In Iraq, soldier-son fights beyond her protection

Published September 18, 2005

It had never occurred to me that my children could die. Not even once, from the glory days of sweet faces and scabby knees.

About a month ago, at Tampa International Airport, as I waited for my soldier-son's return from Iraq, I contemplated nearly 2,000 other mothers whose children have died in the sand there. Like most Americans, I have strong feelings about war in general and this war in particular. But when the life of one of your loved ones is on the line every single day, none of that matters. Politics lose all meaning. World issues, pushed out of your head, are replaced with anxiety.

My kids work for the U.S. government. Aren, 26, drives an Army Paladin, a self-propelled cannon. Beth, 21, is in her third year of Navy service - aircraft electronics tech. My eldest, Matt, 28, is an intelligence agent.

When they left home, I was proud. They had chosen jobs to somehow mitigate America's Sept. 11. Small-town life in Illinois seemed unlikely preparation. I was mildly apprehensive, as mothers are.

At 3 years old, Aren messed with a wasp nest and earned himself a dozen stings. I righteously nursed his wounds, feeling angry at the universe for endangering my boy. In 2003, two decades later, at his boot camp graduation, I watched a mock-up of the conduct of war, and I remembered his stings.

While pyrotechnics left spots in my eyes and harmless explosions boomed in my chest, I struggled with tears and an eerie sense of something I couldn't name. Those new soldiers' average age was about 18, the universe had a wake-up call for them and no mother on earth could forestall it.

That I couldn't shield Aren anymore confused me. I hugged my son, congratulating him and cherishing the blessed knowledge that he was not bound for Iraq. His unit, the 2BCT, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, had been based in Korea since the 1950s.

Weeks later, Aren called. I expected the usual amusing rookie-screw-up stories. He sounded odd. I shrugged off a quick chill.

"So," he said. "They're moving us to another theater."

That's what they call war, a theater. I had ironic visions of actors in grease paint. Then I caught up.

"Iraq. Mom, I'm going to Iraq."

The phone felt hot in my icy hands. My head raged, and I swear I stepped outside myself, watched myself pace a 7-foot expanse of ceramic tile, and stifled a primal scream.

With deliberate control, I said, "You'll be fine. You're okay, right?"

Like a duck in a shooting gallery, I zipped back and forth across the lanai during the 10-minute conversation. I hung up, bubbles of hysteria rising in me. I was sure I would vomit. I cried.

Four weeks to deployment - too quick.

One moment he had been safe, the next his 4 a.m. calls were backed by exploding mortars and filled with images of dead people, violence and something called IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

I needed television news to be on all day long. I wouldn't go anywhere in case he called or, God forbid, the Army called. Later, I wouldn't allow news on at all. Couldn't bear photos of solemn-faced youngsters who would never come home.

If a vehicle came down our block, even the mailman, who I knew would rumble down the street every afternoon, my mind made it an Army van bringing two regular guys, soldiers, to tell me what no parent ever wants to hear.

I talked compulsively to any one who would listen. Strangers were compassionate.

"Tell Aren thanks." "We'll keep him in our prayers."

Care packages were a mission; selecting exactly the right contents, a holy protection.

What felt like centuries crawled by - then rumors that the 2BCT was coming home. Having suffered more casualties than any other unit, they were quietly training their replacements. Two footlockers, smudged with greasy sand, arrived at our front door in June. I sat on one, and closed my eyes. Hope.

More soldiers died. More injuries. Aren told of a Humvee vaporized below his lookout tower. Restricted to his post, he couldn't help. My mind boggled at what my son had witnessed in this long year of his short life.

Summer's end. Standing at the airport in Tampa, I concentrated on my breathing. I felt like I had run a long way, for a long time. Looking up, I saw Aren at the top of the escalator.

I don't remember anything except the hug. He sighed a huge sigh. His boots were on home ground.

Typical mom, I had never considered my kids' mortality. But I knew this was a reprieve for us. I marked a quiet moment for the other moms and offered a mother's prayer for their soldiers' peace and safety now.

I still can't watch much of the news.

Maryan Pelland moved to Spring Hill two years ago from Crystal Lake, Ill. Her parents were former residents of Timber Pines. She can be reached at mkpelland@gmail.com