My 23 year old son, Gillen, is in the Air National Guard. He is four years into a six year commitment. A few weekends ago, he came home from “drill” with the news that he may have to go to Afghanistan for six months in the spring of 2017. A few days later, as I drove to work, I heard that President Obama had changed his mind about keeping troops in Afghanistan. He had hoped to pull them out before he left office, but it now appears that that will not happen. To me, that news is not abstract – it may end up sending my son into harm’s way in Afghanistan.
One of my first thoughts when I realized that our second child was a son was that someday, someone would want to make a soldier out of this baby. What a ridiculous thought. I squashed it right away. Some primeval mother-memory must have surfaced. Post-partum brain chemicals can do funny things, I thought.
But the thought bubbled up again a few times as he grew. On the bright September morning of 9/11 he was a blond, silky haired 8 year old who was taking piano lessons from the nice lady down the street. The lesson was ended abruptly when her phone would not stop ringing. We walked home with Gillen and his sisters racing ahead of me and his baby brother in the stroller. He liked piano well enough, but was glad to be out in the sunshine, racing home. We still didn’t know what the news really was. We were in home in time to watch the second tower fall. It seemed inevitable that we would go to war.
Again, it crossed my mind, will he have to serve? Again, I squashed this ridiculous thought. He was only 8 years old; he played the piano and drew animals by the hour.
A few years later, I was nervous when recruiters appeared in the high school, looking for him. (This is not paranoia. I’m a teacher. I know who they are looking for: the just-OK student, the decent athlete. The kid bright enough to have done better who is not enticed by the thought of four more years in the classroom.) Despite the handsome uniforms and the slick brochures, he did not seem tempted.
Before we knew it, our nation had been at war for most of his life. But oddly, we didn’t really seem to know anyone who had gone to it. A few of his friends had joined, but only one came home with truly harrowing tales. The rest seemed to train endlessly and reported that military life was largely a bore. The military funerals seemed to be in other places, happening to other people.
He was unsettled after high school. Like lots of kids, he tried community college, worked odd, seasonal jobs at the local orchards and ski areas. We sent him on an Outward Bound trip hoping it would help him sort things out. It didn’t quite. But, eventually, after a scary ride involving minor brushes with the law and other a few other difficulties, he settled on joining the Guard and it was with a certain amount of relief that we saw him in uniform.
I’m still not quite sure why he joined. We did not pressure him to do so. In fact, we were cautious and reluctant. He thought he would be an air traffic controller and get a good job without going to college. Air traffic proved not to be a good fit. He is in “fuels,” which means his job is to help refuel aircraft on the ground. I know I will not have to face the daily terror of those whose family members are in combat, but still, it’s in Afghanistan. I will worry.
The history of military service in my family is not exactly a proud tradition passed from father to son like a shiny box full of medals. Our history (unlike our country’s recent history) is conflicted, ambivalent.
I had a great uncle who recovered from the physical wounds he received in the Pacific during World War II but was so profoundly damaged that he never drove again. He once remarked that he could hear the bodies of Japanese soldiers beneath the wheels when he tried to drive.
A young uncle of mine served in Vietnam, joining the Air Force to avoid the draft. Like my son at 18, he was not the college type. He has lived his life changed by what he saw and in no hurry to encourage anyone else to serve.
My dad served in the National Guard as a part time job to make extra money when we were kids. He mostly remembers riding in the back of a truck out to Fort Drum in New York and the fun of blowing stuff up (it was practice–not warfare.)
The men in my family have mostly been gentle men, good husbands, good fathers–they have served when it was necessary– but none have followed what is proudly called in military graduations, “the profession of arms.” No one reminisced about glory days. No one approached uniformed soldiers and thanked them for their service.
Aren’t I proud to be an American? Well, yes. I’m also grateful. Grateful that my ancestors chose this country. Don’t I believe in military service ? Well, sure. I believe we need to be ready to fight when it is truly necessary. I’m not callous or hypocritical enough to say that I believe in it only for the sons, daughters and husbands of others. But having an “all volunteer” military makes it easy to deploy for reasons that are less than compelling. Mothers would have marched the streets if a draft had been required to invade Iraq or Afghanistan.
I have seen as a teacher, and now recognize as a mother, that many “volunteers” are simply young people who don’t know quite what else to do. Some are truly impoverished and choose the military in an attempt change their circumstances, assuring that losses will be disproportionately among the poor. They get sent overseas to fight and while they may question the mission, they do their job.
There is little of the intense soul searching and societal upheaval that came with committing troops to Vietnam and keeping them there for years. As a nation, we have not answered the hard questions. Is this cause worth fighting for? Is it worth having our own children fight for? That’s a different question. I’m ashamed that I asked it as little as I did when it was the sons and daughters of others.
Katie Stuart is a mother of four milllenials and a teacher who tries to practice what she preaches. The best way to teach kids that their writing is worth their best effort is to write with them. Once in a while, something turns up that is worth the hard work of revising.