Monday, April 30, 2007

A Son Goes to War

My 22 year old son, joined the Army Reserve two years ago. He had hoped to finish college, spending a weekend a month in uniform, but would have no problem if called up in a national emergency. That was when Americans thought Iraq and Afghanistan would settle down within months, not years. Last year, rumors of deployment spread through his Asheville-based engineering unit, until it became certain that in April they would go to Afghanistan for up to a year and a half.

It is rare for an American these days to grasp the reality of a child preparing for war. My son, who wants to be a librarian, completed an eight week army training course last summer. As a combat engineer he learned about de-mining operations, shooting an M-16, surviving gas attacks and hand-to-hand combat. He was actually awarded a couple of medals and got a promotion. Over the next months, my wife and I became used to the shocked looks from friends when we answered “What’s you son up to?” with “Well…. he’s going to Afghanistan for a year to dig up land mines.”

In the three months leading to his actual departure, he spent increasing amounts of time with military duties and training. There were endless shots, mounds of paper work (including his will), and day-long trips to military bases to collect gas masks, desert uniforms, radios, etc.

Then one sunny February day we drove up to Asheville for a farewell party at the armory. It wasn’t the final departure. His unit was going to Ft. Bragg for two months of intense training (mostly in urban combat). We could visit occasional weekends, talk on the phone, and send care packages, kind of like summer camp ten years earlier. There was always the feeling that at the last minute peace would be declared and the troops would return to their families.

But in April, the big departure day came, when the soldiers would fly from Ft. Bragg to Kabul. Families were allowed to spend the last two days on base, mingling with the troops, helping with last-minute packing, buying batteries for CD players and Moon Pies for the long trip. It was a picnic atmosphere. We met our son’s buddies, and everyone pledged they would get home safe and sound. It was more like a departure for a field trip to the beach. But as the minutes ticked by, wives cuddled closer to their battle-dressed husbands. Eyes filled with tears and lips tightened and trembled while oblivious knots of kids played tag and munched candy bars.

A loud sergeant shouted it was time to go, and the crowd separated like oil and water as soldiers flowed into a mass of desert camo, M16s slung over their shoulders. Emotional shock waves rippled through the families. This was the real good-bye. My son gave his new wife a last hug. The knots of kids clung to their daddys and cried: “Daddy, I’m going too.” “Daddy don’t go.” “No daddy, stay here.”

A line of 400 soldiers snaked out the terminal door, across the tarmac, and into a lone white airliner. Many families left, knowing the actual departure would be too much, but we stayed. Too quickly the last soldier entered the plane, and then they were gone. No music, no flag waving, but everyone waved slowly, in a silent collective prayer, hoping the last glimpse of home would be of loved ones wishing farewell. The giant airliner rushed up the runway, thundered over our heads, and banked gracefully east. Its pure, white-winged body against the blue Carolina sky reminded me of an angel.

The 3 hour ride home was a numb blur. After an hour we said they must be over New York. An hour later, we agreed they were crossing into Canada. Time has been measured like that ever since. We changed a kitchen clock to Afghanistan time, and taped a blue star in the front window to remember the other time and the other place, and count every day as a victory.

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