withdraw into themselves; who feel inexplicably angry when someone thanks them for their service; who drink to try to take the edge off; who can’t sleep; who suffer from nightmares; who can’t sit through a movie in a darkened theater. I marvel at the discipline it takes to push through physical and mental pain as they learn to live with missing limbs and traumatic brain injuries. I feel incredibly guilty for all those times I felt too overwhelmed to think about the ongoing wars but had the luxury to be able to turn them off for a while–something none of the active duty service members or veterans could ever do.

When my son joined the Army just after 9-11, under a deferred enlistment program, I was heartbroken and at the same time immensely proud of him. I admired his courage, his desire to do something in response to the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, his willingness to sacrifice his own personal safety and comfort in the service of something larger than himself. If he had been a passenger on one of those doomed planes that day, he very well might have tackled the hijackers himself. He was a senior at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York at the time, majoring in criminal justice, and many of his friends and classmates knew someone personally who worked in the Towers or lived nearby or were in other ways directly affected by the attacks. Like many others of my son’s generation, they felt they had to take action; they couldn’t just sit around and do nothing after we had been attacked. I can only imagine the reactions in the residence halls and dining halls and classrooms that day in September in New York, when news of the attack first reached them. We were all so naive at the time and had no idea where things would lead.

Now, ten years and three deployments later, I still struggle to make sense of what has happened and what it means to us as a family, to our country, and to the world at large, but every day my admiration for my son grows stronger. He has lately begun to make the most incredible works of art. He creates mosaics using photos of the 6600+ servicemen and -women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. He arranges the faces of the dead to form large images of people and places he saw while deployed. I think his art is all the more powerful because for so many years he preferred the “practical arts” over other more expressive arts, and he tends to keep his feelings to himself. But now that he has opened this window into his experiences, I am blown away by their power. I will probably never know everything he has witnessed or hear all the stories he tells himself–he still tries to protect his mom that way–but I wish with all my heart that I could do something to lighten his load and let him and all the other veterans know how very sorry I am for what we put them through.

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My spare room looks like a USPS substation

photo of priority mail packages

After hearing that some of the soldiers who deployed to Afghanistan last summer with the Fourth Infantry, some for the third and fourth time, had not received any mail after nearly two months at war, I decided to “adopt” my son’s platoon. Of course, I realize that this means that in addition to worrying about my son’s personal safety, I now have twenty more young men to fret over. But that is the least I can do. It is not right that I am able to sit in the comfort and safety of my own home night after night, while these brave young men sacrifice so much. (I realize that many of the soldiers fighting and dying these days are women, but my son’s unit is still an all-male unit.)

I know very little about what they have been asked to do, but I know they have few comforts and must work long hours with little sleep in the part of the country that has come to be known as “the volatile south.” They are not far from the Arghandab valley, where several men from their sister platoon were killed shortly after arriving in country. Fort Carson, home of the Fourth Infantry, has lost seventeen soldiers in Afghanistan this year and sixty-one in the country since the war started, including three scouts killed last week. My son acknowledges that “it’s hard,” but they carry on “by sheer will and brotherhood.” What choice do they have?

My plan is to send each of the privates and specialists in the platoon at least one care package per month until they all come home next July. And I pray they all do make it home physically safe and mentally sound. When I first mentioned my idea at work, I was surprised at the number of people who wanted to help. Several of my coworkers said that they had been meaning to do something like this ever since the wars started, but they didn’t know how. A few years ago, people could send care packages to “any soldier,” but that program was discontinued because of fears for the security of the troops. Now, unless you know the name and APO address of a specific soldier, it is hard to know how to help. And unless you go searching for news about the wars, it is difficult to find out what is happening. Gone are the days when the major campaigns made headline news. In fact, plans to embed journalists were recently canceled for the second time in as many weeks, so news is hard to come by. The best source I have found is icasualties.org, which I check religiously several times a day, but I know that even with the wealth of information available online, I am only able to access a tiny fraction of the truth about what these wars are costing everyone involved.

I can’t help but think that if we at home had to suffer more—if the draft were reinstated or if gasoline and coffee were rationed, for example—we would pay more attention to what is happening and would demand a resolution to the conflicts. It is too easy for many of us to distance ourselves from these wars,  a position that was not possible when the draft was in effect and anyone with a son or brother or husband or father had a personal stake in any conflict or potential conflict. At least in previous wars, people “on the home front” were more likely to knit socks and bandages or raise Victory gardens or buy war bonds or make other sacrifices that, if nothing else, served to keep the war in the public eye. Even during the Vietnam War, lists of local soldiers and their APO addresses used to appear in the newspapers, so people from the community could send cards and letters, especially around the holidays. The year I was fourteen, I copied down a long list of names and addresses and sent Christmas cards to soldiers, using money I had made from babysitting to pay for postage. I didn’t know much about the war, but I could easily imagine how hard it would be to be fighting for your life so far from home and how much worse it would be to think you had been forgotten.

Tonight I will finish packing up the last of twenty boxes to send to one small platoon currently fighting far from home, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I very much appreciate all the people who have donated materials and personal notes to place in these packages, as well as cash to help with postage.  I hope these care packages bring some measure of comfort to the soldiers. My son assures me they are much appreciated. I  told him I wish I could do more for his platoon and for all the soldiers and civilians caught in these endless wars. I mentioned something about how people used to knit socks for the soldiers, and he said, “Oh, please, don’t!”