Letters From the Home Front
by Tom Engelhardt
by Tom Engelhardt
Last week, at this site, Teri Wills Allison, a mother from Texas whose soldier son is now in Iraq, wrote an up-close and personal piece on "the costs of war" — for her and us. It was a brave essay in which she discussed, among other things, how it feels to have your son so far away and in danger, and the kinds of angry emotions Bush's war evokes in her. It brought a small flood of e-mail to the Tomdispatch mailbox.
One thing struck me: Amid all the pundits opining and journalists reporting on the state of the nation, we almost never hear the voices of Americans who, like Teri Allison, have to deal with the fallout from the mess this administration has created. There's no place in our media for that.
To give but a small example, Allison spoke of the way Bush's war has driven a wedge into her extended family — between herself and relatives who have "become evangelical believers in a false faith, swallowing Bush's fear mongering… cheering his ‘bring ‘em on' attitude as a sign of strength and resoluteness." When pundits and journalists write about "polarization" in America, they talk about red states and blue states. It sounds politically important, yet strangely abstract; just those big colored squares on a map. What Allison's piece and the letters in response tell us is that, as at the height of the Vietnam War, such polarization is reaching deep into families, causing intense pain and anguish. This is another kind of reality, possibly more important than what you read in the papers.
I was also struck by the offers of help of all sorts directed to Teri Allison (who had, in her piece, mentioned the plight of a Kurdish translator her son works with and of wounded friends of his now back in the U.S.). I've included several of these letters below because in their generosity of spirit they offer a kind of hope and renewal all their own.
Among letters not reprinted were a number from mothers of draft-age or younger children offering Allison thanks for her piece and expressing strong opposition to any future draft — a potentially explosive issue in our country. In the end, I chose ten of the many letters that came in — articulate and filled with emotion, with pain and tears, empathy and anger. (Many more, just as heartfelt, came to Allison via Military Families Speak Out, an organization with which she's associated and which posted her piece on-line.) All of the letter writers below wrote me in their own names. Some, despite the very personal nature of their letters, felt determined that those names be used; others understandably felt differently. I've identified each of them as they asked to be identified.
Just going through the letters that arrived was, for me, an emotional experience. I especially want to express my admiration to the parents of soldiers in, or heading for, Iraq who wrote so forthrightly of their situations. Whoever is elected on November 2, their strength will be needed if this war is to be ended. Tom
Military Mothers and Fathers
Priscilla Ammerman, Mississippi
I am the mother of identical twenty-two year-old twins, both members of the Mississippi Army National Guard. Both have been activated in the same unit for training here in Mississippi and for deployment to Iraq in January.
As luck would have it my sons' unit also has another set of identical twins; they are only 19. This is one of the real consequences of the mobilization of National Guard units from small towns; we have brothers, sons, and fathers, mothers and daughters, and all other combinations of relatives going to combat zones together.
I read Ms. Allison's comments and, finally, was able to identify with someone in this alternate universe I suddenly find myself residing in. I also feel her frustration, her fear, her all-encompassing anxiety, and most of all her over-riding anger.
Like Ms. Allison, I can no longer seem to communicate at all with my family's members, all of whom are also right-wing, religious, knee-jerk supporters of Bush. When they vaguely ask me how my sons are doing, I just as vaguely reply fine. I really have no one other than my husband to express my feelings to. Living in Mississippi precludes most thoughtful discussion of the war, the President, or any other topic relating to this administration.
My anger at this president has become so intense that I can no longer watch him on television or listen to him on NPR; I literally become physically ill. I recently e-mailed the White House to ask the President to do a little soul searching late at night away from distraction by advisors, campaign staff, etc. I asked him to then ask himself if he thought this war was worth the sacrifice of his twins, because I sincerely felt that it was not worth the sacrifice of mine.
Needless to say, I got no reply. And since then as I have read more and more about his personality I have realized what a futile effort that query was because it appears this man is seemingly incapable of introspection or self-doubt. He apparently has no comprehension of the suffering of others either.
As the mother of twins going into combat together I think I am facing a situation even more untenable than most. Because my sons have always been so close, I have to fear not only the loss of a child but the consequences of that loss on the other twin. Both sons have confided to me that their greatest fear is not dying — but coming back without their brother. I, of course, have absolutely no way to reassure either that his greatest fears will not come to fruition.
