This Veterans Day

As we honor our vets let’s not forget that when they served they took the hearts of their families with them. I know. While my son was at war I was hollowed out.

A father will fight for his son when that son is at war. In the night my weapon was prayer. In the day I defended John with the little red and gold enamel lapel pin I bought at the commissary on Parris Island. I got it the day he graduated from boot camp. It is embossed with the United States Marines’ eagle, globe, and anchor and the words, "My Son Is A Marine." On Veteran’s Day I’ll march in the local parade. I want to honor those who serve, but I also want to let their parents know I stand with them. 

Ten years ago I would have laughed if told I’d be wearing a "My Son Is A Marine" pin, or flying a small American flag on my gate, let alone inwardly thanking whomever it was that put up all those flags fluttering on freeway overpasses. I’ve never been a bumper sticker or flag-waving kind of guy.

America went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. My son packed up his body armor, got his Anthrax shots, picked up desert cammies from the cleaners, was issued a new Kevlar helmet, strapped on his 9-mm sidearm, slung an M-4 over his back and joined the fight. For many weeks my wife Genie and I did not know where John had been sent. Since that time John was sent on more deployments. I never got used to it — "used" to having my heart ripped out.

John’s going to war was the last step in a series of events that dragged me off my high horse of indifference about who watches my back. I haven’t hit the ground yet. Tens of thousands of other sons and daughters are deployed right now and I know how their parents feel: as if their falling. If they are like me they don’t even know what the ground looks like any more. Everything revolves around inexorable worry.

The first time John went to Afghanistan I noted this in my diary:

"I would fight with my wife but don’t dare. These days we are both too brittle to risk a big purging cloud-clearing fight. There is no margin for error. The most Genie and I can manage is some halfhearted bickering. And the lovely routine of a thirty-seven years of marriage has been interrupted. Everything has turned pale against the backdrop of one overwhelming activity: praying for our Marine."

With a son at war I felt as if I was peering out of a cage as the world passed by, a cage others couldn’t see, yet one in which I was been corralled, condemned to pace alone. Old friends went their merry ways. I watched. To passersby I may have appeared as if I was one of them but was not. I was only pretending to be in the world around me but my mind, heart, and soul were with my son, hovering over him, a phantom of anxiety unable to do more than beg unseen powers to protect him.

Genie, my beautiful wife, my teenage crush, love of my life, my very own San Francisco hippie princess I’d married when we were seventeen and eighteen, was by my side. But Genie, like me, had never been through a war where one of our children was sent into harm’s way. We had never served. We were part of that "sixties" generation that didn’t "do" military.

It had been hard enough sending my two older children off to Georgetown and New York University. John’s enlisting was unexpected, so deeply unsettling. I didn’t relish the prospect of answering the question, "So where is John going to college?" from the parents who were itching to tell me all about how their son or daughter was going to Harvard. At the swanky private high school John attended, no other students went into the military.

"But aren’t the Marines terribly Southern?" asked one perplexed mother while standing next to me at the brunch following graduation. "What a waste, he was such a good student," said another parent. One parent (a professor at a nearby and rather famous university), spoke up at a school meeting and suggested that the school should "carefully evaluate what went wrong."

When John graduated from three months of boot camp on Parris Island, 3,000 parents and friends were on the parade deck stands. We parents and our Marines were not only of many races but were representative of many economic classes as well. Many were poor. Some arrived crammed in the backs of pickups, others by bus. John told me that a lot of parents could not afford the trip.

We parents were white and Native American. We were Hispanic and African American and Asian. We were former Marines wearing the scars of battle, or at least baseball caps emblazoned with battles’ names. We were Southern whites from Nashville and skinheads from New Jersey and black kids from Cleveland wearing ghetto rags, and big white ex-cons with ham-hock forearms defaced by jailhouse tattoos. We would not have been mistaken for the educated and well-heeled parents gathered on the lawns of John’s private school a half-year before.

After graduation one new Marine told John, "Before I was a Marine, if I had ever seen you on my block I would’ve probably killed you just because you were standing there." This was a serious statement from one of John’s good friends, an African American ex-gang member from Detroit who, as John said, "would die for me now, just like I’d die for him."

My son has connected me to my country in a way that I was too selfish and insular to experience before. I am proud, grateful and undeserving of the honor.

My non-military friends don’t understand, though they try to be kind. Only the people who exist in the same twilit limbo as Genie and I did when John went to war empathized fully. We in the "military family" share an ache that binds. We understand each other’s relentless preoccupation with loss. Other people don’t "get" it, how can you be terrified and so proud all at once? We wait on the home front and hope, rage, pray, mourn, and feel proud all in the same heartbeat.

We of the military family resent anyone who is less than supremely grateful to our loved ones for their sacrifice. And, speaking for this forlorn middle-aged Marine’s dad, the least hint of condescension about our loved one’s service will send us into a tailspin of fury.

We sometimes resent the fact that the sun still shines on so many people to whom "our" war is but a headline, a sound bite, a glib report. We crave respect for our flesh and blood. This Veteran’s Day don’t forget that whole families go to war with their beloved sons and daughters.