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Patricia Zohn Headshot

Coming Home: A Soldier Returns to a Family He Didn't Leave Behind

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The cinematic images of the American soldier returning home from a difficult war are seared into our collective memories. Who can forget a tattered Leslie Howard staring mournfully at the ruins of Twelve Oaks after the Civil War; Harold Russell with hooks for hands walking shamefacedly up to his front door post-WWII or Robert de Niro as a skittish Vietnam vet passing by his welcome-home reception to seclude himself in a motel? The narratives of Gone With the Wind, The Best Years of our Lives and The Deer Hunter (filmsite.org) devolve around the men who served, the women they loved and left behind, and the seismic changes in the world and their place in it. As they struggle to reconnect, the families hover in the background, quietly agonizing as their sons readjust to civilian life.

But what if the boy you're welcoming home is someone you haven't laid eyes on before?

My niece Camilla, a recent émigré to our home in LA, was a refugee from the Boston winters. Suddenly, her nocturnal crying jags and moody silences had an explanation: she had fallen in love with RJ, the not-quite-ex-boyfriend of a college-mate. RJ had returned to Fort Carson after a year-long tour of duty in Iraq after the Army's lure of a bonus had failed to entice him to another round of the dirty, frightening ground war. Though he felt guilty about not sticking with his buddies, after a torrid start-up with Camilla and a whopping phone bill, RJ left Colorado and moved in with us too.

I greeted his arrival with quiet trepidation, stuffing my own prejudices about this war, and any war, way down deep. I am the mother of a pair of sons and stepmother to another two, none of whom has served in the armed forces. I don't necessarily say that proudly, just with some measure of relief. Though I have always considered myself a pacifist, I have a combative style that often gets in my way, and the boys are volatile too, my hair-trigger reactions having migrated to their buff, testosterone-laden bodies. Occasionally, in the blood sport of mother-baiting, they test my liberal bona fides with wildly pro-NRA hyperbole anchored by the second amendment just to get the hot-button reaction they know they can evoke. But their images of combat are even more proscribed than mine, bookended by the flyboys in Top Gun and Alec Guinness's proud heroics in The Bridge Over the River Kwai -- and they were too young to register the frightening live combat feed when the Gulf War laid claim to CNN.

When my youngest was a high-school freshman, I discovered an Air Force video addressed to him as "Dr" in the mail; at the time, he was barely 16, old enough neither to serve nor to get a medical degree. It turned out that he had seen an ad and requested a brochure; the Air Force had confused his query about their policy of paying for medical school and had targeted him instead as a doctor wanting to enlist. Which left me feeling queasy both about the reading-comprehension level of the U.S. Air Force and the writing clarity of my son, though thoroughly convinced of their desperation for any willing selective servicemen.

Or, I superstitiously imagined, maybe it was my long-dead father, the WWII ace, luring him from the control tower in the sky in a direction I most decidedly did not want him to go.

My father had been the captain and pilot of a B-24 based in Italy during WWII. "Off we go, into the wild, blue yonder," he crooned alternately with the Mills Brothers or Frank Sinatra when we picked him up at the train station and I would flash to thrilling images from Twelve O'Clock High or The High and the Mighty (both in perpetual re-run on the Million Dollar Movie) that he'd watched with us over and over again, never seeming to tire of the simple plots (anybody versus the Germans or Japanese) or the heroism and derring-do of the debonair pilots.

Air Force themes leached into our daily lives. When we picked desultorily at our brisket, he'd whoop, "Here comes the airplane," then make zooming noises as he looped the stringy meat into our mouths. Before he taught my brother how to fly, he taught him how to listen to the tower frequency from our local airport. As I did my homework, the beeps and squawks from the planes seeking guidance kept me nervously on alert to the capricious weather and the isolation of the pilots. In between practice pas de bourrees to Stravinsky in the living room, I would put on John Philip Sousa and march and pivot smartly the way he'd showed me, a little Jimmy Cagney from Yankee Doodle Dandy thrown in for good measure.

