Excerpted from the book Love You More Than You Know: Mothers’ Stories About Sending Their Sons and Daughters to War, © Janie Reinart and Mary Anne Mayer. Reprinted with permission of Gray & Company, Publishers
The Year Our Children Went to War
By Mary Anne Mayer
Until September of 1999, I did not even know a Marine. I had not yet come to appreciate this noble band of brothers who embodied honor, duty, and commitment. They were only the nameless faces of soldiers from books and movies. I certainly did not understand their culture and warrior ethos. Nor did I know what it meant to be the mother of such a man. I had no idea of what joining this sisterhood would mean to my life.
Then, in September of 1999, I came home from school to find a Marine recruiter sitting at my kitchen table with my son. Almost instinctively I knew this would change the course of all the plans we had for him—Stan, our sensitive, unassuming, yet erudite son who loved to write and draw, visit the art museum, and watch Inside the Actors Studio with me. I was so overwhelmed, I could not speak. I was choked up, and the recruiter, embarrassed for me, apologized and said he’d return at a later time. Return he did, and, despite my protests, Stan signed up for the Marine reserves.
Sending Stan to boot camp was like sending Daniel into the lions’ den. Three months later, in the sweltering heat of Parris Island, he was recognized as the honor grad of his platoon. We could not have been more proud. Six foot four, square-jawed and broad-shouldered, he looked like a Hollywood poster for the Marines.
Juggling college and the Marines, Stan was able to do it all. “Okay,” I thought, “this business of being a Marine isn’t so bad.” And then, on September 11, 2001, all hell broke loose, and I got a reality check.
Every time units were sent to the Middle East, Stan felt cheated, while I breathed a sigh of relief. Two years later he held his ill, ninety-three-year-old grandmother and said, “Don’t cry, Grandma, it looks like my unit won’t ever go over.” Three months later she passed away, and his unit received orders for Iraq. I have no doubt that she and my dad (who passed away before my mom) watched over him during his tour.
I cannot possibly describe what it feels like to send your child to war. It’s a bizarre explosion of fear and pride, helplessness and strength, anger and acceptance. Surrendering, I placed Stan in God’s hands, and asked our parish priest to bless him before he left for Iraq. As I placed the blue star in our window, I finally understood the hearts of all the mothers who had gone before me throughout history.
“Mom, don’t be sad. This is what I have prepared for. This is why I am a Marine.” As he said this to me the night before he left, I remembered the ten-year-old Stan who was so drawn to the idealism of the Knights of the Round Table, and I feared that the hell of war would forever change him.
On a bleak winter’s day in January, we put on brave smiles and held flags and signs as the buses drove our sons to the airport. I remember that when the buses were out of view, mothers who were strangers only minutes ago stood together on the side of a slushy road in Brook Park, Ohio, embracing one another with one thing in common—helplessness. Later, that night, while making a cup of tea, I sobbed when I saw that the sugar bowl was empty.
“Mom,” Stan said, calling from California, where the Marines prepared for war, “don’t worry about me. I’m in a special unit called ‘MAP.’ I drive the brass around to their meetings—kinda like the Secret Service for the military.” I felt as though a huge weight was lifted. I mean, how often does one hear of officers being killed? What he did not say was that MAP also stood for Mobile Assault Platoon—a specialized unit of handpicked Marines who executed offensive missions against the insurgents. What I did not know was that while I was teaching junior high, or mopping the floor, or grocery shopping, Stan was watching a good buddy lose his leg to an IED (improvised explosive device) just one Humvee ahead of his. Or that he was writing a war journal, chronicling the conversations of his brothers sometimes days before they got wounded or killed. What I did not know was that rounds of ammo whizzed by his helmet on any given day, and that before each mission, the men in Stan’s Humvee would recite the 91st Psalm because they were always in harm’s way.
Our rituals get us through each day. I left Stan’s leather jacket hanging on the back of the dining room chair—just as he had left it. There was always a vigil candle on our mantel, with Stan’s picture carefully placed between a framed print of The Good Shepherd and a photograph of my mom and dad. No matter what I was doing or where I went, an enameled yellow ribbon with the Marine insignia graced my left shoulder. We wound a giant yellow ribbon and bow on an ancient oak in my daughter’s yard. Alex, my two-year-old granddaughter, would frequently yell at their resident squirrel to leave it alone. “Go away, Mr. Squirrel, that’s Uncle Stan’s bow!” I began attending daily mass and saying the rosary for all the soldiers. Who would better understand the suffering of our troops than Mary, who stood and watched the Passion and death of her son?
