A shiver went up my spine.
They were so young, these soldiers boys, most of them, just like my son. And they were so representative of the racial demographics of California, so many colors and ethnicities gathered there that day. And most of them didn't seem to be rolling in money.
But they were precious treasure in the eyes of their wives and children, siblings and parents, who all would really rather not see them leave. And they continue to be a mighty rare resource in these days of no military draft, a body of soldiers who should be only be deployed when all other avenues have been exhausted.
Most of us are disconnected from these soldiers, their families and this war. We see images of burning tanks, charred buildings, and stunned Iraqis on the television. But there is no smell of burning flesh. No fear that the person walking toward us is a bomb, about to go off.
And without the draft, most Americans aren't worrying that Iraq will devour their children. It's a dangerous disconnect that could allow this war to drag on for decades its burden to fall on the backs of the same soldiers and their families, over and over again.
Watching these young men prepare to deploy, I felt sick, remembering that when Bush first tried to make his case for the invasion, I naively believed this war could be averted. All it would take, so I thought, was people listing the many reasons why a preemptive invasion was illegal and how it would have long-term counterproductive repercussions for Iraq.
I also remembered how I began to grow desperate in December 2002, when Bush continued to talk about assassination, regime change, and first-strike nuclear attacks, despite the fact that inspectors found no evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and despite the fact that millions were marching against an invasion.
I helped organize and participate in a naked peace sign on a beach in Santa Cruz County, along with my friend and fellow peacenik Jane Sullivan.
I know that getting naked to stop the invasion sounds terribly lame in retrospect. As Jay Leno joked at the time, "Good idea. Wrong president." But it wasn't likely to trigger any nuclear build-ups, either.
At the time, my son was 16 and wasn't talking about joining the military. That happened in his first year at college. It was January 2006, and I was hopeful that since the war was becoming increasingly unpopular, the Democrats would be able to take control of Congress and force Bush to bring the troops home, before my son could be deployed.
My son's recruiters apparently had no such illusions
"Run away, boy! They'll send you to Iraq!" they said, when my son showed up to enlist.
"I couldn't expect you to understand," he said, the day he broke the news of his enlistment, adding that he believed his ensuing experience would be "like a crucible."
Crucible is certainly an accurate metaphor describing my odyssey as a newborn military mom. As I wrote in my diary in Spring 2007, when my son got his deployment orders and came home on leave for a week, "Since last week, I have learned the difference between the cavalry, the field artillery and the infantry. I have helped my son draw up a living will and power of attorney documents. We have had conversations about death, maiming, and vegetative conditions."
We also had plenty of sweet and funny times, the way people do when they don't know how much time they have left together. Like the day we took a road trip to Mount Tam. We laughed ourselves silly when the person in the passenger seat of the car ahead of us turned out to be a giant poodle.