Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Personal War

Today is the tenth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq.  I was just a little girl when Vietnam was the war that covered the fronts of newspapers. I was in kindergarten when our neighborhood welcomed home my friend's dad, who had been a prisoner of war. It made an impression on me, but only to the level of six year old understanding.

Iraq is the first war I encountered as a grown up. The first war I had to judge and support, or oppose, while I was a mom, raising my own little children. I could see the implications of war with adult eyes, and it was much more intimidating.

And today, as I scroll through many links to essays in my facebook feed, posted by friends who approved, and friends who did not, I feel that war with a deeper understanding. My own son, that little boy who grew up hearing stories of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, now wears the Army uniform himself.

Four days ago he graduated from boot camp. Yesterday he started his intense Cavalry Scout training. The Army may be just a stepping stone to his future, or he may stay for his career. But either way, he is in the ranks today, eligible to be shipped out to dangerous lands by this time next year. The word 'war' has a new meaning to his mama.

Several people have asked me how I can be so enthusiastic about his life choice, considering his life could be threatened in a very real way. And I understand that question. But I also understand my boy.

He is a leader. He has grown up being the ring leader to two little brothers, and peace maker between our pack of boys and their older sister. He joined his high school track team, which had taken a deep hit by losing a beloved coach the year before, and by his senior year he had rallied them into a winning team, once again. Even last summer, as he waited for his leave date, he became instant camp counselor to younger cousins who came to spend some time with us. He led them on adventures in the woods, teaching them to catch fish with their hands, then bring them home and cook them on the backyard grill. My boy is thriving in an environment that calls on leadership skills.

The more my husband and I tell the people around us that our son is now serving, the more we are encouraged by their responses. We are fortunate that we live in a time where military service is respected and appreciated. I don't have to defend my son's choice, like the mothers of Vietnam soldiers so often did. My husband quickly found that he is surrounded at work by military veterans. The service is a starting off place for many successful people, it seems. The life and leadership skills my son learns will stay with him for the rest of his life, no matter what path he chooses.

But what about the danger,  you ask? What about the fact that he might be killed before he gets a chance to live that long, productive life? What about the fact he could lose a limb or be permanently injured before he leaves the service? I'm his mom. The woman who has adored him since the day I found out he was on the way to join the human race. Of course I've spent many days, nights, and long car rides pondering those questions.

And here's my honest answer. I have to let it go
It's a choice he made. He was in college, and called us to say he was ready to get his feet wet NOW. He was not happy writing more English papers and doing more math equations. He wanted to make a different choice. He was over 18. He could sign any enlistment paper he wanted. Sure, he called us and asked for advice. He even listened to our concerns with sincerity. But ultimately, it's his life. His choice.

I know he will be in danger. I know he is in more danger during his training than he would be sitting in a college classroom right now. The story at the top of my news feed today was of 9 Marines who were killed yesterday. In the United States. During a training exercise. I will not lie and say I didn't choke up a bit when I read the headline, then the story. It's inevitable. But this is when my new pep talk starts.

Much like the pep talk I give myself when my precious husband climbs on yet another jet to fly somewhere for work, I remind myself that every day soldiers train, every day planes take off, every day teens climb behind the wheel, and millions of times nothing happens. Millions of times they come out the other side unharmed. Millions of travelers arrive at their destination with their biggest problem being a lost suitcase. Millions of times young men and women strap on those boots, throw that rifle over their shoulder, and head off to another day of training, even another day of war, and survive.

Yes, it could happen to my son. I am not immune to life tragedy. I read the profiles of young men and women we've lost and wonder how each one of them could have been 'the best'. Isn't it true, that every young person you read about, who lost their life, seems to be that kid who everyone loved, and that kid who had such a bright future? 

There's a reason for that. Because every 'kid' is someone's baby. Just like Michael will always be my baby.  But I can't justify forcing my son to not take a path he believes in because of my own fears. I can't coddle him and protect him to the point of extinguishing his drive, the same drive that will make him a great leader in the adult world.

I have to be honest and tell you that my son is the least afraid of losing a limb. Having grown up with an amputee mom who lives a pretty normal life, and seeing the people she knows who live extraordinary lives, my son's attitude toward amputation is a bit cavalier for my comfort. He literally said to me one day, "It wouldn't be that terrible to lose a leg...you only have one and you do just fine!" We were discussing the dangers of motorcycles at the time and as much as I wanted to be honored that he saw me as a 'normal' mom, I had to work hard to bring him back to the reality that keeping his own two healthy limbs was highly preferred.

My son is strong. My son is smart. He is being trained very thoroughly for the job he will be asked to perform. He has confidence and is properly equipped.

Yes, I worry. If I ever let myself dwell on the thousands of soldiers we've lost in the war overseas, or even the soldiers who have died in training, I can get pretty worked up. But then I remind myself of the reality. My son is serving a country he loves. He will charge into life and face it's challenges, whether I worry or not. And I will love him and support him, no matter what the outcome.

All I can truly do to help him right now is those two simple things. Love and support him. 

Send him letters from home, filled with stories of the crazy things his brothers are up to. Include a few pictures of our latest adventures.  Be available when he has a rare chance to give us a call and try not to cry when I hear his precious voice. Remind him how proud we are of him, and how many people are behind him.

My son is in the Army. And I could not be more proud.