War Is a Family Affair
My little brother Nathan was deployed on Feb. 15 -- the day millions of people gathered in cities across the globe to protest military action in Iraq; the day before my mother's birthday.
Nath used to be a hyper little kid who always wore shorts, cowboy boots and a buzz cut. He danced the part of a duck in a ballet recital when he was 4. He was a punk in high school who played the drums in a band and wore his hair bleached and long, over his ears, like Kurt Cobain. The he became an English major -- he graduated from the University of Oregon last year. Somewhere during his college years, he lost his nose ring and found George W. Bush.
Now he's engaged to his college sweetheart, Lindsey Wolcott. His hair's shaved off again. And he's a member of the 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry of the Oregon Army National Guard.
My brother's 22. To me, he's still a kid. He's not old enough to fight a war. The President hasn't officially called for military action against Iraq yet, but I think we're already at war. My family's countdown to war started on a Friday night in February, a week before Valentine's Day. My brother got a call on his cell phone.
"We went out to dinner at Applebee's," remembers Lindsey, Nath's fiancée. "Stupid guy told me at Applebee's. He said, 'Oh my gosh, I have some bad news,' and I just started crying in the middle of Applebee's in front of everyone."
I asked her if she knew what the news would be. "Yeah. I could tell."
I found out the following Sunday. I was sitting on the couch, wearing flannel PJs, drinking my morning coffee. I checked my email and found an automated note from The Oregonian -- a message from my dad -- telling me to check out a page on OregonLive.com. My dad's weird. He's a lawyer and a brilliant orator with a funny, dry sense of humor. But sometimes, with personal stuff, electronic communication comes easier to him than talk.
I opened the email. It was a canned message. "Dear Jessica: Dad thought you might be interested in this item from OregonLive.com." I clicked on the link before I read my dad's attached note. "In the largest call-up of an Oregon National Guard unit since World War II, about 670 soldiers of the 162nd Infantry Regiment were told to mobilize Friday," the story began.
I clicked back to the email and read the part that's supposed to make it sound like a personal note. "Dad says: Still don't know if Nate's among these. He'll find out tomorrow."
I burst into slobbery tears. At that moment, I saw faces in the front window. My friends Lou and Rachelle walked in. They were laughing and smiling. We had planned to spend the day at the beach. Their faces changed when they saw me looking like I'd just found out that my brother was going to war.
Around 5 p.m. my dad called and said that Nathan wasn't going anywhere yet. "But this is the military and that can change any minute," he said. Dad was right.
At 11:30 Sunday night the phone rang. My husband Tom and I were sleeping. I hate late-night phone calls. Except for an occasional drunk call from friends or siblings, they're never about anything good. Tom got out of bed and walked to the kitchen to answer the phone, because I'm blind without my glasses and because we both knew why the phone was ringing.
It was my dad. He sounded oddly cheerful. My mom was asleep. My dad said Nathan would ship out on Thursday. Of the 162nd Infantry, only 35 soldiers of the 2nd Battalion would be deployed. Nate was one of the lucky 35. The other 700 soldiers, he said, were "undeployable."
I didn't sleep that night. I tried to think about Nath wearing a gas mask and a chemical suit, gunning down Iraqis, but the dissonance was too great. He was so homesick for Lindsey and our family after he left for basic training last summer. And that was just South Carolina. Nath's old room in my parent's house is still decorated with Pearl Jam and Nirvana posters. His collection of Pound Puppies sit on a shelf. An old Winnie the Pooh lamp stands near his bed. A few days before he found out that he would be deployed, I asked him if he felt afraid. He said no, and joked, "I'll bring you back an ear. I'll bring you back Saddam's ear."
He's trying to be macho and tough. That's not Nath.
At first I felt terrified, but the fear paralyzed me. So I got angry. Somehow that seemed more productive. I yelled into my pillow, cursing George W. Bush. Last summer, while Jenna Bush interned at a Hollywood entertainment agency and hung out with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, my brother learned hand-to-hand combat. I know he bought the ticket. No one forced him to enlist. We all told him that his timing was tragic. But even today he says if he could go back to last March, he'd still sign up.
Still, I wondered how Congress could agree to put my brother in the line of fire. This 107th Congress includes only one member who has a child in the enlisted ranks of the military. A handful have children who are officers. How can our elected representatives agree to send troops into harm's way without knowing what horrible chemical and biological agents are out there? I'm afraid Nath will get hurt. I don't believe this is an irrational fear. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of the 700,000 U.S. troops who served in the first Gulf War are now ill with Gulf War disease. Many veterans with symptoms like fatigue, memory loss, joint pain and paralysis say their mystery sickness stems from exposure to neurotoxins in Iraq. They worry the next group of soldiers will face a similar affliction.
A report by the Government Accounting Office in 2002 found that the military had purchased almost 800,000 defective chemical and biological warfare suits. As of July, 250,000 defective suits were still in the military's active stockpile. Even Administration hawks concede that if Saddam decides to unleash a chemical or biological attack on American forces, the loss of life would be massive.
