Ribbons and signs

Ribbons and signs: Memories of a reluctant war mom
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sarah@sfbg.com

The hardest thing I've ever done was take my son to the airport the day he deployed to Iraq.

We set off at dawn, the hour that most dates with the Army begin, exhausted after a sleepless night in which my son packed his gear, put on his military fatigues and assumed what my daughter calls his "soldier's face," an expressionless, unnaturally calm look.

The sun rose, Led Zeppelin began to sing, Dancing days are here again / As the summer evenings grow / I got my flower / I got my power / I got my woman who knows on my car radio — and I began to wonder how I could be helping my son in joining Bush's surge.

Isn't this kind of dysfunctional? I thought, wondering if my son's militaristic tendencies were the universe's way of jokingly paying me back for a lifetime of peacenik activities.

I know he says he wants to go, but he is young and innocent and doesn't know what he is getting into, I thought, glancing at my son, who had always shown an interest in war since he was a small child, and was already looking like some kind of psycho-killer, thanks to a pair of black-rimmed, ballistic glasses he insisted on wearing on the plane.

And now he was reminiscing about the time he almost melted a machine gun barrel.

"I let off 300 rounds out of a machine gun without a break," he explained, his newly shaved head as fuzzy as a chick. "By the time I was done, the barrel was glowing orange and red at the tip. They were blanks, but they still create that much heat."

For a moment I wanted to turn and drive in the opposite direction. But I knew that there was nothing I could do to stop my son from going on his mission, the modern day version of the medieval knight's quest.

It wasn't until after we'd hugged and he'd disappeared into airport security that I broke down and cried.

When I got home, I took out the yellow ribbon magnet I got at the Camp Roberts PX store. I bought it last summer, when I attended the California National Guard farewell ceremony. And now I wrote on it, in black marker, "Til they all come home."

Then I stuck the magnet on my car, between the "Prune the Shrub" and the "Yes to Coexistence, No to Violence" bumper stickers. I'd finally come out as a military mom.

A few weeks later, I was filling up my car, when the guy behind me at the gas station commented on my bumper sticker collection.

"Don't you think that sometimes there has to be violence for there to be coexistence?" said this guy, who looked younger than me, but older than my son.

"Last weekend 14 US soldiers were killed by roadside bombs," I said, my voice suddenly on the edge of tears. "What good does that do anybody?"

"Nobody," the guy agreed, evidently attuned to my distress. "What's your son's name? I'll pray for him."

PRECIOUS TREASURE

These days, I pray for my son all the time, and all the people who are in Iraq, too. I pray in elevators and bathrooms and coffee stores. I pray when I'm driving across the Bay Bridge toward San Francisco and the towers on the bridge's western span loom like archangels.

"Protect him, protect them all," I say to the towers, the angels, and anyone else who might be listening.

Until my son enlisted, I had no idea of the daily nightmare that military families endure. The pain they feel when they read the paper or see the news and hear that some soldiers have been killed, and wonder if folks in uniform will show up at the door with bad news.

And until I went to the National Guard's farewell ceremony last summer, I had no idea what the 800 guardsmen, who were deploying with my son, were like. Then I saw them marching in formation toward me across a dusty parade field under the anxious gaze of their families.