A Glimpse into the Personal Journey of an Army Mom During the First Year of Her Son’s Career
By Kelly Hutchinson
I’ve read or heard somewhere that “letting go” begins the day your child is born. You want to hold him close to you forever and yet are so very proud of all the “firsts” of letting go – the first baby steps, the first words, the first lost tooth, the first day of school. And so, as a loving parent, you come to terms fairly early with the fact that life is a process. Besides, letting go is healthy. It’s a GOOD thing, as Martha Stewart would say (and no, I’m not a fan). You realize, on some level, that when you’ve done your job as a parent, it is gratifying to watch your child become independent and capable of taking care of himself in this mad, scary world. Notice I did not say it is “easy”, but that it is gratifying.
And so it is that the years fly by. You survive the first scraped knee, the first fight on the playground, the first broken bone, the first trip to the ER for stitches, the first girlfriend, and the first car. So much letting go. Too much to bear at times. But with each “letting go” there is a sense of joy as you watch this young person, your son coming into his own. You savor that sense of joy.
Then, so soon, the true tests begin. The arrival of the graduation gown, cap and announcements comes soon, much too soon. Those days were so emotional for me. I knew he was growing into a man. I knew I would have to let go. I was so proud of all he had accomplished and the young man he had become and yet, a small sliver of me was hurting from the very raw knowledge that I would soon no longer be needed to walk every step of the way of his life with him.
Looking back, it was never about my confidence in his ability to take care of himself. It was all about me letting go and what that would mean for my role in his life. If his life were the business world, you could say that I would slip quietly from being the director of the board to a mere consultant. Called upon only on occasion, and if I’m a wise parent, only sharing my advice and experience when it’s requested and welcomed.
And then, the day comes that he bursts into the front door with a light in his eyes that you have not seen before. He sits down and containing his excitement and donning a very serious, grown up look, says “Mom, are you busy? We need to talk.” And your heart does a flip flop through your abdominal cavity, settling in at the bottom of your throat. And you say “I’m listening.” Because normally he hits the front door running, scoops mounds of food out of the kitchen cupboards, grabs a Gatorade out of the fridge, absentmindedly pats the dog and continues down to his basement “man cave”; not to be seen again until the light of the next dawn. This, whatever it is, must be important to him. And he says, “Mom, I know what I want to do with my life. I want to join the Army. I know I’m only 17, you and dad will have to sign for me, but will you please consider it? It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
You hold back tears of pride, joy, honor and fear. You’re not shocked, after all, he has spoken of this for years off and on, but still, you didn’t really think it would come to pass. In a trembling voice you say “You sound very serious about this, tell me more.” And he does. What you want so badly to say is “NO. You may NOT go where there is danger. You are my precious son. Go to college, stay safe, and let someone else’s son go fight. Discussion ended. Go to your room!” But you cannot say that, or you risk isolating him in that very moment that he trusted you enough share his dream with you. What right do you have to shatter that dream? He’s done his homework; he knows what he is getting into. As the next days pass quickly, you try to come to grips with the memories reeling in your mind. He’s spoken of being a soldier since he was eight years old. And you realize it is the right decision for him. It dawns on you, in that light bulb moment, that unlike most children who long ago gave up their dreams of becoming an actor, ballerina or professional ball player, he has always been resolute…certain even, about his dream to be a soldier. More important, he knows why and he believes in that why.
You see, for him, the “why” is that there are so many people on this earth in pain and suffering, someone needs to fight for them. The “why” is that he knows and has carefully studied the thousands who have gone before him, answering the call of duty and bravely serving to protect the precious freedom we treat so recklessly today. The “why” is that you’ve taught him to be true to himself. You’ve painstakingly shown him through your actions “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?” You’ve raised him to be honorable and just and courageous. You worry that part of the why is that your son has an adventurous spirit, a bit of a taste for danger in him. He wants to see the world. He also wants to get a good quality education. While he knows you would move mountains to give this to him, he also knows the financial strain it would cause you both. The “why” is also that he yearns to become a part of something bigger than himself. His sincerity is unmistakable. And so, as any mom would do, you say “Son, that’s very noble, but it’s dangerous as hell. Can’t you just join the Peace Corps; or do volunteer work at college??? Please…” And he looks at you as if you have grown three heads and says quietly in his most serious voice “Please, mom. I need to do this. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.” And so it is.