And then I thought about the joyful little kid who used to climb up doorjambs and who wanted to name our miniature Schnauzer puppy Cuddles. I wondered if he had grown up. Monday night I was on a plane to Oregon.
If anything bad happens to my brother, I will blame Tom Cruise. Nath decided to enlist one night after watching the movie "Top Gun." I don't think his first instincts were noble or patriotic -- those came later. Before Sept. 11, he says, he had never thought about joining the military. But one night in March '02, when Nath was three months away from graduating, knee-deep in student loans, not knowing what he wanted to do with his life, my brother decided he was meant to be Maverick. The life of a Navy pilot sounded glamorous, and the military's offer to pay off his student debt was a relief. The next day Nathan drove to the Navy recruiting office in Eugene.
"I can't pinpoint it," he says. "I don't have a reason. I woke up one day and decided I was going to do it."
"It was really random," Lindsey says.
What did he say? "He said, 'I want to join the Navy.'"
And what did you say to him? "'Okay, sailor.' At first, it was just so random that I thought, oh, this will be fun. He kept telling me we were going to live in Hawaii, at Pearl Harbor. So I was excited at first."
Were you worried at all that he would have to go to war? "I remember we talked about it. I remember asking him if it would be likely. He said no." Lindsey says she's not worried. Not yet. Not until she finds out what Nate's mission will be.
"But I don't know if it's different for me because my dad went to war," she says. "He fought in Vietnam. He talks about it all the time. He loves it. I think it's the pride. My dad, he flew..."
"Hueys. The medevac chopper," Nath interrupts.
"He picked up dead bodies after battles, which I think would be scary," Lindsey says. "He got a big award, the Distinguished Flying Cross. And he is just so proud. He tells me everyday, 'I'm so proud of Nate and I know you're proud of him, too.'"
But are you more proud or scared? "Well, I'm sad he's going to leave, but I'm proud of him," Lindsey says.
She's less selfish than I am. I decide to try to talk him out of it. After he decided to enlist, Lindsey drove with my brother to the Navy recruiting office. He was one test question away from becoming a Navy pilot. Instead, he ended up in infantry -- a sawgunner (his job is to fire a squat automatic weapon) in the Oregon National Guard. "It will be fun," he told me last summer, before he left for basic training. "Like camping two weekends a month except that we get to hang out of helicopters and shoot guns."
Plus, it's the National Guard. So maybe he would be paid to stand around in an airport holding a rifle or looking through car trunks. Wrong again. There are now more than 150,000 reservists and National Guard members mobilized, conducting homeland security missions and preparing for war with Iraq, more than at any time since Sept. 11. On Thursday, Feb. 13, Nath went into lockdown. He had tickets to a basketball game that night.
Nath left for Fort Carson, Colorado on Feb. 15 for training before he is shipped overseas. He's staying in an old hospital with heat and electricity but no hot water. The night that his battalion arrived, they unpacked their bags and then were told to pack them again. They were issued their weapons and then turned them back in. He got his anthrax inoculation and the first of six smallpox shots. He says the anthrax left a big red bump, and the smallpox itches like hell. Nath's battalion will spend the upcoming weeks shooting their weapons, preparing for nuclear, chemical and biological attacks and learning how to fight in an urban environment.
Sometime this month they'll prepare to ship out for "no more than 365 days." He doesn't know where they will be sent, or what the mission will be yet, but they've spent considerable time learning how to behave properly in an Arab country, and they've listened to lectures and seen pictures of what will happen to them should they be kidnapped by terrorists. One guy in the slide show had his kneecaps sawed off. Another was repeatedly set on fire and extinguished. Both died.
"If terrorists catch you," Nath says, "you can count on dying the most miserable, painful death imaginable. I'm not leaving the base."
Or my brother's infantry battalion may be sent to Turkey to guard an airfield or a missile base. He says it could be quite boring, so he's packing a Gameboy, a CD player and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He wears a silver cross on his dog tags that my parents gave him before he left for basic training. Now he also wears a crucifix my mother-in-law gave to him, and carries another one that belonged to my grandfather in his pocket.
Nath will miss a Bon Jovi concert and a planned vacation to Mexico. He'll miss Lindsey's MAT graduation and her birthday. He'll miss my sister's wedding on July 4.
I'm biased, but I think my family is special. We're very devoted to each other. My sister Suzanne lives in San Jose; when her wedding dress arrived, my mom and dad flew down for her first fitting. When my baby sister, Karen, who was 15 when she got pregnant, decided to keep her baby, my very traditional, very Catholic family rejoiced. On Valentine's Day, Karen's boyfriend Chris -- baby Elizabeth's father -- proposed. Of course, we all came home to say goodbye to Nath. On a Tuesday night, we had our last family dinner together. We ate lasagna and drank wine, and I recorded the whole thing.
My dad makes a toast "to a successful campaign, or whatever it's called." My mom makes a toast to "coming back in two weeks." My sister Suzanne says "Hasta la vista."
I ask Nath if he's scared. He says no. "There's nothing to be scared about." But Lindsey says he's lying.
