Ten years ago today I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom when the editor broke the news I’d been dreading: The Marine Corps had crossed over into Iraq. I knew that meant my son, Joshua, was there, because he and his 1rst Recon Battalion Marine Corps buddies were the “tip of the spear” – a term no parent wants attributed to their child.
I went into the women’s restroom and cried in a bathroom stall. I returned to my desk, but not because I felt better. What I felt most like doing was to drop to the floor and become a one-woman wailing wall. I couldn’t stop thinking of Joshua, my once-little-boy with the Super Josh cape – in a combat zone on the other side of the world where I was helpless to protect him.
I told myself that if Joshua – barely 22 years old- could hold it together and do his job, then I could pull myself together and honor him by doing mine.
Some people marveled at how “well” I was doing, but inside, my brain was on a broken-record loop – whether I was grocery shopping or typing or driving: Please God keep him alive, please God don’t let him die, please God keep him safe, please God, please God, please God I’m begging you God please God.
Eventually, it just turned to shorthand: please … the last word I thought before I fell asleep and the first word I thought when I awoke.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It’s also the anniversary of a time when I debated the merits of the war, while carefully navigating the mine field of precisely chosen words so I could maintain my beliefs without dishonoring my son. It was possible to fiercely love and defend the troops, but loathe the war.
That’s because, as a mother of Marine, the point wasn’t whether I agreed with the war, or even whether the troops agreed. The point was the respect I felt for these young, earnest men and women who gave up their lives to serve their country, knowing full well their lives might be cut short.
Even so, that realization didn’t change my fantasy that I could ship the leaders responsible for the war- mistakes were made – directly to the front lines. There, they could take their rightful positions on the tip of the combat spear, rather than a bunch of kids barely out of high school.
I was one pissed-off, terrified mother.
A decade has passed. It’s a moot point to argue about the war now. It won’t bring back the almost 4,500 dead troops, or scores of dead Iraqis. It won’t reattach limbs or repair brains or restore normal sleep or cure PTSD or bring peace of mind to homeless veterans.
What happened in Iraq with Josh and his buddies – those are their stories; not mine to tell. As is true of most combat veterans, the horrific stories are locked away somewhere – far from fodder for casual conversation – literally nightmare material.
Last night, for the first time in 10 years, I read the printed-out email correspondence Josh had written when he was aboard the USS Anchorage heading for Iraq. In those emails, Josh tells me to not worry. He assures me he’ll be fine, and says yes, he’s anxious, but not scared.
In one of his final emails, Josh thanks me for ginger snaps I’d sent, and said he’d shared them with his guys, who liked them, too. Which led to this:
“I have a request for you. You don’t have to do it, but I’m sure you will,” Josh wrote. “Instead of sending me a package or mail next time, I want you to send something to some of my guys.”
Then came the list: Lance Cpl. Paul Rodrigues; Lance Cpl. Tony Belot; Lance Cpl. Eduardo Laroya; Lance Cpl. Intae Kim; Lance Cpl. Jeffery Potters, Lance Cpl. Donovan Denny and Lance Cpl. Mike Caprasecca.
Josh said he would be OK with just a postcard, that it would mean more to him for his guys to get packages, than for him to receive any.
Josh knew me well. I did send packages to those guys, and Josh, of course. Also, my worried-sick sisters and friends pitched in and sent care packages, too, filled with foot powder and books and jerky and baby wipes and socks and cookies. Quite the project.
How could I have not seen then, what is suddenly so clear to me now? Was it just an innocent request, or was Josh’s assignment a deliberate distraction? Either way, Josh’s request forced me to expand my love and maternal angst beyond just Josh, and to other Marines, sons of mothers I’d never met.
It occurs to me now that those care packages were as beneficial for the senders as the young Marine recipients.
For their sacrifice, I hold our country’s feet to the fire with a reminder of our nation’s responsibility to care for these young men and women who served — and continue serving — all over the world. To this rare and precious 1-percent of our citizens who dedicate their lives to defend our country, we owe nothing less than 100-percent of support for their service.
Josh turned 32 last week. He’s working as a realtor here in Redding. He and his wife are expecting a baby girl next month. Their 2-year-old son now wears his dad’s Super Josh cape.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.