My husband and I can only pray daily that something can occur before January to keep them here. They are 22-year-old college students who should be studying for finals and going to keggers, not patrolling in a country where the enemy straps on explosives and uses his body as a guided weapon.
Maryellen Walter, Military Mother
Teri Allison's letter put into words many of my own feelings. We are a blue-collar union family whose only two sons are now in Iraq, using the Army to pay for their educations. One son is an Armor officer who earned an ROTC scholarship, the other is an enlisted medic who wants to finish his education on the GI Bill. They knew the risks and joined voluntarily. And were they serving in Afghanistan, it would be so much easier for me to bear, because that battle in the WOT [War on Terror] needed to be fought. Iraq is a huge wrong turn that seems to enflame the risk of terror, not diminish it.
We also have a contradiction about Iraq within our family. Our officer son's wife is a huge Bush supporter who views Iraq as the main stage of WWIV, and W is her White Knight defending our civilization. I envy her the peace of mind that helps her cope with the separation and anxiety. But whistling past the graveyard gives me no such peace. If this is indeed an apocalyptic clash of civilizations, where is the national sense of urgency, why are so relatively few bearing the burden, and why are we paying for it on credit?
I just wanted to write to thank you for posting the letter, "The Costs of War..." It expressed the feelings of my wife and me in a way that was so close to ours it was scary. Our son, age 19, is a tanker in the Army and has been to Iraq once already and will go back sometime this coming winter. Needless to say we dread it very much. His first tour found him in an ambush, witnessing many horrible sights, IED explosions, and mortar attacks, and finding himself in a position in which he had to kill. He seems to be handling things okay, though he drank for nearly three weeks upon his initial return. There was virtually no psych screening to speak of to identify those soldiers who might have problems. In fact they were not even held more than a few hours on base before being released into the world!!!
I could certainly go on about my thoughts and feelings but my main purpose for writing was to thank you and to request that you forward this letter on to the author. It meant a lot to my wife and me to read another person's experiences and to discover that we are not alone.
Wars in the Gulf
Beth Lerman, Ohio
Thank you so much for sharing the letter from Teri Allison. I have been near tears since I read it, and am still shaky from experiencing this mother's most intimate fears and grief. My oldest son was in the first Gulf War, so I know the fear of having a child in a combat zone, though that was nothing like what parents and loved ones face today in Iraq. I have a son in the Coast Guard, and a daughter-in-law in the Air Force, but do not expect either of their jobs to take them to Iraq (though most folks don't know that there are several hundred Coasties in Iraq, and one was killed last April — Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal, 24, of New York — he left behind a pregnant wife). But as we become more desperate for troops, their circumstances may change.
I am a member of the Dayton area MFSO [Military Families Speak Out], and meet with and cry with parents (and spouses) of those who are hurting from the very pain Teri describes so well. I have been there when the tears have flowed for hours on end, even a year after losing a loved one. I have heard the fear of a couple who have had one son wounded, while another son will be sent to Iraq soon. Several families have had someone who has returned, but live with the knowledge that they may have to go back in the future as part of the back-door draft. I have read a mother's expression of anger and grief at one of the very things Teri wrote about — wanting your child to survive, even if it means taking the life of another mother's child. And then there is the general fear and anger that there appears to be no end in sight, and their loved ones will be sent over with end dates well into 2006. (This includes a couple who are Republicans who are actively campaigning for Kerry.)
The grief and anguish of Teri so closely echoes the many expressions of pain in our MFSO community. I can only hug them and share their tears, but I can't make this terrible situation go away for them.
An Iraqi woman who lives abroad
I just finished reading Allison's view and as I was reading, I couldn't hold my tears back. Her words brought back some dreadful memories of other, not too far, times when my brother had to pack his things and go to war (the Iraq-Iran War). For eight years, we had to live with that horrible feeling of doubt and anxiety, each of us asking him/herself the same question one thousand times a day: Is he OK, is he still alive?
