A mother adjusts to her son's brave and frightening decision

May 16, 2004|By Susan Reimer

IT WAS A DRAMATIC moment that might have given King Solomon pause, but Susan Koches of Catonsville had no trouble choosing between loved ones.

Her son, Ryan Castle, was waiting at Fort Benning, Ga., midway through Army basic training and more than ready for a family visit.

Her husband, Brian, was stuck at the ticket counter at Baltimore-Washington International Airport without the ID he needed to collect his boarding pass.

She smiled, wished her husband luck and headed for the gate.

"I thought I had planned everything down to the minute," Susan says.

"But my husband had left his driver's license behind when he was getting a new ID.

"I was standing there with my mouth open. I couldn't believe it. I felt terrible on one hand. But on the other, there was nothing that was going to keep me from seeing my son."

She turned to her husband and said, "You know, honey, I hope you get this resolved. But if you don't and you have to stay home, remember to cancel the dog sitter."

With that, she headed for the security gate and the flight that would take her to see her son.

"My husband was very nice about it, about me leaving him standing there.

"I have to give him a lot of points for not questioning my decision."

It all worked out in the end. Someone found her husband's driver's license and was willing to drive it to the airport. The flight was delayed long enough for him to join his wife, and their 10-year-old son, Quinn, on the trip.

"I don't think he doubted for a moment what I would do. I think he understood that any mother would do the same thing."

Susan believes that this airport scene, like so many scenes she has witnessed and so many emotions she has felt, is being repeated across the country.

It is this unseen link to unknown others that has helped her accept the decision of her son to give up college to join the Army and then voluntarily defer Airborne Ranger school so that he could leave for Iraq after boot camp concludes this month.

"We had a wonderful time with our son that weekend," she says. "He was proud and committed and sure of himself.

"I had this sense that hundreds of other families had had the same kind of weekend at some point with their child. I was looking at a snapshot of a lot of other children.

"I had an instant attitude adjustment. There was nothing left for me to do but get on board. "

Ryan Castle graduated in 2002 from Catonsville High, where he had been a lacrosse player, a wrestler and a great student with a strong sense of community.

He worked at the YMCA and he coached his little brother's lacrosse team.

But he insisted he wanted to take a year off before attending college and during that time he realized that there had to be a more challenging environment out there than the college dorm.

He took a good look at all the branches of the armed forces and testing revealed that he would be a shoo-in for special forces. He chose the Army and its Rangers program.

He left in January.

"I have a family that is used to having this together Mom with a lot of energy," says Susan. "But I found myself in a world I didn't understand, and I was scared and confused.

"Suddenly, I became ashamed of myself that I had not thought about all the parents I had joined ranks with. I was part of a world that already existed and I had not thought about them before. A whole new family.

"I was ashamed."

If Susan has prayed for anything since Ryan left, it has been for time. Time for things to sort themselves out in Iraq before he would have to go there.

She thought her prayer had been answered when he was accepted for Ranger training.

But the week before she nearly left without her husband for Fort Benning, Ryan told his parents that he had deferred admittance to Ranger school so he could spend a year in Iraq.

"He told me, 'Mom, it is my turn to go so someone else can come home.' "

And Susan was again reminded of the connection her family now shared with families she did not know and, until that moment, had not thought about.

"I have to support him in this. I can't imagine being one of those families who has been waiting a year for their father or son to come home, only to be told that it will be another four or six months."

I asked her if she thought Ryan was blinded to the dangers ahead by the fearlessness and naivete of youth.

She allowed as how that might be true.

"Before I had a chance to see Ryan that weekend, I might have felt that way, that this was some kind of idealism.

"But after spending time with him, it is not hard for me to see that the decision he has made is part of the cloth from which he is cut.

"Civilian life was too easy for Ryan. There was something else out there more challenging, and he found it."

When his mother asked him when he would leave for Iraq, Ryan Castle neatly evaded the question.

She says she will know when he decides to tell her and she is OK with that.

"I am prepared for whenever that might be because I know he is."

It is amazing to find yourself emulating the behavior of your child, she says.

"He is setting the pace and the standard."

When Ryan Castle gets on the plane for Iraq, he will be leaving his family behind with the same certainty his mother displayed when she wished her husband well and left without him for the gate.

"Ryan says it was time for someone to come home and time for him to stand in their place."

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