Being the Mother to a Family of Soldiers

As his older brother heads back for his third tour in Iraq, one man wonders how his mother has coped with watching several of her sons go off to war. In this essay, he decides to ask her.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As Congress continues to debate Iraq, military families are facing the same fear they always face: the fear of losing a loved one overseas. Former Navy pilot and commentator Ken Harbaugh's brother will soon return to Iraq, and he says their mother, Cathy(ph), has helped maintain a sense of normalcy in their lives. For her part, Cathy Harbaugh, whom we'll also hear from in this essay, says she doesn't deserve so much credit.

KEN HARBAUGH: My mom is getting the staples pulled out of her knee today. She had the whole joint replaced a couple weeks ago. My brother and I have been calling every day to check in and to take turns scolding her for riding her horse before she's well enough. But my mom's tough that way.

I remember a nasty riding accident about 15 years ago. She was thrown clean off her mount and landed hard. Her femur shattered, and before the muscles could tighten, she straightened the leg with her own hands so the bone shards wouldn't tear into her artery.

Pretty soon, my brother will be heading back to Iraq for the third time. I wonder what that must be like for my mom. I wonder if, somehow, the staples in her leg feel a little less significant with this war hanging over her family.

The last time we were all together was before this past Thanksgiving, when I had returned from Afghanistan and my brother from Iraq. It seemed on the outside like a normal visit. We helped out on the ranch, ate together every night and caught up on stories. We even discussed the war.

But talking to my mom every day for the past couple weeks made me realize her tough-as-nails exterior hides a real ache for my brother, about to leave yet again. I asked her how she deals with it.

Ms. CATHY HARBAUGH (Mother of Ken Harbaugh): I tell my boys I'm not half as brave as they give me credit for. I just make a real effort to dwell on the good things, and when my sons are home, I fight hard to make life feel normal. I want them to feel safe at the ranch, to feel at peace, because I know that soon enough, war will beckon one of them back.

So we enjoy being together as much as time will allow. I don't see the point in a lot of overwrought emotion. Still, every time I hear about the latest casualties, I feel that stab of fear. The horror of losing a son, which has visited so many families already, always lurks in the background.

But my husband was in the military like my boys, and I know the routine. Should that dark government car ever pull into our dirt driveway, I know just what I will do. I'll stop the chaplain and ask him not to say anything yet. I'll put a pot of coffee on, and then I'll go into my bedroom, drop to my knees and pray that my beautiful child is only wounded.

SIEGEL: Ken Harbaugh is a former Navy pilot who's now studying at Yale Law School. His mother, Cathy, lives on a ranch in Pike Creek, Texas.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Our coverage of the War in Iraq continues at npr.org with a new interactive feature called The Toll of War. It tracks U.S. and Iraqi fatalities, as well as key events in the conflict. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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