Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War
By Sue Diaz
Hardcover, 176 pages
List price: $24.95
Home on leave in San Diego for the first time since his second deployment in Iraq had ended, my twenty-three-year-old son, in jeans and a T-shirt, sat at the desk in the bedroom at the end of the hall. There he clicked away on his new laptop, a Mac he'd purchased at a Nashville mall just a few days after his unit with the 101st Airborne Division returned to the States in the fall of 2006.
"Hey, Mom. Come here," Roman said, catching a glimpse of me in the hallway. "Want to see some of my pictures from Iraq?"
He hadn't talked much about the war those first days he was home. And I'd avoided asking a lot of questions. That seemed the best thing to do, given what we here at home had learned from news stories about the last months of his time with the 101st's 502nd Infantry Regiment, a unit known since World War II as the "Black Heart Brigade."
"Pictures?" I said. "Sure."
Coming to stand beside him, I cupped my hand on his shoulder and fixed my eyes on the screen.
Click. A group of Army buddies leaning against a dusty Humvee. Click. Rows of recovered mortar shells. Click. Camels trotting down a rutted road. Click. A helicopter silhouetted against a blood-red sky. Click. Iraqi children waving. Click. Shattered buildings. Click. The blackened frame of a burned-out car. Click. Click. Click.
Intermittently my gaze slipped from the screen to a framed collage on the wall just above the desk. Photos from another time. Roman riding his first two-wheeler. Swimming in the kiddie pool on the patio. Rollerblading. Cradling a pet iguana. Playing computer games. Posing at Knott's Berry Farm.
The slideshow clicked on. I interrupted it now and then to ask, "Where was that?" or "Is that your squad?" A few times Roman pointed out some of the guys in the group photos, saying, almost wistfully, as if he were surprised to see them again, "There's Chaca!" or "Tuck!" Nicknames of soldiers he'd lived with and fought beside. Young men who, I knew from those stories on the evening news that summer, would never grow old.
For the most part, the photos came and went with little commentary. That is, until a haunting close-up of Roman stared out from the screen.
"The day this picture was taken," he began, then paused. I waited. My hand moved from his shoulder to the side of his face, and with the back of it I stroked his cheek, sliding downward from the small indentations, shrapnel's etchings, near his eye.
He started again. "The day this picture was taken . . . was the worst day of my life."
"Oh, Roman," I whispered as that sank in. "That week in June?"
He nodded, then quickly clicked to another photo. And another. And another. Photos that mirrored a country at war, not — like the one I'd just seen — a soul.
This is a story about boxes. Mine contains news clippings about that day in Iraq — what led up to it and what came after. It's a brown leather box where I've also stored notebooks, journal entries, essays published with my byline, photos, letters, and printouts of online conversations. A scrapbox of sorts, filled with bits-and-pieces connected mostly to Roman and to the past few years.
My son has his box, too. It is the one that soldiers returning from war carry within themselves, the box that holds everything a combat vet has seen and felt and heard and done in the line of duty.
The reality of impending death — one's own or someone else's — is a fact of life in war. The taking of human life — a bedrock taboo of peacetime society — becomes a necessity in the context of combat. Military training turns "Thou Shalt Not Kill" into "Kill or Be Killed." For the young soldier, war is a world with a whole new set of rules.
In his book, Out of the Night, William P. Mahedy, coauthor of the design for the national Vet Center program, examines the morality of war and writes: "Even though killing enemy soldiers amounts to legitimate self-defense in a combat zone, something about it is very wrong. The harsh reality of combat may leave individuals no choice but to kill in a given situation, but the GI survivor knows somehow that both he and his dead enemy have been sucked into unspeakable evil."
As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I know it's not uncommon for vets to want to keep the lid on their memories. Opening up can take some time. Years, for some. Decades, for others. Many never do.
But it's important to try. In his groundbreaking book, Home from the War, Robert Jay Lifton says, "confrontation (with the war experience) involves acknowledging something one dimly knew but kept oneself from consciously recognizing." Confrontation, Lifton continues, leads to discovery. "That discovery is related to an image of death (such as 'People can die,' 'Death exists for me'). . . . The other side of discovery, an inseparable part of it, is a glimmering of renewed life, of the possibilities of integrity, connection, and movement."