Another first begins. That first trip to the recruiter’s office with him, where you’re somewhat taken aback as it dawns on you that he’s been hanging out here a lot. They all know him by name and joke with him cordially. And one of the recruiters utters the dreaded “Uh-oh, brought the parents this time” statement, to which they all laugh and give high fives. He sits down in a quiet room in the back of the recruiter’s office and hammers out a pre-ASVAB. You sip a coke quietly in the food court at the mall waiting nervously, awkwardly with his father and stepmother, who are as scared as you are. Finally, they come out to get you. The recruiter says proudly, “I knew he’d make a good soldier, he aced this damn thing!” And your son smiles and looks down at his feet, humbled by this compliment. And they plan the day for him to go to MEPS and complete the ASVAB and battery of physical tests. It all becomes so real so very quickly.
You ask for a little more time, to be sure that he’s making the right decision, to go over all the reams of documents, MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), TSP (Thrift Savings Plan), bonus options. How long should he enlist for…3 years, 4 years, or 7? The GI Bill and TSP are affected by the term he commits to. But what if he enlists for a long time and he hates it? You want to make the right decision with him and for him. There is so much to consider, so many decisions for him to make. And that moment that you dreamed of – the one where you are sitting in the college admittance office reviewing schedules after numerous campus visits and research. That moment becomes a 3 way phone call to a dear soldier friend about which MOS your son should select, and an in-depth discussion of the pros and cons to the various jobs in the military. Instead of a guidance counselor with a packet and a computer in front of her peering over her glasses shooting rapid fire information and required classes, majors, financial aid, scholarships and dorm options, you are on the phone, long-distance, listening to the dialogue between your young son and this soldier, “Well, MP is more transferrable to the real world. You can go into law enforcement easily from there. Infantry is a great experience, a tanker unit is good. If you’re in a tank, you’re a bigger target but hell; you’re nearly indestructible the way they build them now.” And he launches into a true story of a Stryker that was hit by an IED, blew straight up in the air several feet, and how everyone on board walked away unscathed. He continues, “Now, if you’re on foot, Cav Scout or Infantry, you’re much more exposed but a smaller target. And then there’s Medic? Any interest in science or medicine?” And you gulp and hold back tears as the reality of Army life for your son sets in. And yet you see the excitement in his eyes and you try so very hard not to show the fear that has taken hold of you, turning your insides into quivering gelatin.
After only a few short weeks, his decision is made, the papers are signed and you proudly carry home the little bumper sticker and water bottle that say “Proud Parent of a Soldier.” And it seems so little for what you have just given up.
But you didn’t give it up, you realize, it was never yours to give. It was always his path to choose. And he is happier and more focused than you have ever seen him in 17 years.
The summer flies by and the fall of his senior year, a starting spot on the team, well-earned after years of hard work and focus. You watch with pride through the season as your son makes some awesome tackles, fights through a high ankle sprain, and then gets an interception and a huge tackle in the state playoff game. He and his team revel in the glory of a state championship ring, with the coveted ring.
The letter comes, followed by a phone call. The defensive coordinator of a small area college is interested, come see the college and visit the team. And he pauses. He knows what this would mean. The education he deserves would be paid for. He would have a few more years on the field, a chance to shine, to make you proud. He knows that for you, this decision would mean he would not put his life on the line, he’d be home, and he’d be safe. The letters and calls come more frequently, peppered with phrases “send us your ACT scores.” “We’ve got a field pass for you to stand with the team at Saturday’s game, come get to know us.” It’s a small college, Division II, but still….an awesome opportunity he never dreamed that he could have. And he silently places the letters in a neat stack in the kitchen. Finally, with both dread and excitement, you broach the subject. “Son, they seem to be pretty interested, did you call them back?” He sits you down and says “Mom, I know you’d rather have me close to home. You’d love to watch me play ball a few more years. It’s a great opportunity, it really is. I could probably even get out of my Army contract in the Future Soldiers Program, or delay it. But I would not be happy. I’ve given them my word. The Army is my dream. College can wait – I promise I will go.” And in that very moment, you could not be more proud of your honorable son. You wonder where this deep commitment, this courage, this strength inside him comes from.
