My daughter is going to war. She is barely five feet tall and finds it amusing that with her small frame she will be lugging four seabags and an M-16. “Can you picture that?” Shanna says, and there’s laughter in her voice. “I won’t even be able to see my own feet!”
I can’t picture it. And I don’t want to: my daughter wrestling all that gear across the world into an alien land where her presence and that of her colleagues is not even wanted. Moms have been sending their sons off to war since the beginning of time. Apparently we have, imprinted in our genes, an image of ourselves as the honorable mother, smiling pride through our tears, blessing our sons as they set off on their patriotic calling. But sending a daughter into battle is not an experience with a vast social history, so I’m making up the rules—and the role—as I go along: I’m determined not to burden my daughter with my own baggage of war.
Shanna is the single mom of three children, ages 12, 14 and 16, who will have to be re-homed for the year with relatives or friends. Since I will be in touch with my grandchildren throughout the time their mother is away, I will need to know what she’s told them about her reasons for going.
“For the rank,” she tells me when I pose the question. “So I can qualify for a promotion.” There’s a pause while I wish I detected passion, however misdirected, for the work of war, or at least for this one in particular. Passion is something a mother can understand; it’s what you wish for your children. I understand job security too, but security of any kind isn’t what springs to mind at the mention of armed conflict.
“For the money,” she says into my silence. Unadorned honesty has always been her strong suit. “Kevin will be starting his senior year, you know, and after that it’ll be college. I’ll need the money.” Kevin, she assures me, understands this, because he’s in ROTC, working to earn rank himself. As for the younger two kids, she hopes they understand it, but she can’t be sure. I hope they do, too; their mother as soldier-of-fortune is not something I’ll ever be able to explain to them.
Shanna anticipates my thoughts and hurries to answer the objections I haven’t verbalized. “You let us kids earn our own way, I know that. But it’s not the same now. Kids can’t earn their way through college anymore. It’s too expensive.”
It has always been expensive, but I let it go, unwilling to argue the relative economics of one generation over another. Mostly I’m just grateful that I wasn’t a single mom in a military culture where promotion meant leaving my kids behind while I trekked off to Afghanistan to close out an unpopular war. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that Kevin is finishing his last year of high school is exactly why she should be home for him.
But I don’t say that either. It’s not the time to raise objections. Shanna is going off to battle, hefting those four seabags and an M-16. The last thing she needs is for me to add the weight of my own opinions to the load.
As the months leading up to her departure dwindle to mere weeks, I seek out a short story I remember from the ’70s, a time when for reasons of my own I was struggling to understand the legacy of another war—the Vietnam conflict. The story, part of a larger collection by Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien, is called “The Things They Carried.” In it O’Brien lists the trappings, both physical and emotional, that the soldiers in one fictitious unit carry with them through jungles and across rice paddies. They include necessities, of course: can openers, dog tags, a compass, weapons and ammunition. And near necessities: Kool-Aid, cigarettes, dope. Items to deal with heat and cold, ceaseless rain, insects, infection, trench foot. But lucky charms, too, from a pebble to a rabbit’s foot to the severed and desiccated thumb of an enemy soldier. O’Brien mentions the shared weight the soldiers bear of memories—of the weak, the wounded and the dead. And the emotional load of grief, terror, longing, secret fears, regret and guilt. Most of their burdens are intimately connected to their immediate surroundings, but the author adds a touch from their pasts: they carry small gifts from well-wishing friends, and letters from their girlfriends.
But not a word about their families, least of all their mothers. Somewhere in the back of my mind is the conviction that soldiers—frightened soldiers, dying soldiers—call out for their mothers. Apparently not. Partly I’m relieved not to be counted among the weighty burdens Shanna will carry off to war, and partly I feel dispossessed. And I can’t help but wonder, how do her children feel?
* * *
I do have prior experience of war, of sons in harm’s way on the other side of the earth. I have waited before for my children to come home to me from a combat zone, though it was years ago. Our first two adopted sons were orphaned in the Vietnam Conflict. Justin was just two years old, weighed barely 14 pounds, and had the sparse reddish hair and hard, protruding belly we associate with news footage of children in famine-ravaged countries. Someone found him begging on the streets of Soctrang, though he was unable to walk and navigated instead on his bruised and callused knees. Adam, a year younger, was listless and unresponsive, unable to sit alone. His limbs were plump, not with health but with the effects of kwashiorkor, a deadly nutritive disease. It was nine months—the length of a pregnancy—from the time we applied to adopt them until they came home to us and I was able to hold them safely in my arms. In the most obvious ways, they flourished then, but healing from the traumas and losses of war is never a simple fix. We’d adopted their war, brought it home to live with us, and—as it always must—war has left its mark on us all.
* * *
I’m hoping Shanna will be assigned to a part of Afghanistan that is not in the news. Not Kandahar, for instance, where the fighting is fierce and the casualties high. And not wherever it is that Prince Harry of England—a tempting target for anyone who hates the West—has been assigned to fly helicopters. Preferably someplace well-defended but little bothered by our enemies. Is there such a place in that craggy, dust-choked land?