For the past year I've been leading writing workshops for war veterans at the San Diego Vet Center through a grant from a local foundation. It is work that brings together two lifelong passions of mine: writing and teaching. The personal connection I feel to those who have served also plays an undeniable role in my Vet Center work.
Each Wednesday afternoon, a cadre of veterans from wars as far back as Vietnam and as recent as Iraq, gathers around a table in a small room at the Center to write and share their stories. War stories that in some cases, they've never shared before. What they've written in their spiral notebooks on those Wednesdays has given me a glimpse into the boxes they have carried with them from places like Danang and Fallujah, Saigon and Sadr City.
Through the stories these veterans have been brave enough to write, they have been my teachers. In listening I've learned — among other things — that in the unrelenting pressures of a combat zone, the new rules of war sometimes get bent, blurred, or in the worst situations, horribly twisted. A truth acknowledged by the slow nods and knowing looks that often pass between the guys after one of them has read. "Been there," they say, without saying anything.
The words "Open at Your Own Risk" are stamped all over their boxes, because what's inside can be scary as hell. There, the wounded still writhe in pain, the eyes of the dead stare up at skies impossibly blue, people — the good and the bad — lay in pieces, and the bomb that killed a best buddy keeps on exploding.
Every vet knows the contents of his own box all too well, perhaps even to the point where it's lost its power to frighten him. What veterans do fear, I think, is the judgment of those who haven't walked the patrols they've walked, manned the checkpoints they've manned, or had to make the wrenching split-second decisions that have been theirs to make: Friend or foe? Stop or go? Hey! Why's that kid standing in the middle of the road in front of our convoy?! Fuck! Is that a grenade in the hand of the woman who keeps walking — Stop!!!! — toward us?!
According to psychologist Peter Marin, one sure thing combat vets carry home with them from war is the knowledge that "the world is real; the suffering of others is real; one's actions can sometimes irrevocably determine the destiny of others; the mistakes one makes are often transmuted directly into others' pain; there is sometimes no way to undo that pain — the dead remain dead, the maimed are forever maimed, and there is no way to deny one's responsibility or culpability, for those mistakes are written, forever and as if in fire, in others' flesh."
That autumn afternoon standing next to Roman and his Mac, the image of his haunted face still burning its way into my brain, I didn't know all that his box held. I wasn't sure I wanted to. I could only guess at the memories he brought home with him, could only imagine the burden that was his box.
My soul has housed its share of boxes, too. In one of them: memories of the child who loved all creatures great and small; the quiet, curious boy who would one day — inexplicably, it seemed to me — choose to become a soldier in the U.S. Infantry.
I held on tightly to that box throughout the time Roman was in the war, a war I never believed in. Maybe my stubborn grip reflected denial, pure and simple, of the new reality I found hard to accept. Or perhaps holding on to those memories reflected a mother's belief that beneath the Kevlar vest her son now wore, and inches away from the strap of his automatic weapon, thumped a heart as good and as gentle as she remembered. And nothing could or would ever change that. Not even war. Could it?
Into a far corner I kicked another psychic box of mine. The one with the word "Anger" scrawled in large, uneven letters across the side of it. Its flaps were folded in on each other, and most of the time it stayed closed. But every now and then, something came along to jar that container, loosening those flaps enough for some of what was inside to finally spill out.
The biggest box by far was marked "Worry." Anyone who has ever loved someone living in a combat zone will tell you there's no getting around that one. And a good part of the reason is the fact that it is love that forms the base of that box. If we didn't love, we wouldn't worry. It's as simple — and as complicated — as that.
Worry was still with me as I stood in the bedroom at the end of the hall thinking about the photo I'd just seen, the one taken on what Roman described as the worst day of his life. He didn't say more about it than that. I didn't know if he ever would. Perhaps there are no words for what those eyes in the photo begged to unsee.
From the book Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War, by Sue Diaz. Excerpted by arrangement with Potomac Books. Copyright 2010.