You painstakingly plan the graduation party, followed by the send-off party three weeks later. It all goes by in the blink of an eye. On a hot, sunny Tuesday morning in June, you find yourself standing in the mall parking lot, with his dad, step-mom and girlfriend. The lot is filled with cracks, you notice for the first time. You see all the weeds growing and wonder with annoyance, “Why don’t they re-surface or at least kill the weeds?” Quick hugs, photos, lots of photos, and then you watch and wave fervently as your precious son drives off with the recruiter to Basic Combat Training, knowing for the first time in his short life, you will have no contact at all with him for weeks on end.
You think you’re coping well, you really do. You’re not coping as well as you convince yourself that you are. You won’t even realize that for months yet. The days drag slowly by. People around you begin to comment that you seem distracted. Each morning, you write him a letter, silly stuff mostly and you carefully postmark it to Fort Benning, GA. One Sunday afternoon at the coffee shop with friends, your phone rings. It’s HIM!!! He says “Mom, I’m here, I’m safe. I can’t talk. I love you. Bye.” And you knew this call would come, he warned you that it would be brief. And even though the other end of the line is dead, you continue to repeat “Don’t hang up yet. How are you? I love you so much! I miss you. I can’t hear you. Hello? Hello? Son? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” And you feel cheated because you heard his voice, but it was brief, much too brief. You had so much to say and did not get a chance to say a word. Or maybe you did…you can’t remember now, maybe he heard you say “I love you.” You hope so.
You wake the next morning and write another letter. The weeks go by and you get a letter notifying you of the date of graduation. Another letter comes, this time from your son. His handwriting is pretty easy to read. That surprises you, because for the first time since grade school, he is forced to write letters by hand and you realize his handwriting is pretty good. It feels strange at first to see the words. This child who has grown up on computers, typing his assignments, you’ve rarely seen more than a sentence or two of his handwriting the past several years. You wait excitedly each day by the mailbox to see if there is news. In this letter, there is. He’s been injured and had to go to the hospital, spent a week on crutches, but he’s ok now. Still going to graduate on time. And mom, are you taking care of my dog like you promised? He might miss me. Oh, he does son, he does, but I will never tell you that in my letters. In reality, Parker dog moped around for weeks after you left, sleeping on your favorite couch in the basement, he refused to come upstairs except to eat and go outside. His only bright moments were when your buddies stopped by a couple of times to check in on mom and see if I’d heard from you. But, Parker is a trooper, he’s better now, he’s adjusting. In each letter, you continue to tell him how wonderful Parker and you both are doing. We’re all fine back home son, just focus on your mission. And you know he is.
Your eyes go back to the section of the letter where he describes his injury and treatment. And you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve let him down, you haven’t performed your parental duty. Because for the first time in his life, he was hurt and you were not there. You didn’t select the doctor, you didn’t participate in the treatment, and you didn’t take care of him and nurse him back to health. And with a mix of relief and sadness, you realize, you weren’t needed. He’s fine.
Another letter comes. One of his buddies fell seriously ill. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance; he had a really high fever, 107 degrees. His organs were shutting down. It’s bad mom. We don’t know how he is. Please pray for him and his family. And you do. And you wonder and wait. Eventually, weeks later, you discover that the young man did not recover.
The thought of what your son has experienced sends you reeling. The death of a new friend, a young life snuffed out too soon, attending a funeral with strangers in another state, the continued physical and mental training through his grief. And he shares the devastating injury of another close friend that forced him to be recycled. He shares the horror of watching a young man climb a 40 foot tower as part of his training. He relays that the rope snapped; the young man fell. There is a large mat at the foot of the tower but mom, he missed the mat by inches, and it was awful to watch. He will live, your son writes to you, but he was messed up pretty badly, a lot of broken bones and they think some internal bleeding. Please pray for him and his family. He may be too badly injured to recycle. And you hurt for him. Life goes on as you worry and wait and pray.
In his letters, he also shares snippets about the friends he has made, funny stories about the drill sergeants, descriptions of the mess hall and the food, the workouts and the training. You treasure every word, reading the letters over and over.
