Best Defense

The Matt Mabe story (III): The meaning of “I had a son”

Here is another installment from Capt. Mabe, who is making the best of an involuntary recall to very active duty, after doing two tours in Iraq, and is now in eastern Afghanistan: On a wet June morning about a month ago, I stood outside a Cracker Barrel restaurant off Interstate 20 in Meridian, Mississippi. I ...

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Here is another installment from Capt. Mabe, who is making the best of an involuntary recall to very active duty, after doing two tours in Iraq, and is now in eastern Afghanistan:

On a wet June morning about a month ago, I stood outside a Cracker Barrel restaurant off Interstate 20 in Meridian, Mississippi. I was among fifty or so Iraq- and Afghanistan-bound soldiers on an eight-hour charter bus ride from Camp Shelby to the Atlanta airport. To break up the trip we’d stopped for breakfast. Now, two fellow uniformed soldiers and I waited outside for other soldiers to finish their meals and get back on the bus.

Ink-dark rain clouds were moving in fast. Heavy raindrops began to thud against the hood of a parked pickup truck nearby. As we retreated to the restaurant’s covered patio, the three of us were stopped abruptly by a pretty, middle-aged brunette. She wore a wide-brimmed white cotton sun hat and stylish blue jeans. She smiled warmly and seemed unconcerned by the impending thunderstorm. A man with her, presumably her husband, continued up the steps and out of the rain.

“Are y’all goin’ to Afghanistan?” she asked with the soft, compassionate tone of a mother. No, we told her, one of us was actually going to Iraq. But I don’t think she heard us. She just pulled us all together and wrapped her arms around our sun-burnt necks. “Thank you, boys,” she said. “I had a son who went over there, to Afghanistan.” She had tears in her eyes as her husband gently tugged at her elbow and guided her away.

“Had” a son. Her use of the past tense was not lost on any of us. And suddenly, staying dry didn’t seem so important to us anymore.

It’s easy, I think, for Americans to forget the tremendous burden that a select number of families have had to endure in this war. I am myself a two-tour Iraq vet. But in the subsequent years I spent as a civilian, even I allowed the comforts of my life in New York to shield me from the violence and heartbreak this eight-year-old war continues to inflict across our country. Some people I know blame the national media for neglecting a “tired story.” Others fault the government for playing down the wars’ true costs by, for instance, not allowing images of flag-draped coffins to make their way into newspapers and onto televisions. The fact is, there is plenty of blame to go around, not least among every single one of us, myself included.

I’ve been in Afghanistan now for about a month, assigned to Gardez in the rugged eastern mountains near the border with Pakistan. The death toll on coalition forces here is hitting all-time highs. IEDs are fast becoming the Taliban’s weapon of choice. Just last week, in southern Afghanistan, an IED claimed the life of another one of my West Point classmates, the ninth member of my class to die in combat since 2003. I’m ashamed to admit that it took being plucked from my new life as a journalist and sent back to a conflict zone for me to realize that this war truly does rage on. Maybe I even deserved it. Because almost every day, another mother in America is greeted on her front porch by three solemn men dressed in green to tell her that her child is never coming home.

No matter what our opinions are of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is something we simply cannot forget. At a time when our country is in crisis — economically and militarily — millions of Americans are re-examining the way they lived their lives during the recent boom years. We’ve heard a lot since last September about the collective sacrifices we all as taxpayers, consumers and investors must now make. But it’s important to remember that throughout the last decade, a far greater sacrifice was already being made by a silent minority — theirs paid for in blood. To forget that would be inexcusable.

And I know of one mother in Mississippi who would surely agree.”

 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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