Calls bridge the relative distance to Afghanistan

January 08, 2002|By Susan Reimer

WE WERE DUE at my sister's for our traditional holiday gathering at precisely 1 p.m. on the Sunday before Christmas. The timing was important this year because Rudi was calling from inside Afghanistan.

Rudi is a Marine, a member of the special forces, although it is the nature of the Marines to reply that they are all special, none more than the rest.

But Rudi is special to us because he is my sister's 23-year-old son and the only one of 11 in his generation to be on active duty in the military.

When the phone call came, the portable was passed to each of us in turn - aunts, uncles, cousins, sister, father, mother. And we all wept.

Some of us didn't weep until we handed off the phone. I made Rudi laugh by asking if there was shopping in Afghanistan; if the country was known for any particular kind of jewelry. But when my turn was over, I turned my face to the wall and sobbed.

My sister Cynthia - Aunt Cynthia - broke down when Rudi asked if she had made her famous red cake for Christmas. She said she thought he was crying, too.

During the phone call, we learned that Rudi was cold, hungry for something decent to eat, and hadn't had a shower since early December.

He couldn't say what brave and patriotic things he was doing. All we learned from that phone conversation was that he was homesick for us all and physically miserable.

It was then that I decided that war would be better for both soldiers and loved ones without cell phones and satellite phones. Without CNN. Without real time.

This was not my nephew's first "morale call," as the military refers to them. As a matter of fact, he calls home every couple of days. While he was on board ship - bored to tears waiting to be deployed - he called and e-mailed constantly.

Most of the calls were just business: Yes, his college applications had been mailed. No, he hadn't received Aunt Susan's pictures yet. He had gotten a tattoo. He'd seen Shrek. He went to a USO show and got his picture taken with Wayne Newton. He was lifting weights three or five times a day.

We are pretty sure they put Rudi on the ground in Egypt and Israel during the last few months - he could never say - but he was able to call and e-mail from those places, too.

My sister plans her days so that she will be home during the window of time when she knows he can call. God forbid that he should reach out from Afghanistan and get an answering machine.

And when he calls, my sister says, he is ravenous for news. Who has she talked to? Who has she seen? What is everyone up to? What's going on?

She struggles for something lively to say because most days at home are unremarkable. His questions reveal to her just how eager he is to be where he is not, to be where his parents and his sister and his friends are.

During these phone calls, Rudi never complains. He is the consummate Marine. But as he shares details of his daily life, his mother gets a pretty clear word picture of how unpleasant it is. It is what he is trained for, but it is anathema to her, and with every new detail she feels another small stab of pain.

I think these phone calls are making mother and son completely miserable, and I think I understand why.

When my son was attending a brutal wrestling camp where the goal was simple survival, he called home only when he knew we would be absent and left a simple message: "I'm OK."

I was annoyed at his elusiveness until he returned home and explained, "If I had heard your voices, I don't know if I could have made it through." And I recognized that if I had known what he was enduring, I might not have made it through, either. What must it be like for my sister?

While she is waiting for the phone to ring, she is watching all-news channels, CNN or MSNBC or Fox News, hoping to catch sight of him. During his phone calls, he tells her when a camera crew has been nearby.

She sees Marines poking around in caves in Tora Bora - caves that might hold booby-trapped weapons dumps - and her heart is in her throat. Suddenly, they show a Marine injured by a land mine, and she presses her nose up against the screen to see if his tattoo is the one Rudi described to her during one of his phone calls. They say the Vietnam War was the first television war, but it was a different kind of television war. The film was digested and packaged for presentation on the 6 p.m. news. Americans were not watching firefights unfold live.

The missing ingredient here is time: the time it takes to write a letter and mail it home from a war zone; the time it takes to edit a war and ship it to American television. In that time there is distance - just a little distance - between the suffering of our soldiers and the wretched inability of their families to do anything about it.

Would she have it any other way? Would the family of Nathan Chapman, the first U.S. serviceman killed by hostile fire in Afghanistan, have traded his 20-minute Christmas phone call for any ignorance-is-bliss peace of mind?

"Absolutely not," my sister says. "Rudi's father was a Marine during Vietnam, and he was able to call his mother once in a year.

"When Rudi calls, I sleep that night. Each night after, I sleep a little less until he calls again.

"But you are right, I try to tell from his voice - is he sick? Is he depressed? Or is he just tired from a day's work. I listen for everything."

Diaries and letters home form much of the historical record of war, and you have to wonder what has been lost in the e-mails and cell phone calls of this conflict.

In the past, soldiers sent home remarkable expressions of love, loss, fear and misery when their thoughts passed through pen to paper. So much of that record is now bouncing off a satellite and into oblivion.

But more than that, I think this cell phone war is delivering heartache to those at home that is as fresh as today's bread.

That heartache might arrive in letters. But it would not come to us in the voice of one so loved.

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