''How does it feel to watch him leave? Are you worried? Are your kids scared?'' What kinds of questions are these? How do people think it feels to kiss someone goodbye for what could be the last time?
The young families of our armed forces might not be familiar, firsthand, with the scenario of mobilization and departure, but they are learning quickly. They are becoming veterans of an age-old experience; waving goodbye when soldiers are called to war.
These families are now also veterans of a barrage of media attention that has accompanied President Bush's orders for the largest mobilization of U.S. troops since the Vietnam War. For as long as there have been wars, there have been families and children left behind. The tearful departure scenes as our military leaves for foreign shores have always been popular photo opportunities.
There is a striking similarity, a timelessness, among the photographs of young soldiers in the 1940s or during Korea or Vietnam and the photographs we are seeing today. Today's departure scenes have also provided the media with plenty of material for feature stories. Microphones are proffered, questions are fired, and experts are called on to discuss and analyze the stress factors and to offer advice.
A military career, while scarcely competitive with civilian sector jobs, offers benefits and an often contradictory stability and security. The contradiction, the underlying trade-off, which can be easily forgotten until an Iraq-type situation develops, is that our military forces are always ready to mobilize, to move out -- with no return trip booked or guaranteed. Military families accept the uncertainty that is part of the deal. And they learn to say goodbye.
My family and many thousands of others know what it is like to send family members off to war, and yet I can't find anyone who remembers being interviewed or questioned about how it felt to send a father or brother to fight in Vietnam or Korea. Maybe the media focus on these human interest stories is directly related to the political climate and to the popularity of the military activity as the military mobilizes. But if there is any political or moral ambiguity, the news stories can just as quickly shift to criticize and condemn the politicians and the military.
Military families are always caught in the middle between a job that must be done and the impact that job has on the family. When your family is affected by the headlines in the newspaper, there is no right or wrong; there is only here or there, gone or at home.
Of course, there is danger involved in military duty. The smart parents realize and yet minimize the truth about just how dangerous it is, about how dangerous life itself is. The concepts of mortality and even of a lengthy absence are difficult for children to understand, and they look to the adults around them for clues. Even as they reel from the stresses and emotions of departure, military parents learn to master a certain form of bravado that borders on denial and has very little to do with the headlines.
It is difficult for me to reconcile the current media fascination with military families and stress with the image of the thousands of mothers who tucked their children into bed during the Vietnam era and told them that everything was going to be all right, while body count figures droned on the evening news in the background. But that's survival: the ability to reassure children and get through normal daily life, believing, always, that your dad and son or brother is one of the good guys.
During the Vietnam War, military families weren't being interviewed by the media or being offered expert advice on how to deal with stress. Perhaps today's military families will be better served by the public acknowledgment of the stresses they face.
The media have already turned their attention to other stories, to headlines about political leaders, borders, blockades and hostages. The journalists looking for human interest stories have moved on, and for the military families who are left behind there is simply the continuum of time and waiting: bills to pay, decisions to make, children to feed and clothe and reassure.
That's the real story of families dealing with deployment or the same unreported story about Vietnam. The real story involves families who understand duty and fear, stress and hope -- often more than they understand the politics involved -- and find themselves studying maps of faraway places and strange names. But this time the media have intruded, and echoed and amplified the questions that families have always asked: "Where are you going? When will you be back? Are you scared?" Maybe we all need to hear these questions asked and answered. Maybe we all need to be reminded that soldiers everywhere have families and children.
Mary R. Truscott, the daughter and granddaughter of career Army officers, is the author of "Brats: Children of the American Military Speak Out."