Before she sets off for the war zone she has a two-week leave that she chooses to spend with us. We talk about sports, about the news, about funny moments of shared family history. But when we venture to speak of Afghanistan it’s hard to even breathe. We hurry to change the subject to something less dangerous. Still, we manage to discuss it in spurts, dancing around it, trying not to hurt one another with such a hard reality and huge unknown. She will be stationed in Bagram, she tells us, an air base in the north. Good—it’s not Kandahar.
When she finally leaves us, her journey to Afghanistan proceeds in increments. First to a base in Virginia where she completes the processing paperwork and interviews, and a battery of inoculations for unthinkable diseases. Then on to North Carolina to gain skills in shooting assorted weapons, running through hazards while weighted down with equipment, and crawling out from under blazing, overturned vehicles. The work is grueling, the terrifying realities of her immediate future inescapable. She calls, sobbing, suddenly aware of the price she’s paying in leaving her kids behind. “I’m doing this for them,” she practically wails. The Navy gives her uniformed teddy bears to send home to each of them by way of assuaging her grief and theirs.
Next, on to Texas where she joins the team she’ll be working with “in country,” as she’s learned to call the alien place where she has chosen to serve. There she sits through classes concerned with the specifics of her job, which, since she is a Navy Corpsman, have mostly to do with the healing arts. The thought soothes me some, but I’m wary still, knowing a medic’s insignia is no protective talisman.
And her children? They are adjusting, she tells me. She had assured me they would. “They’re military brats,” she says. “They’ve learned to deal with change.” Maybe. Do any of us really know how to do that?
Inevitably the day arrives when Shanna leaves U.S. soil to wing her way across the Atlantic and utterly out of my reach. I busy myself with housework, those homey tasks that represent order and familiarity in the face of the unknowable. She will travel to Afghanistan by way of Germany and Kazakhstan. I grab the globe left over from my years of home schooling and look for Kazakhstan, give up and google it, pull up a map that does little to reassure me. My beloved daughter is on the far side of the world, transitioning through a country I can’t even spell, much less locate on a map.
Before I have time to fret about it, she reaches her final destination, and I find an email in my in-box: I got here safely on Sunday. I stare at the words on my computer screen, certain there could be nothing “safe” about arriving in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, her three kids are scattered in three directions, afraid for her and—more to the point—for themselves. Is it too much to ask that my daughter would give more consideration to her kids than to her rank or the level of her retirement benefits?
* * *
Years ago we had a daughter whose name was Le. She had lived in an orphanage in Vietnam for several years. She was older, maybe 11 or 12—who could say?—and she was blind. Even so, she was a help to the nuns who ran the home, competently tending to the younger children. When we heard about her, we applied to adopt her. But time was running out for the Americans, as the North Vietnamese pushed relentlessly southward and the foreign troops made plans to withdraw in defeat. The orphanage lay in the path of the advancing conflict; the nuns made the decision to evacuate. The children were loaded into an American C-5A cargo plane along with their adoption dossiers and whatever hopes they held for a family of their own. Le helped soothe the little ones who were disoriented by this strange new experience.
It was, by all reports, a clear day. The flight should have been routine. But instead, just after takeoff from Tan Son Nhut airport, the plane crashed into a rice paddy, scattering children and dossiers into the fields, killing some, injuring others. Le survived and kept her head, helping to carry some of the babies to safety.
Here at home, we waited anxiously for word of her, but the chaos was complete. Now without their papers, the surviving children were shuttled out of the country by any means possible, making their way to new homes in the US, Canada, Australia and France. We hung near the phone, hoping for news, and dodged the reporters posted outside our front door, pressuring us for an interview. Only months later did we hear that Le had been located, settled with a family in France. Of course there was no question that she would remain where she was, rather than suffer yet another incomprehensible move. But how to grieve a daughter we’d never met and who was, after all, safe and loved? No flowers were on offer, no sympathy cards, no condolences—just an empty place in our hearts where our longed-for daughter should be, another casualty of war.
* * *
My musings about Le remind me that I am of the generation that glorified a kind of mindless peace, stuffing daisies down the barrels of National Guard rifles while shouting slogans calculated to rile every person in the vicinity over the age of 30. My age-mates flashed peace signs, drove Volkswagen buses painted with flowers, tie-dyed their clothes, organized massive flash mobs without the aid of a smart phone. As mothers of newborns they stewed the afterbirth with garlic and onions and served it up to friends by way of celebration. I have no illusions about the eccentric choices made by one new generation after another.
It helps to remember. Not everyone around us in those years thought our adoptions were wise, my own parents included, and even today the idea of wrenching children from their cultural roots—even to save their lives—is considered unacceptable by many. We each live in our own moment of history, making the decisions that seem best, never mind how they appear to others—even to our mothers. Remembering grants me the grace to accept the risks Shanna faces, even those risks her decisions have thrust upon our grandkids.
The real question, then, is how will this war mark us? What are we willing to carry forward from it into our lives? In terms of my relationship with my daughter, this time the choice is largely mine.
A month into her deployment I receive another email: Being transferred to Kandahar.
This is not my adventure, I remind myself; it’s Shanna’s. I could criticize it, but I choose to share it instead. How exciting! I email back. Be safe.