The passing of each day, each week, each month, became a milestone. Then, on Saturday, May 7, 2005, I paused briefly by the mantel and gently touched the photograph of my dad. “Happy Birthday, Dad,” I said. “Watch over our boy for me.” Little did I know the danger my son was in that day. Little did I know that in a place called Haditha, Stan’s Humvee was hit by a suicide bomber driving a white Ford Econoline van packed with explosives. As his Humvee exploded, Stan looked death in the face. Once the dust had settled, somehow Stan stumbled out of the driver’s side and miraculously got up from the earth, entirely blackened by the explosion. As skin melted off his face and arms, he continued to return fire while trying to tend to the wounded. Stan carried his dead brothers to safety and held his corpsman in his arms as his eyes rolled back in the last fleeting moments of his life. One by one, in the milliseconds of combat, in the heat of hell, “Doc” Weiner, Cepeda, Marzano, and Graham all died. Out of seventeen men, four died and five were wounded at Haditha that night. All this while I dusted and vacuumed.
“God, let Your will be done. I got no control here.” That was how Stan and his brothers had begun to pray—not to be kept safe from harm but to do His will. I was more selfish with his life. I wanted him! As I thanked God that Stan was spared, my heart cried for those mothers who, on Mother’s Day, received the news that their sons were badly wounded or killed at Haditha. That Sunday afternoon, May 8, shaken by the reality of war, my family made our annual Mother’s Day visit to the cemetery. As I touched the cold marble marker, I whispered, “Thanks, Mom and Dad.”
I wish I could say that the war went away after May 7. But, tragically, the following five months continued to bring the war home to Columbus and Cleveland, with forty-nine of our brave sons having made the ultimate sacrifice as members of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines. My hands froze on the steering wheel and my legs began to shake when I heard on the radio that fourteen Marines from Stan’s unit had been killed on August 3. We rushed home and sat by the phone, praying that it would not ring and fearful of the sound of cars coming up the driveway. In the weeks that followed, funeral homes swelled with people paying their respects to more of Stan’s fallen brothers. Funeral entourages with honor guards stretched for miles, and both the young and old stood at silent attention as the hearses passed by.
By the end of August, I had no more tears, but the solitary image of the mother of one of Stan’s fallen brothers will forever remain in my mind. Grief-stricken, she sat on a stone bench in the garden of St. Albert the Great Church, in front of a statue of the pietà—in front of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son in her arms.
Under the blue skies of a warm October day, the members of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines returned home to a hero’s welcome in Brook Park, Ohio, as hundreds of people lined the streets—a testament not only to those who returned home, but also to those who did not. The auditorium where families and friends gathered pulsated with excitement as we anxiously awaited our sons’ arrival. I felt physically lighter than air, and when I finally reached Stan, I wanted to hold him forever.
In the ensuing months I would sometimes just look at him while he slept—just like I used to do when he was born, just making sure that he was really there, that he was all right. Lying there, he looked the same. The physical wounds of war had healed. But he didn’t do a lot of sleeping. He seemed distant. The war did not end with the October bus ride. Talking about mundane things was awkward for me, yet that was all that Stan wanted to talk about. Stan became a spokesperson for his unit, and, little by little, through his interviews and speaking engagements, published magazine articles and the photographs he had taken in Iraq, I began to get a clearer picture of the war. But I needed only to look into his eyes to know that there are stories I will never hear.
While Christmas shopping that year, I came upon a painting of an angel embracing a soldier with his wings. The 91st Psalm was superimposed in the desert background. “Could you please wrap this up for me?” I asked the clerk, as I fought to hold back tears. This Christmas gift for Stan could say what I could not put into words. This angel could bridge the awkward gap I felt, because I knew that, though I was Stan’s mother, this war was something that on many levels I could not share with him. This beautiful psalm, sung thousands of years ago near the same hills where the war was now being fought—this, Stan would understand.
We are all changed forever by events larger than ourselves. We must go on, but we will never forget the year our children went to war.
