This article was originally written in 2008 by a soldier's mother during the Iraq war. We are republishing it because the insight continues to hold relevance for parents of active duty military -- past, future, and present.
Recently, the 3rd Infantry Division redeployed after 15 months in Iraq and a few units that were deployed to Afghanistan. It made me think about my feelings when those same units redeployed after OIF3 rotations in 2005 — which had been particularly difficult. I reflected on the previous 10 months and I realize now from my continued participation on a number of private forums for mothers and families of those deployed, that my feelings were the universal feelings of mothers everywhere — no matter when their child had deployed. And I know mothers who are awaiting the next deployment of their sons and daughters and, although the violence is down and our military and the Iraqis have made spectacular progress, the worry has not changed. For those mothers who are perhaps awaiting the first deployment of their child, here’s what it’s like.
I have never been to war but I have sent a child to war.
We mothers joke that we would go over and cook, clean and do laundry for our sons and daughters, but the truth is, we would trade places with them in a heartbeat to keep them safe. To keep them from being hot, cold, hungry, tired, sore and from being shot at or being blown up. I have never had more enthusiastic agreement from military moms than when I say that sending a child to war really is the most counterintuitive thing a parent can ever do. We spend the first 18+ years of their lives making sure they are not too hot or too cold; making sure they are protected from biting bugs and making sure no one is shooting at them. And now we are called upon to wave and smile as they leave for places that are always too hot, too cold, they have bugs the size of small dogs and people are shooting at them all the time. Same for wives (but I assure you the intensity is different…)
People — especially other mothers that do NOT have children in the military — tell me that they can not imagine what that would be like… that they would be a basket case 24 hours a day. Yes, that’s it. It’s like you live standing on your tippy-toes every day your child is away… and you live on the edge of breathlessness… a mental asthma attack gasping and gasping for strength and sanity and peace of mind. On the outside, we smile bravely and say, “you find the strength.” And, yes, we do find strength, but the truth is that we really only find distractions from our worry, our anxiety, our heartache.
We go to jobs. We try to maintain some semblance of our lives, but those lives have changed. And we blog. We write letters. We send cards. We shop for things to send our soldiers. We pack things for our soldiers. We stand in line at the post office to mail things to our soldiers.
We talk about them. We live for the opportunity to talk with them. Then we talk to others about what we talked about with our soldiers. And we wait for another chance to talk to them again.
We learn to use all the technology available to stay in touch and to try and keep track of them. We listen for our computers to make odd noises when our soldiers are online. We listen for our phones… for the special rings we have programmed so we know if we have to answer that call. We forward phones; we pull to the side of the road to text message back to our soldiers; we give up our place in grocery store lines to run outside so the reception on the phone is better when they call. We get used to the smiling stares from people when we say, “I’m sorry, I have to take this call… my son is calling from Iraq.” And we wouldn’t care if they did mind — we’re taking that call no matter what.
These days, with the media ignoring the War in Iraq and in Afghanistan, it is difficult to find news, but we still watch the news and when we can’t stand it another minute, we stop watching the news. We have the television tuned to some news channel; even when we aren’t watching it, we’re listening to it. And we breathe in sharply and hold our breath when we hear, “soldiers were killed today and wounded in an explosion…” and we exhale when they say the name of the province or the town and it’s not your soldier’s town or province. If it is their province or town, we get online and begin searching for details because we know the news is hours old by the time it makes the television news and there might be something more somewhere…
We check newspapers and websites for pictures of soldiers from our soldier’s unit in the hope that he might be in one… Never mind that the picture might be days or weeks old, it is at that moment proof positive that our soldier is just fine and he’ll call any time now.
We talk or email other parents. We wonder what they’ve heard. We offer support when they’re down (and we all get down) and we call when we’re down ’cause we know they understand completely. We trade jokes, we trade information, we even trade recipes.
We think about our soldiers day in and day out. And not just the soldiers we’re related to — but all the soldiers we know in their units and don’t know in their units. When we wake, we calculate the time in Iraq and wonder what they’re doing. It’s a task we’ll do many times every day. When we’re sitting to dinner, we wonder what they had to eat today… wonder if they even got a hot meal today. They’ll pop up in our heads while we’re doing dishes, walking to our cars, doing laundry.
We pray for our soldiers. We pray to keep them safe, we pray for their wounds to be healed when they are wounded, we pray for their souls when they die, we pray for the ones left behind to mourn. We pray for the parents in Iraq, and for their children who are now soldiers, too… and for those children protected by the soldiers there. We pray for peace. Every minute of every day we pray for peace and for our children to come home.
We cry. We cry when they haven’t called or written and we cry when they do. We cry because we miss them and because we are so frightened for them. We cry when they leave and when they return and then leave again… We find that the smallest of things make us teary-eyed… walking in their room… seeing a picture… seeing a soldier. Watching the news, reading the news, hearing the news. Yes, we cry. There’s nothing like a good cry to set your head straight. Our soldiers get used to it — they don’t understand — but they know it just is.
Although we send one child (and my heart knows no limits to the compassion I feel for those mothers with two or more service members in the war!), we adopt many more… and eventually ALL soldiers — every soldier, sailor, marine, airman — become our sons and daughters.
We can not see a soldier anywhere without approaching them and thanking them and telling them that we, too, have a soldier…. because we all know that all soldiers have the same blood and speaking with that soldier makes us feel like we are talking to our soldier. We hug them if they let us — and we hug them whenever we can. And we know somewhere there is a mom thanking us for taking the time to talk to (and for hugging) her soldier. She would do the same for me.
If we can not speak to that John Doe soldier, we smile wistfully… we get a pang… and our eyes may fill with tears knowing that when we look at that soldier, we are looking at our own soldier. Ask any soldier’s mom — she’ll tell you… It’s a universal response.
And mixed with this fear and longing is pride. Indescribable pride for these children of ours. Pride that they made the choice to serve. Pride that they accepted the challenge and met it spectacularly! Pride that they do their jobs under the most extraordinary of circumstances. We often ask ourselves, “Did I raise this person?” “How could I have done things so right?” We know we are blessed to have these spectacular creatures in our lives.
And for the soldiers who have fallen and for their families, we will BE THERE. We will tell their story. We thank them. We will remember them. We will remember all of them. Always.
To our Guys… our Soldiers, our Marines, our Airmen, our Sailors and those that serve with them, we thank you all. We live in Freedom and with Liberty because of you.