You're not scared of dying? "No."
You're not scared of killing people? "No."
Do you think about killing people? "No."
Then what do you think about? "Separation."
He says he would enlist all over again. Lindsey says he's rude. I ask him why and he says he doesn't know.
"I don't know," he says. "It sucks that you have to leave -- that's the worst part, by far -- but there's a much bigger picture to it all. You're out there with people you support. And you're out there working for each other. And for the good of the nation. So it's a big deal, really. See, there's a difference between reality and idealism. That's what it is, you know? Everybody wants there to be world peace. I don't have a question in my mind about that. Everybody wants everybody to get along but that's not a reality. Everybody is always going to have different views. Everybody is not always going to get along. And once you realize that, you realize ... it's just not a reality."
So why should you be the one to fix it? "Because somebody has to."
It doesn't matter what I say.
Freedom, Fighting and Family
My brother thinks we're fighting for freedom. My dad thinks we have a moral duty to oust Saddam.
"The United States and a number of other countries have recognized that there is a murderer at large and have insisted that we must not simply stand idly by and do nothing while he plans yet other murders," my dad wrote in a guest opinion for the local daily back home, the Statesman Journal. "Today we see war protesters, but would they seriously argue that Hitler should have been left alone? Wouldn't a strong military stand, at least by 1938, have avoided the Holocaust and ultimately World War II?"
I agree that Saddam is a barbaric dictator, but please, he's not Hitler. And I don't think any of these are the reasons that my brother is being sent overseas. War should only be a final resort and I don't think we've exhausted the other options yet.
I didn't tell Nath any of this. He was leaving in two days and I didn't want to fight. It seemed useless to talk to my brother. I believe a unilateral, pre-emptive attack against Iraq is unjustifiable. That it will be a horrible, bloody fight. It's highly unlikely that Iraqis will welcome American troops with open arms as these foreign invaders try to take Baghdad. If accounts of weapons and laboratories hidden under hospitals and in crowded residential neighborhoods are true, it's likely that the U.S. will respond by heavily bombing these urban areas. Iraqi civilian casualties will be high. Thousands of American lives are at stake. The risk is too great.
I knew none of this would matter to him. I'm proud of my brother, and I admire his courage and his conviction. But I don't understand it. And I think it's naïve. I know he -- like the other 180,000 U.S. troops in the Gulf -- is doing a job and I support and appreciate him. It's the Commander-in-Chief I have a problem with.
On this tape, I can hear my niece, Elizabeth, who is now almost 3, singing an operatic version of Jingle Bells, her favorite song, and playing the piano in the background. I can picture the scene. After her impromptu recital, she put on an Army hat that belonged to her teddy bear -- Uncle Nay Nay bear, she calls it. Uncle Nate taught her how to salute and say, "Drop and give me 20." After a few tries, she got it.
Earlier in the day, our family portraits arrived. We sat for a photo session over Thanksgiving, at a historical park in Salem. My two grandmothers were there, along with my mom's sister and brother-in-law who live in Boston, the four of us kids, my husband, their fiancées, and 2-year-old Elizabeth. My mom probably ordered dozens of prints of everyone and one big 24x30 picture of the six of us to hang above the couch. She doesn't have a frame yet, but she put it on the wall anyway. We're sitting under gold-colored leaves, and we're all smiling big, toothy grins except for Nath who never opens his lips.
"It's beautiful," my mom says, folding her hands, staring up at the picture. "It's all I wanted."
I said goodbye early Thursday morning. I woke up at about 5 a.m. when I heard Lindsey's car pulling out of the driveway. She had to go home to Portland, to student-teach. Nath wouldn't leave for another hour, but I couldn't sleep.
I remembered when we were little and we had snuck out of the backyard to run away. I don't remember why. Nathan started crying because if we ran away, he wouldn't have a mom anymore.
"Don't worry," I said -- his brave, 7-year-old sister. "I'll be your mom." We never made it very far. We never packed enough.
At 6 a.m. my mom came in to wake me up. She asked me how long I'd been awake. "I don't think any of us got much sleep last night," she said. I started crying and she rubbed my head. "Be strong for Nate," she said. We all congregated in the kitchen in our pajamas, and watched Nate, wearing his fatigues, carry his bags out to his new truck. He bought it five days ago. He's mostly driven it to and from the Army headquarters in Eugene. My dad looked so tired, his eyes sad and lined, and his thin hair falling in his face.
My mom kept busy, orchestrating the deployment, moving between the truck, the kitchen and the coffee pot. Karen stared at the floor. Suzanne had flown back to San Jose the previous afternoon. Nath went down to the basement one last time and came up carrying his address book. "Alright, let's go," he said. He came over to hug me and I couldn't be strong. Neither could he.
After Nath walked out the door, Karen and I went into the front room and opened the blinds like we used to do every morning when my dad would leave before dawn to drive to work. Karen and I were smaller then, but we still fit between the end table and the window. Nath's truck drove down the hill, and we waved through the glass. He didn't see us.
Jessica Lyons is a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Monterey, California.