Turning Blue day arrives; a hot, muggy day in Georgia. You’ve flown down with the family, except his older brother, who could not get off work. You find the base, get through security and sit through an orientation crowded with family members and small children squealing and squirming. You’re directed outside, where you stand on a street with hundreds of excited family members. The excitement is palpable. The roar of the crowd is deafening when the artillery begins sounding and a huge cloud of green, grey and blue smoke drifts your way. The crowd settles momentarily in anticipation and then begins to surge forward, erupting wildly in cheers, shouts and whistles as through the smoke, marching towards you in dress greens, comes perfect rows of soldiers, looking regal, proud and a bit wilted from the heat. Is that him? No, wait, that’s him? Where the hell is he? Did we get in the wrong section? They all look alike, you excitedly whisper to family members, laughing and crying as you search the sea of young faces for your son. And then you see him. There is no description fitting for that moment. That first moment you see your son in uniform. He’s marching tall, proud, handsome and determined. And you cannot explain the tears rolling down your face, the sob caught in your throat, or the quivers in your insides. Your son is a United States Soldier.
You and his father proudly pin the blue cord of the Infantry on his shoulder. And although you received these instructions in a quick phone call last week, he knows you too well, so he repeats them. Though at attention, he whispers fervently “Mom, do NOT hug or kiss me, just pin it on, you’re doing fine.” And you argue, while his dad chuckles and cries at the same time. Other moms are kissing and hugging their stiffened soldiers standing at attention, you protest. His sideways roll of the eyes as he stands at attention says “I’m warning you…” And you notice the young man next to him doesn’t have a parent there, so with a sob caught in your throat, you whisper back “Oh, he doesn’t have a mom! Can I pin HIS cord, can I hug HIM?” And your son warns you off again sternly “No, mom, the officers do it.” So you quietly step back and blend into the crowd. Glancing back towards him, you think he may have just winked at you, but it’s probably something in his eye from the smoke, the sweat, the heat.
You spend a few precious hours with him, return to base for the graduation ceremony and then you push and fight your way out of the stadium, trying desperately to find your soldier among the 400 of so that all look so much alike down on the field of green. Finally spotting him, you joyously throw yourself into his arms, crying, laughing, and repeating over and over again how very proud you are of him. Photos are taken, laughs and hugs are shared. The crowd begins to wane. As you exit the field with him to get his bags, he walks resolutely, greeting his comrades with hugs and pats on the back as you pass. And he tells you he has his orders. He heads to Germany in two weeks.
Naively, you are excited that he’s managed such a cushy assignment. Soon, a few precious fun-filled weeks later, you are packing him off to Germany. And you know communication will be difficult. And you don’t want to say goodbye. But you know you must.
So you learn Facebook and Skype and Yahoo Messenger. The technology that you previously scoffed at, considering it only a method for teens to avoid their parents and homework, quickly becomes your lifeline to your son. You adjust to his time zone, awakening at 4:00 each morning because of the time difference, usually able to catch him online for a few moments. The Skype calls are so precious. You get to know his buddies, these young men darting in and out of his room in the barracks searching for Doritos or a beer or a piece of gear they’ve left there, waving and shouting “Hi mom!” in the background, often cracking a joke or leaning over him to chat with “mom” as he impatiently herds them out of the room.
One of the first Skype calls is just days after he arrives in Germany. “Mom, I won’t be online as much. We’re training pretty heavy right now. My regiment is heading to Afghanistan in the spring.” You cannot hide the stricken look on your face and you struggle for composure as you feel him awkwardly watching you through the computer screen. He’s pretending not to see your emotions. He casually continues the conversation about work, the weather in Germany, other things, all the while his new friends pop in and out of the room. He appears mildly annoyed by the interruptions and you realize that his work and life have no boundaries between them now. These young men are his family. This bond is necessary, vital, because the very lives of these young men will depend on trusting one another when they are at war.
