Seeing war through the eyes of a Marine's dad

May 11, 2004|By Frank Schaeffer

THE UNTHINKABLE: My youngest son, my friend, my fishing partner, the little boy I had patted to sleep, was at war. The traditional father-son roles were reversed. My child risked his life to protect me. And I was powerless to help him. I had unwittingly joined the ranks of the tens of thousands of family members for whom sick dread has been a way of life since we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

From March through December 2003, my son John, a corporal in the Marines, was facing roadside bombs and random bullets in Afghanistan. I was proud of his service - and terrified. I was also confronted by the reality that, except for families of our military men and women, few Americans, from my own circle of friends to our nation's leaders, seemed to be sharing my stomach-churning anxiety. Meanwhile, my heart was protected by nothing more than providence and John's Kevlar helmet and flak jacket.

Soon after John was deployed, and before I knew where he was located, I half-heard a snippet of news on a TV in a restaurant. "Three Marines died in a chopper crash." My gut cramped up too much to finish my meal. What three Marines? Where? From then on, every war-related bulletin cut like a knife.

When I'd hear about our losses, a sense of dread suffocated me till I knew it wasn't John who was killed or wounded. Maybe it was only a few terrible seconds. Maybe a time-stopping hour, or even an eternal half-day before I knew it wasn't John, but every announcement that began, "Today an American was killed" made my world go dark. When I found out it wasn't my son, I'd feel intense relief followed by intense shame at my relief: Someone else was getting the news.

My eyes would fill with tears for no reason. My wife suffered, too. In the mornings I would find her sleeping curled on John's bed. Sometimes I'd wake bathed in the moonlight pouring through our bedroom skylights and wonder: Did this moon provide light for a terrorist as he wired an IED (improvised explosive device) to kill John? Will today be the day?

John's calls were precious. I longed to learn how he was coping. Was he becoming a better or worse person, was he being hardened or made kinder? Was he surviving spiritually, emotionally? Had he killed people? Was his cheerfulness during our few short calls as insincere as mine?

"I hear they were shooting at you guys this weekend," I said as nonchalantly as I could.

"Did they report that in the paper?" John asked.

"Yes."

"They shoot at us all the time. The paper just happened to report it this time. Don't worry. Their aim isn't very good, and anyway, a lot of the time they're shooting at each other."

One morning while driving to buy a picnic table for an Easter get-together, I turned on the radio. "Today an American soldier was killed and five wounded when a patrol in southern Afghanistan was attacked." I had to slam on the brakes. My hands were shaking too hard to drive. They said "a soldier," not "a Marine," but often the media can't keep the two straight. How long did it take for the military to send someone to inform the family? Surely by now they'd be here if it were John.

I was fortunate; my son came home alive. He will start college this fall, now that he is completing five years of service. My friend, Gregory Commons, father of Cpl. Matthew A. Commons, has other hopes. One day he wishes to visit the mountaintop of Takur Gar, Afghanistan.

"Someday," Greg told me, "I hope to run the dirt through my fingers where Matthew died."

Matthew also wanted to go to college. He was an Army Airborne Ranger, and he was on the helicopter that was shot down during an attempt to rescue Navy SEAL Neil C. Roberts. Then Matt was shot.

We have an all-volunteer military, but we, the platoon of parents, wives, children and husbands of those who serve, have only one choice: to love or not. Our job is to struggle with our fears in plain sight of the carefree lives we used to live and in plain sight of our friends and leaders who have no direct involvement, no loved ones at risk, no skin in the game.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of Faith of Our Sons: A Father's Wartime Dairy (Avalon, 2004). He lives in Salisbury, Mass.

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