Mary Anne Mayer became an Army wife when she joined her husband, Stan, at the Arctic Test Center in Fort Greely, Alaska. She has degrees in theater and secondary education, and she teaches art, religion, and writing, and co-directs plays, in junior high school. She and Stan have three children and delight in being grandparents.
What’s a Mother to Do?
By Noël Burr
My story begins when I got married to a brand-new second lieutenant in the Army. Ralph had just graduated from West Point. I knew that it meant a life of uniforms and moves and separations, but I never thought of war. That happened in the movies and was over in ninety minutes.
The reality of war became part of our lives in less than two years with multiple deployments to Vietnam. I was left with four small children to care for, but that is another story. I am not a stranger to deployments, and I know that it does not get easier each time. Maybe it gets harder, because each time you have more of a sense of what is happening.
The children grew up through the many moves and school changes and went off to college. Two daughters entered ROTC (the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps). We were proud of their dedication, and Ralph was eventually asked to administer the oath of office on graduation to a new Army helicopter pilot and an Air Force public affairs officer.
And then it happened. We got the call. “Mom, I am being deployed to Desert Storm.” It was December of 1990 and everything turned to slow motion. Now our daughter, Kathy, was going to war as part of her aviation unit. Our daughter was going to war! Isn’t that a male thing? She was a tiny little blue-eyed, blond, wispy-haired baby who, as a young woman, had to get a waiver to be a helicopter pilot because she is so short. And she was going to war! I wanted to be there with her to give her a hug and wave goodbye as she departed, but she was leaving from her post in Germany. What’s a mother to do? I could not read the newspaper or listen to or watch the news because it made me anxious. Every time I heard mention of the war, I said a prayer. I prayed a lot during the deployments. Communication was snail mail. Finally she was home and safe.
And then it happened again. “Mom, I am being deployed to Kuwait.” This time it was April of 2003. It was the very day her brother Michael was getting married. She was a bridesmaid in absentia. I asked the priest to say a special prayer for her. Kathy would not be flying this time, but scheduling flights for those who were. Again I turned to prayer at the mention of the war. And now communication was e-mail—what a great invention! I spent my days in front of the computer hoping for a message about the heat, the sand, any contact with Kathy, or the USO (United Service Organizations) boxes that were sent from here for all the men and women to share. I worked with the USO shipping out boxes by the dozens to all the military we had addresses for. It helped being a part of the effort to support the troops. And then she was home and safe.
But then there was another deployment. This time Kathy’s husband, David, was going to Baghdad. It was February of 2006 just four months after they were married. She knew what it was all about, and we prayed. More USO boxes.
In May of 2007, our son, Michael, called and said, “Mom, Sandy [his wife] is being deployed to Baghdad.” She was leaving two-year-old twins. They needed a nanny, so I called the nanny school in our town. The school said that they would help in any way they could for this military deployment. And they did. I was happy that at least I could help them make that connection. The nanny was a lifesaver for my son, who was left with the children, and for me too, because I knew that all was well taken care of at home. Their community in California has an organization that makes quilts for the children of deploying military, and a square of each child’s quilt is sent to the parent as a way of keeping them connected. Now communication was daily e-mail to home, including videos so Sandy’s children could see Mommy with the Elmo she took with her to Iraq. One early message to us was:
Lots of birds, a nice reminder of the gentle forces of nature, hearing a songbird vs. the bombs in the distance.
We have been alerted that our son-in-law, David, will be deploying again. He will be going to Afghanistan in early 2009. This will be the eighth deployment for me. When will it stop? Will my grandson, Thomas, be the next to go? He just graduated from the Air Force Academy. The president was there and shook hands with each and every one of the more than one thousand graduates and wished them all well as they go to serve their country.
We are the wives, the mothers, the grandmothers. Our uniform is an apron that has a pocket full of hankies. Our deployment happens every time our loved ones leave home. Our mission is to keep the lines of communication open and full of stories and cheer and a few cookies. We have the yellow ribbons on the mailbox so everyone who passes knows and remembers to say a prayer. We serve our country too. We are brave. God bless the troops and the families who wait for them.
Noël Burr is a self-described “military camp follower,” with fifteen moves in all. She “joined” the Army when she married her husband, Ralph, then a new graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. She and her husband have four children: two girls and twin boys. She regularly works as a volunteer.