A month or so later, he pops up one day to chat. He has some important questions, do you have time? You always do, you say. Well, it’s not an easy subject mom but the Army requires some paperwork. Ok, you type back, what’s up? And he begins by telling you that if something should happen, they have to have their affairs in order so he wants you to understand he’s made some arrangements. You gulp as the tears start. He types how he wants his life insurance proceeds divided amongst you, his daddy and his brother. And his truck, his most precious possession in this world, goes to his brother, but…he explains with caution, make SURE he takes care of it and doesn’t trash it. You smile, and he continues. You’ll get the notification mom, you and dad both. Please tell my brother in person, you and dad together. Set aside your differences for my brother’s sake, please mom, he’ll need you both if anything does happen. And you promise. That call leaves you stunned. Although he repeats several times that it’s only paperwork, it’s one of the hardest conversations you have ever had in your life, watching the little typed words appear on your computer screen from your son a half a world away. And he finishes his instructions, has you confirm you understand and then he types “Look at it this way mom. If something were to happen, don’t look at it as a completely bad thing. Look at it like this: I gave my life for my country, my family and our freedom.” As you continue to cry uncontrollably, typing back that you understand and nothing will happen, you know this, he begins talking about other things to distract you and you play along, hoping he doesn’t know he has just shaken you to your very core.
The months pass by and you learn stories of his new friends and their families scattered across the US. You learn snippets of his training, his life in a foreign country, his travels. You schedule a family Skype call with him on Thanksgiving. While he munches on a double cheeseburger and fries take-out meal, talking happily about his life overseas, you choke back tears and begrudgingly allow the grandparents, aunt and his brother a few moments each with him.
You spend your first Christmas without your son. The first one in his life. And you know there will be so many more. His birthday passes, he’s turned 19 without you. The family dinner tradition, skipped for this year, along with the cake. Presents were mailed. As the time passes by, a sense of urgency sets in. You need to feel connected, even when you are not able to hear him, see him or speak to him, typing words online and watching as his typed words appear back on your screen. You ask, may I reach out to the mom of your best friend, your machine gunner and see if she’d like to stay in touch while you are deployed. He agrees, you reach out, and you find a friend for life that will forever change you. You ask, are there others, I’d like to start a small support group for the families, just your weapons squad and a few in your platoon. He agrees, with caution, carefully selecting those buddies he trusts the most. You reach out to them, asking if they have parents, a wife or girlfriend, who would like to keep in touch. Most of them respond almost immediately and are grateful that their loved ones will have someone to share this journey with. The reaction from their loved ones is even more joyous. They are thrilled to have this connection with their son’s battle buddies, or “battles” as they often call one another. As the group forms, you begin sending messages, remind them all of OPSEC, establishing this forum as one of support, a place of safety, a place to share experience, fears, thoughts and joys. You have no idea at the time that this small band of twenty or so prayer warriors will become deeply connected over the next year. Although you know at some level that this journey of having a son at war will leave you forever changed, there is no way to judge the impact of this decision to reach out to these strangers. The common bond that you share, your soldiers, will connect you in a deeper way than you ever could have thought possible.
The months fly by and soon it’s nearly time. He’s coming home for pre-deployment leave. You’ll have another precious two weeks with him.
You arrive at the airport two hours early, excited. As the flight info finally flashes up on the board and the people begin to crowd the gate to greet the travelers, you are shoved by a woman about your age, probably a mom, you figure. She is strategically elbowing her way to the front of the line. She apologizes distractedly and says in an excited and frantic voice “I’m sorry, but I just HAVE to get up there. My daughter has been in Spain for two weeks visiting her sorority sisters and she’s never been away from home. She is really homesick. She needs me.” You smile and ask her age. “24” the mother says proudly. And you can’t resist, you know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway. “My son is on the flight too. He’s only 19; I haven’t seen him for seven months. He’s in the Army and he’ll be leaving for Afghanistan in 2 weeks.” She first looks stricken and then ashamed. She grabs your arm and gently shoves you, quickly ushering you up closer in the line, now elbowing others for your benefit as well. You should feel badly for working her emotions that way, but all you can think of is your son and how good it will feel to hold him again.
