I vaguely remember that when I was young, Veterans Day was a day of respect, a day when men wore poppies in their lapels, when 11 minutes after the 11th hour on November 11, bells tolled, sirens blared and people stopped what they were doing and remembered the valiant soldiers who gave their all for our freedom. How distant and quaint that all seems now: it is a way of measuring how American has changed.
Now I am a military mom. I choose to ignore the popular culture’s perception of the military. I rely on what and who I know.
I know that I am grateful that I am blessed to have a son in the U.S Marines, on his second tour in Iraq, who is uninjured and inspiring to us and to all who know him. I know that there are moms who are not so lucky and Veterans Day brings them unavoidably to my mind. Getting through this weekend must be a lot tougher for the mothers of this war’s wounded and dead than it was when men wore poppies and everyone stopped to commemorate the nation’s loss. I do not know how these moms get through Veterans Day.
Military moms have trouble watching television or reading the newspaper when they read over and over that their children are fighting or were wounded or were killed for nothing. Military moms hear their officemates, their neighbors, their fellow parishioners, sometimes even their other family members disparage the war effort, or famously declare that they “support the troops but not the war” as if that is a rational statement. Military moms hear and see that their sons and daughters names are used by anti-war politicians and activists in an effort to score political points, using their children’s blood and sacrifice as a cover. And military moms try not to be bitter, not to be angry, not to profane their children’s decision to protect and defend the United States. Military moms try to live up to their children who tell them: “Mom, don’t get angry at them. I am fighting to protect their right to be jerks.”
Military moms of the wounded know that at military hospitals, the televisions are on the nature channel, the home and garden channel, the food channel, but not any of the major news channels because the families cannot bear to listen to the bias and watch the deliberate distortion of what their loved ones were doing. These moms are not political people and they do not understand those who look for ways to disparage rather than to honor sacrifice. They don’t have the time or the energy to get angry — they are too busy coping with the shock of their new situation, of their child’s wounds or death — so they look to each other for support and understanding. And, they form special bond among them which protects them from the surrounding ugliness.
It has been my honor to have met moms of wounded soldiers. There is a mom whose son suffered the worst traumatic brain injury of the war — a 40% brain loss — and still lived. She and her daughter have given up their lives to take care of him. The mom has cashed in her 401k savings, left her job, moved out of her apartment, gathered up her daughter and stays with her son virtually round the clock. She tells me her son can’t push the buzzer for the nurse, can’t rub his nose, can’t speak or respond. No one who has seen her is anything but moved by her selfless devotion.
There is another mom whose son has lost both legs, and has a virtually unusable right arm due to a suicide bomber who detonated about 10 feet away from the soldier. When her son was wounded, his wife was 9 months pregnant with their first child. The soldier’s mother just quietly copes with all the challenges she faces. Another mom is completely deaf, as is her husband and her brother. Her son, 21 years old, is still unconscious two months after he suffered a very serious traumatic brain injury — and she signs her love into the palm of his hand. There are no words big enough or descriptive enough to encompass all the respect these women deserve.
Most military moms look at their children in their uniforms and share their remarkably common memory: That child who couldn’t find a matched pair of socks in his drawer is now a logistics officer with responsibility for 25 soldiers, all their ammunition, all their vehicles, all their provisions? That child who couldn’t give a strong handshake to a grown up while meeting his eyes, whose military bearing is now second nature and who oozes self-confidence and poise — whose kid is that? Mine? How about a little boy who hated getting an injection and now repeats like a mantra: “Pain is weakness leaving the body” or revels in telling his family about his teargas-chamber training? And what about a boy who was captain of his football team who now, as a man, learns how to maneuver on prosthetic legs and dreams of coaching a high school team?
And those who are wounded or killed — their moms look at their “before” photos and know that “honor, courage, commitment” have to suffice because that is all there is.
That, and love.
It isn’t generally acknowledged but love has a lot to do with the military. Your child joins the military, and you are fearful and yet proud that he or she loves his country and wants to serve. You want him to do something to serve but not something actually dangerous—yet, you realize this is what he feels he has to do, that he won’t feel complete unless he does it and you love him enough to let him go. And he, in turn, learns to loves his fellow Marines or soldiers — he loves them in a way that those who do not serve, will not, cannot, know. He learns to put this love of his fellows above and beyond his own self — and thus his narcissism and sense of self-importance fades and his sense of selflessness and sacrifice increases. And so, in fact, you learn that while your son or daughter has learned to use weapons and fight, he or she has also unexpectedly learned to be a humanitarian.
The tragedy isn’t what has happened to our soldiers and Marines. The tragedy is what has happened to us. Perhaps we shop on Veterans Day, no poppies worn, no bells rung, no sirens blaring, no time spent to commemorate other people’s sacrifice for our liberty so that we won’t feel ourselves shrink into irrelevancy.