We used to jump every time the doorbell or the phone rang. This is in a world where we had no means of communication with the troops at the front — no letters, no phone calls and certainly no e-mails. We just had to sit on our hands and wait for him to come back. He was allowed a couple of weeks of leave every few months. During the time he was at the front, on average 4—5 months, we did not have any means to contact him.
The hardest thing was watching what my mom and dad had to go through. Now that I am a mother I can understand their feelings better. I had to watch my dad, the strong, powerful man I hadn't seen shed one tear, disintegrate before my eyes and weep like a five year-old boy. Yet we considered ourselves lucky that my brother finished his service alive and in one piece!!!
Yes, he came back in one piece, but the other damages, the hidden ones were so deep; he was virtually another person — not the one I knew and grew up with. I witnessed how he was transformed from a lively young man to a violent, nervous person.
I can't understand how a war can have a noble cause. For me all wars are evil and no war is justified, not even to remove Saddam!! The physical damage can be repaired easily, but how can anyone repair the other kinds of damage. How can anyone repair the damage done to the innocent children? Try to explain to a five- or six-year-old kid the logic behind the destruction of his or her home, or his or her injury. Try to explain to that child why he/she lost a mother or a father in such a horrible way. Convince yourself as much as you want but also try to convince those kids that this is done to build a better future for them. Try to find simple words to explain to them that after the war, their days will be much, much happier and their nights will be free of the nightmares that, we know all too well, will haunt them forever. Because when they are old enough to understand, it will be too late for them to forgive, too late for their wounds to heal and too late for them to live the normal life all kids deserve.
Wars, all wars, in my opinion, are the ultimate failure of human beings. To say that there is no solution but to kill and maim innocent people is to say that we are, in fact, so stupid that we cannot (or worst won't) come up with a better and more humane solution. To see our leaders brag about all the achievements in science, medicine, etc., to see them priding themselves on conquering space and someday sending men to Mars, and yet, in the same breath, to have them tell us that we cannot root out a dictator without war and destruction, is a sign that we need to develop other kinds of governments.
Offers of help
A reader from New York
Dear Ms. Allison,
I just finished reading your emotional and heartfelt letter. First off, I hope you, your son and your family are doing as well as you can under the circumstances. Please know that you will be in my thoughts and prayers.
The main reason I am writing is regarding Nick's Kurdish friend — the translator. I am an immigration lawyer and although I have never represented anyone from Iraq, I would be more than happy to try to help Nick's friend get a visa to the U.S. I don't have any idea on the chances of success, but I would be more than willing to volunteer my time. My thoughts are with you and your family and I will be praying for Nick's safety and for the safety of everyone there.
David Veith, Texas
Wow... that article by the soldier's mom was very powerful. Almost could not get through it. Gut-wrenching stuff. I am myself hoping to be able to move to Austin soon. Do you happen to know what hospital she was describing in the article? Maybe I could make a commitment to go visit those young soldiers once in a while. I was a psych assistant in the Reserves for a time so maybe they would welcome a volunteer like me to help out on weekends or something?
I am 44 years old and I hate what is being done in our name overseas and to our kids. A friend of mine who is also against the war just saw his own son sign up with the Marines. He didn't find out about it until after the deal was done. Don't you have 72 hours on that kind of thing? I myself had opted out of the reserves in '99. Praise the Lord! Or I would probably be over there right now! I'd be hanging with those guys that stood up and let it be known that they don't "do" suicide missions. Gotta love it. After all, that was the first instinct of the chicken hawks when their respective numbers came up — to put their lives on the line to fight terrorism... Oops, I mean communism. And I am a major-league believer in leadership by example. Thus, I feel compelled to ponder an age-old question: What if they had a war and nobody came?
Another offer and thoughts on a back-door draft
I am a Disabled Veterans Outreach Specialist and Vietnam Combat Veteran with the Department of Labor's Veterans Employment and Training Service. I read Teri's account and towards the end of the article she wrote about a 27-year-old army soldier who was released with an Other than Honorable (OTH) discharge. The symptoms that Teri described appear to be P.T.S.D. If this is in fact the case, it should be possible to get this fella service connected and get the character of his discharge changed to "Honorable... medically discharged." I am working with, and have worked with, all sorts of unbelievable cases where military veterans are inappropriately treated and booted out of the military. I want to offer my expertise and my assistance to this veteran. I have colleagues in Texas who can assist. Otherwise I am available to provide my own personal assistance. There isn't reason for an American Iraq War veteran to be treated this way.
