Emerging into the sunlight, I’m leaving for work in Winchester, Va., in my Army combat uniform. Coffee sloshes from my cup onto my bag; my patrol cap is in my hand, not on my head as it should be. I’m a wreck. A woman I don’t know, a bit older than me, smiles. She looks as if she’s about to say, “Thank you for your service,” to which I’m never sure how to respond.
Six months ago I was in Baghdad, serving as operations chief of the Gulf Region District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Our unit oversees infrastructure rebuilding — a beautiful and expensive endeavor managing construction of schools, roads, hospitals and other big-ticket items. I was someone else six months ago, in charge of force protection, intelligence, security and combat movement across Iraq.
Then my older son, Nicholas, a charismatic and passionate 21-year-old in his third year of college, shot himself during my last week in theater.
Our unit suffered five fatalities during our year in Iraq. One individual was killed by a sniper’s single shot to the head. One person, also named Nicholas, was lost to a vehicle-borne suicide bomb. During my tenure, I learned how to receive such calls and to inform our commander. I had to be direct and calm and succinctly present the information he needed. Remaining professional during these events was difficult, especially because I was out of practice.
Once I was a fast-tracking young lieutenant. After commanding my cadet battalion, I received a regular Army commission in 1988 and went to Fort Hood, Tex. I led two engineer platoons and served as an executive officer. When I became pregnant with Nick shortly after arriving at Fort Hood, my husband and I decided I should finish the remaining three years of my active-duty service obligation and then become a stay-at-home mom; I didn’t think I could be a good officer and a good mother at the same time. In 1993, Nick’s brother, Jake, was born. While raising them, I served for years in the reserves and then inactive reserves. More than two years after resigning my commission, I re-entered the service. Nick was in college, and Jake was nearly grown.
Six months ago, I had neither calm nor poise when I received the call from the emergency room physician. Our phone numbers had Virginia area codes, so the doctor didn’t know he was calling Iraq. I was on my lunch shift, alone, watching the news inside the operations office. When the unfamiliar number popped up, I thought it must be a wrong number.
“This is Major Smith. How may I help you?”
“This is Dr. so-and-so, at Riverside Hospital in Newport News, Virginia,” he said. “Are you the mother of Nicholas Smith?”
He verified my son’s birth date. Then he told me my son had been brought in with “very serious injuries.” He said Nick had suffered a gunshot wound to the head.
I asked if Nick was alive, and the doctor let out his breath and said, “He is right now.”
It’s true that in these circumstances you feel the blood rush to your core and your hands and feet get cold. They get cold when I think about it now. I dropped the phone and started making sounds that were part words, part shrieks.
I called for the operations manager in the next room. I don’t remember everything that happened next, but I do remember thinking, How could it be true? How could I be receiving one of these calls when the victim was my own son back in Virginia?
Within 30 minutes, before the chaplain had even arrived, I was headed out to begin the journey home. First I flew to Kuwait, then to Washington and finally to Newport News, where my precious boy lay in a coma.
He died the next day, about 25 hours after I arrived. None of this was the journey’s end I expected. Based on the circumstances and evidence, the police think Nick intended a suicide gesture.
He succeeded, and now I am the ghost.
Three days before Nick’s injury, my noncommissioned officer and I had raised two flags over our camp, one for each of my sons. We saluted, then folded them into triangles. I gave Jake his flag. The other lies still in a box, along with a certificate from my commander and sergeant major stating that it was flown over Camp Wolfe, in the Province of Baghdad, Iraq, during Operation New Dawn, in Nick’s honor with gratitude for his support.
My heart aches for Nick — I miss his large presence and the bond of patriotism we shared. I thank him for his service, too; deployments are not easy for family members.
I am especially touched now when strangers approach and thank me for my service, though I might stumble on my reply. Sometimes I tear up. In every case, I wish I could hug them and say, “You are welcome.” Then I would look into their eyes and say that losing a child is heart-rending, but that losing one while serving in harm’s way, while protecting others, carries a unique anguish.
I now better grasp the price of freedom. I was far away when Nick went through that dark night. I wonder what others experience, what pains flare up or what they know to savor, when they are thanked for their service. We can honor those sacrifices by cherishing the gifts they bring — cherish those we hold dear, treasure our families and thank God for our blessings.
The writer is a major in the U.S. Army, serving in Winchester, Va. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.