Memorial Day, a day to honor, and to grieve; a day to reflect on the cost of preserving freedom.
I am the proud Mom of a once deployed US service member. My solider served in a combat zone at just shy of 20 years of age. Consequently, Memorial Day has never been the same.
I remember the emotions of sending my daughter off to war like it was yesterday. It started with THE call I received in February of 2003:
“Mom, I have my orders. I m deploying in the first wave. I am not supposed to tell you where, but I don’t want you to worry. Its not bad. I am going to (mumble, mumble)… I could hear her boyfriend in the background chastising her and speaking over her so I couldn’t hear much of what was being said. The rest of the call is blur.
I flew to Ft. Campbell to see my daughter off.
I remember the strangest details about those last days before she left.
Like the barracks. I had expected Army barracks to be comparable to my son’s barracks. My son was an airman. His barracks looked like college dorms. Compared to the Army barracks, my son’s barracks were like the Hilton! My daughter’s barracks were the most awful, pathetic buildings I had been in in a long time. They were grey, dark, dismal and smelled like mold.
Departure day at Ft. Campbell was one of the hardest days of my life. My daughter and I loaded her backpack and gear into the back of her Ford Escape. We made the drive to her point of departure on base. Along the way, we passed huge buses in front of barracks. I watched as soldiers loaded on the buses. It seemed to me that some of them were so small their gear was carrying them rather than the other way around. And they all looked so young. Like babies.
Indeed, they were somebody’s baby.
At my daughter’s assigned point of departure, we parked; Jess, proceeded to the back of the Escape to gather her backpack and gear. Pulling the backpack all the way to the edge of the car.
“Mom, can you give me a hand here?”
My daughter who is about 5’6″ and far more muscular than I ever was, squatted, slipped her arms into the straps of her backpack and began rocking. Back and forth, back and forth until she built up enough momentum to stand erect with gear in place. How she ever marched, ran and did all she had to do with that weight on her back, I will never ever understand!
The staging area for my daughter’s unit was one large open space, it reminded me of an empty airplane hanger. There were different stations set up where the soldiers passed through to process. They picked up their weapons and other equipment. And then they waited. We all waited.
As I looked around at these soldiers I was once again struck by their youthfulness and in some cases their small stature. They looked like kids, most of them. High school and college KIDS. Some with earphones plugged into their ears moving to music playing in their heads. Girls in uniform carrying a riffle on one shoulder and their stuffed animal on their hip. How could we possibly be sending our babies off to war???
I, along with other mothers, mothers-to-be, fathers, spouses, children and friends hung out as long as possible. We mingled among the soldiers and watched. I saw my baby pick up her weapon, I spoke with some of her buddies and tried my best to distract myself.
Finally, the officers called the troops to line up in formation. That is when my daughter turned to me and said,
“Mom, I need you to leave now. I don’t think I can handle looking back at you as we load up and pull out.”
I nodded. We hugged. Tears filled my eyes but I couldn’t let her see. I couldn’t let her know.
I got into the Ford Escape and just sat there, frozen. It was such a cold day but, I didn’t care. I don’t know how long it was before I turned the engine over. I started up the car and finally, I drove out of the parking lot.
I drove all around the base before I reluctantly headed to the base exit. Then I took a drive through town prolonging my departure. It wasn’t much of a town, but in my heart, it felt like, if I just stayed in Ft. Campbell and vicinity, I could stop time. Maybe, just maybe my baby wouldn’t leave for war.
Ultimately, I made the 12-hour drive from Ft. Campbell to my home in southern Virginia. It was definitely the longest drive of my life. I drove all night. At times, I was sobbing so hard, I had to pull off the road and just sit until I could see again.
I absolutely blocked out of my mind those months that my soldier was deployed, but I saved all her letters. Reading them today, I have the same lump in my throat, the same tears in my eyes as the first time I read them. The memories return.
My soldier, my baby girl was a trauma trained medic in a Combat Support Hospital unit. Her letters describe things that sometimes did not make the US news or other times were reported but minimized.
Like the accounts of Saddam’s Navy ships shooting scuds at our soldiers during the very beginning of the war. The missiles were fired for almost 3 weeks straight. It didn’t seem like much when our media mentioned it – but this letter written from the ground gives another picture:
“15 missiles have been fired at us since yesterday morning, needless to say, I have had no sleep lately. Every time I fall asleep, I have to jump out of my cot, put on my gas mask, grab my gear (chemical sh*t) run to a bunker and put on my chem sh*t and pray hard that the patriot shoots down the scud and there were no chemicals in it.
. . . This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. My training has paid off; I know it will save my life. I love you. Pray hard, Saddam is ruthless.”
I find myself once more with a lump in my throat, hot tears quietly streaming down my checks. The feelings I had saying good bye to my daughter, my soldier, as fresh today as that day in 2003. I am once again a proud Mom and a thankful Mom. My baby girl, my soldier, returned home, not unscarred, but, for the most part whole.
There are other proud Mom’s who are not as blessed as I am. These proud Moms carry memorial day in their hearts every day and sometimes go to the cemetery on Memorial Day.
Our country is far from perfect – after all, it is run by imperfect people. Agree or disagree with war, we must remember these soldiers, no matter what age they were while in the service, these soldiers are somebody’s baby, somebody’s kid. And they lost their lives fulfilling their commitment to follow the orders of their Commander in Chief to protect our nation.
Yes, every soldier has a Mom and freedom is not free.