He steps out of the gate looking tired, but healthy, self-assured and with a huge smile on his face. It’s so amazing to hold this strong young man in your arms again. You realize he is taller, more muscular; his jaw line is more angular, manlier. He’s so handsome. You are so excited and the tears flow freely, tears of joy. You’re relieved that although he is exhausted, he’s healthy and looks happy. And he says “Great to see you. I love you too mom. Where is my truck? Did you bring my truck?” And you both laugh because you did. You knew he would want to get behind the wheel of his Dodge Ram that he’s paid for with his own money.
Two more precious weeks fly by, each day to be treasured. Each moment carefully stored to memory. The ride in his truck to his favorite greasy drive-in. The night his buddies all come over to once again hang in the basement man cave. The walk on a bright spring day with him and his dog Parker, who is excitedly dancing and pulling the leash. The late night serious talks about where he is going and his instructions on how you are to handle it. Remember OPSEC mom, I want you to read that and re-read it. Do not read the newspapers mom. Don’t listen to the news. It’s not going to be accurate and it will just upset you. Promise me, ok? You won’t hear from me as often but you will know that I am fine. I will be fine. If you get a call, it means I’m only wounded or sick, so do NOT panic. If they visit the house, it’ll be worse. But that’s not going to happen. And the emails, mom. Remember to check your email. If you get a report of KIA or WIA in email, it will NOT be me. They will never inform you by email. Be patient mom, you’re strong, you’ll be ok. Keep busy and take care of yourself. Take good care of my truck and my dog and my brother, too, he’s gonna miss me. And you promise you will. And in a flash, he’s off again, with one final backward glance as he passes through the security gate. That image is burned in your mind. He’s boarding another plane. When he returns – when, never if – an Army mom never says if; he will be a veteran.
And you realize as much letting go as you have done for 19 years, it’s only the beginning. And you accept that proudly, resolutely. You garner your support. Family, friends, co-workers, their support will be critical. The small support group of the families of his battle buddies is connected now, and you know you will need them and you hope that you can be there for them as well.
A few weeks prior to his deployment, he makes another Skype call from Germany. He needs to talk about some things in detail. Its hard stuff again mom, but we’ll go quickly, ok? Look mom, this isn’t going to happen, I’m coming home, but the Army requires this paperwork. I need some information, can you grab a phone book. He launches into a battery of questions, do we want flowers or a memorial, it’ll be a military funeral with full honors, and do you want the pastor called to be with you that day? Is there anyone else you want called to be with you, a close friend or grandma? I want to be buried there mom, so you and dad and my brother can visit me. Its 5 AM in Kansas, but your significant other, bleary with sleep, stumbles in to check on you in the office, somehow sensing that a serious conversation is taking place. He sees you’re on with your son and starts to retreat quickly. You motion to him through your tears and say “get me a phonebook”. And he quickly exits, coming back with the phone book to sit beside you. As you try so hard to control the shaking in your voice and the tears in your eyes, he pats your leg gently and his look says everything “Be strong, you’re doing fine, get through this, just get through it.” And he flashes you a smile that says “I’ve got your back.” So your son continues: I need the address of the funeral home, and the cemetery. You and dad and my brother need to plan everything together, ok. What music do we want, and will you have that poem read, my favorite one, “The Call”? And he continues until, blessedly, all of the forms are filled out, the questions answered. And then he says “Mom, we’re leaving soon. You’re so strong, you’ll be ok, and I know you will. Nothing is going to happen to me. Keep your faith.” And you promise that you will. And he makes you laugh with a funny story about his Jewish friend dancing drunk in the barracks the other night. And he promises that he’s ready, he’s focused, and it’s time. And he tells you a bit about how the traveling will be, don’t expect phone calls or internet, we’ll let you know as soon as we arrive, ok? Don’t worry, just keep yourself busy, mom! So you tell him how much you love him, how proud you are, and then you must say your goodbyes, again, for just awhile. Somewhere halfway across the world, another plane takes off into the inky blackness of the night sky. Destination: Afghanistan.
Through the paralyzing fear, the anxiety, the night terrors and the frequent moments of tears, exasperation and pain as you adjust to this new chapter, God shines brightly as a beacon in the night. He’s calling you to safe harbor. You go willingly, gratefully. You pray fervently and often; like you have never prayed in your life. You know, for awhile anyway, there will only be one set of footprints in the sand. Welcome to the Army, mom.
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