By the way, here's a bit of insight which I'd like to share regarding military strength. I have spoken to military personnel in the active duty Navy and Regular Army who had planned on making their branch of service a career. In the past year there is a strange R.I.F. (reduction in force) that's taking place. Apparently more recruitment money is being directed to the Army with emphasis to filling those slots critical to Iraq. As most people in the know realize, the Army is having difficulty meeting their recruitment numbers. The Navy and career-minded Army personnel are having their available promotional slots reduced. So, they have one of three choices....
1. Remain on active duty without anymore promotional opportunity in their field (which most won't do).
2. Exit the active duty military at the end of their enlistment.
3. Transfer from blue to green (Navy to Army) or if in the green into the critical occupations for Iraq. Maybe you are aware of this already, but one can get a sense of the back-door draft mentality at work. I am also aware that the Navy, for example, is doing more with fewer sailors; that is, the carriers and other vessels have far fewer personnel than a few years ago and are being pushed to maintain operations. All this doesn't paint a rosy picture.
A Father from the Great Lakes
I returned home yesterday from visiting my son at the naval base where he's posted. He will soon be deployed to the Persian Gulf and he shared his thoughts with me. In two presidential election cycles, his attitude has gone from "gung-ho" to, frankly, "I don't give a shit anymore." He says the top brass discourages not voting, but then he asked, "What can they really do if you don't vote?"
He probably won't vote.
He explained how the army will get their "draft": The remaining branches of the military will have their recruiting goals cut — it has already begun — and the recruiting officers will tell the prospective applicants, "Yes you can join the military, but right now it's the Army which is accepting recruits."
Another way is letting the enlisted naval servicemen, E6 and under, go AND telling them they can finish their tours in the Army with the same pay, etc. NOTE: This applies to those who want out.
AND yes: my son believes the draft will be back before the end of 2005!
A Mother from Canada
I wept as I read the letter by Teri Wills Allison, "The Costs of War, A Mother's View." I have never written to an editor before although I have wanted to thousands of times but these following lines from Teri's letter prompt me to respond. "Then there is the wedge that's been driven between part of my extended family and me. They don't see this war as one based on lies. They've become evangelical believers in a false faith, swallowing Bush's fear mongering, his chicken-hawk posturing and strutting, and cheering his ‘bring ‘em on' attitude as a sign of strength and resoluteness." And this one: "I don't know them anymore."
I am a middle-aged mother. Because we live in Canada, my grown children are not soldiers in this illegal and irresponsible war. I feel sorrow every day for the continuing suffering of Americans and Iraqis involved in this conflict. I am crazed every day by the inability of so many Americans to grasp the reality before them. It is beyond my comprehension to understand what the pro-Bush and pro-war people see and hear when their faces light up as they watch Bush speak at rallies or the way they aggressively defend his motives and actions. I cannot see what they see. I cannot hear what they hear — and likewise for them as to my position. It's as if half the nation of 300 million were in a hypnotic state.
But getting back to my original prompt, my eldest son works in the U.S. and is a staunch Bush supporter. He has even become evangelical. We have agreed to not discuss politics anymore, but it is an ever-present chasm between us. So not only can I say, "I don't know him anymore," but I feel I have lost my son. He has gone to another world. One I cannot reach or enter. One that it appears he cannot escape from. He isn't dead, but in many ways it feels that way and I find myself silently grieving this loss.
In no way am I trying to minimize the suffering of American or Iraqi families with true losses and lives of living horror. I simply wanted to express that the terror unleashed by this current administration, which is a world dominating power, extends very far beyond U.S. borders and reaches the depths of our souls in so many unseen ways.
I do believe that not since the American Civil War have the families of North Americans been so broken and divided. The spiritual losses are so deep and so permanent. How shall we all recover? I suppose we won't. We'll just live out our lives with the silent scream inside.
I wish my son were a small boy again and I could shake him and wake him up. Bush, or should I say the policies of the Bush administration, have stolen my child.
October 26, 2004
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.
Copyright © 2004 Tom Engelhardt