A Mother's 'Minefields' When A Child Deploys

Cover Detail: Minefields of the Heart
Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War
By Sue Diaz
Hardcover, 176 pages
Potomac Books
List price: $24.95
Read An Excerpt

How does a relationship change between a mother and her son when he goes off to war? And then how do they communicate about what he saw and experienced after he returns from the battlefield a changed man?

Sue Diaz, a writer and essayist for Newsweek and The Christian Science Monitor, details how her family experienced both the deployment and return of her son Roman from two tours of duty in Iraq in a new memoir, Minefields of the Heart.

Diaz recounts what it was like to experience the day-by-day horrors of war from the home front, as well as the emotions she felt when her son first told her that he was joining the infantry — and when she received news that he had been injured in an IED explosion.

She tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that communicating with her son, who is normally a reserved person, was made even more difficult by news blackouts and by Roman's trying to protect his family from knowing what took place on the battlefield.

"At one point he said, 'Mom, I wish you didn't know about these things. Some horrible stuff goes on here and you don't need to know about it or for anyone to associate it with you,' " she explains. "He wanted to protect us from what he was experiencing."

Sue Diaz is a journalist and essayist who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Reader's Digest and The Christian Science Monitor.


Sue Diaz i i

Sue Diaz frequently contributes to the Christian Science Monitor and NPR. She also conducts writing workshops for veterans at the San Diego Vet Center. Terry Ruscin hide caption

itoggle caption Terry Ruscin
Sue Diaz

Sue Diaz frequently contributes to the Christian Science Monitor and NPR. She also conducts writing workshops for veterans at the San Diego Vet Center.

Terry Ruscin

Interview Highlights

On receiving a phone call about an IED explosion while Roman was deployed

"It was two days before Christmas and the phone rang. It was early in the morning. A voice asked, 'Is this Susan Diaz?' And I thought it was a telemarketer. It had that kind of formality to it. And then the voice said, 'This is Capt. Candrian of the 101st Airborne and there's been an incident. Your son has been involved in an IED explosion.' And then he said, 'Are you familiar with the term IED?' And I thought, 'Yeah.' I mean those three letters were as familiar to me as PTA used to be. And he went on to say that [Roman] wasn't injured seriously. That he had suffered some wounds and was being patched up at the aid station. ... There were two soldiers that were lost in that. I remember at the time writing down the name of the place ... and being very focused and meticulous about taking notes about this, as if that would somehow make right what I was hearing."

On not learning about the danger her son was in until after he came home

"On some level, anyone who has someone in a combat zone — in some deep corner of your heart — you know the kind of danger that they're in. ... There were deaths reported in the newspapers and I didn't know exactly how bad it was. We did get a letter from him. ... He said, 'We're out here, kind of away from things. We have our food dropped off by helicopters. We're out here on our own.' I remember reading that at that time and thinking, 'Oh, they're in some remote area where they're keeping an eye on a distant border and that's why a helicopter is dropping things off.' So I fooled myself into thinking that indicated that they were in a safe place. But as it turns out, the reason the helicopter was dropping things off is because the roads around that area were deemed too dangerous for supply trucks to travel — and these were the roads that every single day, they got in the Humvees to go in patrol [and] they walked."

On seeing Roman when he returned from his final tour

"It was wonderful. We flew to Fort Campbell, Ky., from California to be there when the plane landed when his unit finally came home. I remember sitting in the big cavernous hangar, and the door opening, and the sunlight behind the men, and them marching in, and the place erupting in pure joy to see them. They march in front of you and you're in the bleachers and you can't touch them, you can't throw your arms around them yet. I remember Roman looking up and seeing us and we're waving and his eyebrows lifting, and it's a moment that a parent or anyone in that situation never forgets."

Excerpt: 'Minefields Of The Heart'

Cover Detail: Minefields of the Heart
Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War
By Sue Diaz
Hardcover, 176 pages
Potomac Books
List price: $24.95

Introduction

Boxes

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.

Books Featured In This Story

Minefields of the Heart

A Mother's Stories of a Son at War

by Sue Diaz and Jim Frederick

Hardcover, 162 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Minefields of the Heart
Subtitle
A Mother's Stories of a Son at War
Author
Sue Diaz and Jim Frederick

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.