By H. Barry Holt
Saturday, March 18, 2006
I cannot describe the relief I felt when our oldest son returned from war alive -- for the second time. He is an Army communications specialist, a job designed to support combat units in a mobile war. Although his first deployment to Iraq may have been inevitable, my wife and I were terrified when he received his orders, less than a year after he had enlisted as an uncertain and directionless 18-year-old and less than six months after basic training. Uncertain information from the Army meant we couldn't be there to see him board the plane to war. But we managed to be there the week before, full of parental stoicism and quiet terror demonstrated through hugs and tears.
I generally accepted the reasons we went to war and worried about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Like many Americans, I believed that America had a moral duty to protect the oppressed of Iraq. But with my son in that war, my interest became much more parochial. Policy meant less than facts.
At first we heard nothing, then finally one short phone call from Kuwait told us he was safe and bored with waiting. I filled time between infrequent e-mails scouring the Internet for local newspapers showing pictures of his unit's equipment being shrink-wrapped and loaded on transport ships. Think-tank Web sites gave information about bases in western Iraq, where he was headed. I devoured bits of information he gave me through e-mail and telephone calls, and slowly his story unfolded. I shuddered when he described his terrifying 36-hour convoy race from Kuwait to Anbar province. His girlfriend told us (he tried to protect us from such news) about the attack on his convoy and his using his newly minted "expert" qualification on the SAW light machine gun to kill an attacking Iraqi soldier.
I anguished over his descriptions of random mortar attacks on his base, and I chastised him for volunteering for "shotgun" duty on missions conducted by the combat unit he supported. But hearing nothing for long periods was so much worse. I had persistent nightmares about improvised explosive devices, mortar rounds, snipers and accidents, knowing nothing but fearing the worst. Every report of an attack triggered frantic efforts to unearth the latest news, each time followed by guilty relief that my son was not hurt and by shame that I was relieved that someone else had died. But I cried every time I saw lists of casualties as I scoured the names for soldiers and Marines from his home base or our hometown. Now they were my children, too.
My fears escalated when he told me he was slightly wounded during a firefight, and his only reaction was annoyance that there would be no Purple Heart because an investigation revealed the cause was friendly fire. My heart broke when he told me about two friends who died in different accidents and about a sergeant he knew who was killed by a sniper. When he left Anbar on the convoy back to Kuwait, with improvised armor on his vehicle, I worried until he phoned after his safe arrival.
My son came home . . . alive.
Our visit after he returned was emotional and sweet. He had not changed much, but he was moody and uninterested in news about the war. During the next nine months, with another deployment expected, life became more urgent as he married and then fathered our first grandchild. Much of that immediate joy was denied him because he was in northern Iraq when his son was born. But our grandson is beautiful and will grow up proud of his father.
My son's second tour in Iraq was, in some ways, easier on us than the first. We knew more of what to expect, and my anxiety dulled to a continuous daily ache. He complained to me about boredom -- and I celebrated! "A little boredom is a good thing, enjoy it," I would tell him. But with youthful impatience, he longed for more action.
Although the second deployment generally was less stressful, we were confused and angry at the Army when he asked us to buy ammo pouches and other military accessories that weren't issued to him. His convoy to northern Iraq was nerve-wracking and dangerous, but he made it safely. His base was more developed than it was in Anbar, but mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attacks continued, and some fell perilously close. Our persistent worry resurfaced. But he survived all of that and finally flew back home safely.
My view of the war hasn't changed. I am concerned about mistakes made and whether it will be worth all the bloodshed. I wonder how long the troops will remain -- will my son have to go back? Even though our thoughts are full of visits with son, daughter-in-law and grandson, in the back of my mind the worry persists. Rumors are that his unit will return to Iraq next fall. Will he survive?
Anxiety resurrects itself each time I see casualty lists, and I still cry over each soldier's death. I am one with all the parents who lie sleepless every night worrying over their soldier children. Their children are still my children, and that feeling will never end. We are U.S Army and Marine parents, proud of all our sons and daughters who protect this country. But they have seen far too much for people so young, and I don't want any of them to die.
My son is home and alive. He has done his duty and I don't want him to go back.
The writer lives in Arlington.