A Son Goes Off To War

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By James Zumwalt
Saturday, August 16, 2008

For three years, I knew this day would come. I thought I would be prepared. Coming from a family whose proud military heritage dates to this country's founding, and having served in the Marines for a quarter-century and lost a brother to war-related causes, I felt ready for any challenge military life might bring.

I was not.

For generations, my family has sent sons off to war. The first, Jacob Zumwalt, lies in Fort Zumwalt, Mo., -- his headstone recognizes his military service in the American Revolution. The 20th century bore witness to a grandfather's service in World War I, World War II and Korea; a father's service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam; a brother's service in Vietnam; and my own in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm.

Growing up, my brother and I were never told that we had an obligation to serve. It was by osmosis, through witnessing our father's sense of duty to country, that we felt compelled to do so.

Similarly, I never told my son, James, that he bore such an obligation. But I felt great pride when he, too, chose to serve.

Military service must be in our DNA. Even so, it is very difficult for a father to watch a son go off to war.

My son, who was commissioned in the Navy in 2005, chose an extremely dangerous specialty -- explosive ordnance disposal. EOD is a cadre of quiet professionals working with a wide range of explosive material, from small conventional bombs, such as improvised explosive devices, to nuclear warheads. To wear the EOD warfare insignia, candidates are required to pass Navy Dive School, where most EOD careers end before getting fully underway.

After James completed Dive School, he was assigned to a Navy salvage ship. On that assignment, his team made a deep dive on a recently discovered U.S. submarine that was lost during World War II. The dive on the USS Lagarto -- where he observed the entombment of 86 sailors, many younger than he -- gave him an appreciation for youth's false perception that life goes on forever.

When James told me he was going into EOD, I asked why. I expected to hear him talk about the challenge of working with explosives. I was pleasantly surprised when he said, "I can save lives." And this lofty goal was diminished none by the fact that EOD, the Navy's smallest force, has suffered a disproportionate number of casualties in today's war.

Given the increasing demand for EOD specialists, I knew the time would come when James would follow in footsteps of many in our family. He, too, would answer his country's call in a faraway land.

I felt it important to impart guidance about combat service before he left. Many times I sat down to memorialize my thoughts but had great difficulty finding the right words. When he completed his EOD training, I knew his deployment was fast approaching. After I learned that he would be sent to Iraq late this summer, the words that failed me earlier flowed freely.

What does a father tell a son going off to war? In addition to some of my own father's counsel to me, I felt compelled to share advice much more difficult to convey. It was advice my father never needed to share with me, or, for that matter, his father with him -- because what had to be said to my son had not been an issue in America's previous wars.

What I told James related to the nature of the enemy and the evil we are fighting today. I had to counsel him that we are fighting an enemy unequaled in its brutality and barbarity; that no American soldier taken captive by this enemy has returned alive; that once their remains were found, their condition attested to the terrible price these soldiers ultimately paid; that they were victims of sadistic torture, mutilation and decapitation. I had to counsel him that, if he is faced with capture by this enemy, surrender is not an option.

It was not easy advice for a father to give, but knowing the atrocities of which this enemy has proved capable, it was a father's love that compelled me to do so.

I shared one other thought with James. Having lost a grandfather, father and brother, I had come to believe all my heroes were gone. But I was wrong about this, too. In bidding my son farewell as he goes off to war, I realized I have been blessed with yet another hero.

The writer, a retired U.S Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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