by Sarah Phelan
Photo by Sarah Phelan
My son is among the 800 National Guard members deploying to Iraq this summer, which is why I was at Camp Roberts, near Paso Robles, yesterday afternoon, attending the Family Farewell Celebration.
The scene was as representative of California as any I've seen: Brown, black, yellow, and white families, mostly of modest means, judging from the absence of flash cars and flash clothing, and the abundance of baby strollers.
I can't speak for the other families, but I was biting my lip, trying to hold back the tears and praying to a god I don't even believe in, as 800 young, and not so young, men marched in formation as part of the farewell ceremony.
There were generals and brigadiers making speeches--encouraging the troops to respect everyone "including the enemy," acknowledging that they are heading for a tough situation, and advising them how best to come back safe and sound from Iraq.
But there weren't any elected representatives, except for the Mayor of Santa Maria and an aide from the office of congress member Dennis Cardoza. I found this absence of elected officialdom a tad surprising, given that this is the biggest deployment of the Guard since the Korean War. But then again, perhaps they were all in their home districts, trying to explain to their constituents why the heck the US is still in Iraq.
Or afraid of being confronted by all the parents and spouses and siblings and children and lovers and others who were at yesterday's event. ( I recently read that Californian soldiers account for about 10 percent of the casualties in Iraq, which makes sense, given our large population. But that also means, surely, that California should have a huge influence on where this war does and doesn't go next, especially if our reps hear what ordinary people, including the families and friends of soldiers, are feeling and thinking this summer, as casualties continue to mount.)
There were a lots of soldiers biding farewell to wives, squalling babies, tearful girlfriends, bewildered kids and stoic, but crumbling parents. And yes, there were some families that managed to look and act upbeat, but I'd be lying if I said that the farewell atmosphere was joyous.
I overheard war-weary soldiers talk amongst themselves about IEDs, which are now responsible for 80 percent of the casualties in Iraq. And than it was time to take my son out for one last outing. We drove to a nearby lake where we skipped stones across the mirror of blue, fish leaped from--and slapped back into--the water noisily and a doe descended from the parched and rolling Central Coast hills to drink long and warily. It was an idyllic moment, stolen for eternity, before for what promises, in my mind at least, to be a hellish year of waiting and wondering.
At the end of the day, it was hard for me to drive my son back to the base, even though he wants to go to Iraq. At 20 years old, he is very much the young and idealistic warrior. A few weeks ago, he took me to see "300". Watching that film made me realize that he would likely have signed up, no matter what war was going on, and no matter how many reasons I give him for not going to Iraq. But it also made me realize that there will always be young men willing to sign up for whatever reasons--idealism, poverty, courage, a desire to shoot big guns. And that therefore it is of the utmost importance that the president of this, or any, country be of the utmost integrity--the kind of person who would only declare war when absolutely necessary, and not on the basis of trumped-up intelligence. The kind of person who, when others follow his lead, would not later turn around when his decisions turned out to be disastrous and smirk, "Well, they voted to do this, too."
Anyways, enough with the Bush bashing. He got his war and now young people like my son are left fighting it, while the rest of America does what?
The day that mother-of-a dead-American-soldier Cindy Sheehan "retired" from the antiwar movement, I was driving across the Bay Bridge, praying for an angelic intervention. By that, I mean not that the Angel Gabriel would appear and stop traffic, along with the war, though that would be handy right about now. No, I was hoping that somehow ordinary people would come together and rise to the occasion, above the false divisions of black and white, American and Iraqi, Shiite and Sunni, terrorist and freedom fighter, and see where the real roots of terrorism lie, and use those insights to bring peace to Iraq--and then turn our minds to fighting climate change.
That was when I turned on the radio, and heard that Sheehan was throwing in the towel, upset that the Democrats had not been able to extract a deadline for withdrawal from Bush, and distraught that the nation appears to be more interested in "American Idol" that the cost of this war to families, to the economy, and yes, to the planet.
Hardly the kind of angelic intervention I was looking for, at least, right then.
It was hard to go to work that day, knowing that my son was soon to deploy, and that Sheehan was burning out--and that few in America appeared to care.
Likewise, it's been hard to return from Camp Roberts and back to "civilian life" and the reality that since most Americans don't have a loved one in Iraq, they likely aren't obsessing on the war on a daily basis, in the way I am.
Sitting here at my desk, I realize how unfair to, and impossible for Sheehan it was to ever expect her to somehow stop the war singlehandedly. Her efforts drew attention to the plight of soldiers, who are expected to simply follow the Commander in Chief's orders. But they also drew hateful attacks that she, as the mom of a beloved, but now deceased son, surely didn't need or deserve to hear.
So, now, me thinks, it's time for an angelic intervention named the Rest of Us.
Call or email your elected officials. Demand that they stop this insanity from dragging on and on. That they give you reasons why exactly they can't stand up and say "Enough"--and why exactly they can't get their asses to a military base to say goodbye to the men they apparently can't stop from sending to this never-ending war.
With elections less than 18 months away, NOW is the time that your elected officials will listen.
No, Your email won't stop my son from going to Iraq--and according to him, he wants to go--so my plea isn't as self serving as you may think. But your email can keep hope alive. Hope that the war will end, that there one day won't be a draft for all young Americans. And hope that there is a plan that doesn't involve abandoning the Iraqis to wholesale slaughter: This plan is called talking with the rest of the world, especially Iraq and its neighbors--and listening to their advice. It's called not trusting Bush, or any of his circle of friends, to do the right thing.
Sending more troops to Iraq seems, to me like sending Muslim troops to Belfast. But what do I know? I'm just the mom of an American soldier.