So I almost saluted when RJ came through the door for the first time, his solid, compact body and leftover buzz cut still shouting soldier to me. But we were all on our best behavior, especially me, carefully swallowing any inquisition along with the steaks I quickly added to our mostly French-Italian vegetarian cuisine. I sat at the dinner table making polite conversation, the I-marched-on-Washington-during-Vietnam leftie whose friends had all scrambled for medical deferments or low lottery numbers or dodged the draft in Europe and Canada. Not one person I knew served.

It wasn't until well after the Vietnam war had ended that I met a few vets, all of them four or five years older than I was, who had been in elite units of the armed forces. They were part of an early wave of young patriots recruited to Vietnam (like RJ was to Iraq) before the malignant nature of our involvement was known. One was a Green Beret who became the Marlboro Man and an ad genius; another was a Green Beret who went on to edit a major newsmagazine and become a well-known Hollywood screenwriter; a third was a Navy star and became an Oscar-winning filmmaker. These men were all virile, mannerly, talented and larger-than-life. Despite what I had previously thought of war (vile) and soldiers (stupid), I was attracted to them and thought maybe, like my father, they represented a special breed.

But they were light years away from young men like RJ whose father had abandoned the family when he was very young, who had grown up in economically precarious circumstances, and whose mother had developed cancer and who couldn't afford to continue his education. These were recruits who saw most things in shades of black or white (sometimes literally) -- some of whom grew up with the inherited prejudices of narrow backgrounds and who weren't widely educated or traveled, sent to a place where there is nothing but shades of brown. Without financial resources, inductees like RJ have used the Army like my sons and their friends use university or law school or grad school: as a placeholder (albeit much more toxic) while they are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives.

For the entire time RJ is living with us, I bite my tongue. I treat him like the beloved stray dog that wanders into your life and you give over to the droopy ears and shaggy coat without caring about its precise antecedents. Once in a while he makes a reference to his service, and he patiently answers the boys' detailed questions about M4s, M9s and M240s. But it takes me a whole year to drum up the courage to ask RJ what I'm burning to know: what he actually was doing in Iraq. Even then, I preface everything by saying, "Of course you don't have to talk about this if you don't want," especially when I ask him about what he did when he entered the villagers' houses in Fallujah. And he doesn't. He says he has honed his ability to "bury things," a "defense mechanism" he's had since his troubled childhood.

Still, I'm able to learn a bit at a time by uncharacteristic indirection. The eldest of three and the only boy, RJ grew up in Hopedale, a Boston suburb, an angry child whose father, an alcoholic whom he "didn't want to pollute (his) head," only came around on the weekends. Despite the influence of his beloved grandfather who had served in the Navy, he became a "risk-taker" and a "troublemaker." He dropped out of college after a year and was struggling financially, "not feeling fulfilled or getting anything out of life...going down a dead end." His cousin had joined the Navy and RJ had seen his "life turn around." Instead of joining the Navy, or the Marines, he joined the Army because he felt "it fit my character...(it was) a little more lenient, let you be your own person a little bit more, but when I got in I realized that really wasn't the case at all." RJ considers himself an individualist and isn't comfortable with regimentation; yet when he signed on, he knew, he didn't "want to sit around just for the fact that they'd pay for school." He wanted to be the veteran of a foreign war and be shipped overseas.

For RJ, 9/11 was the cataclysm that put everything into focus, so when he was called up a few days later he was grateful he'd finally be able to test his fearlessness and make his grandfather proud. He says his basic training (where at 22 he was among the eldest) and his short stay in Fort Carson (less than a month where he never actually drove a tank, just a simulator) did not prepare him for what was to come, though things happened so fast, he can't remember feeling any uncertainty. His drill sergeant told them, "You guys are going to Iraq, taste some action. Good stuff!"

After a 22-hour flight via Turkey, he landed in Kuwait in the midst of a dust storm. After a week, his company began the long road march into Iraq. The Marines were just ahead of them, but the intense sandstorms and hellish terrain made for stultifying 14-hour days and infernal conditions. His tank commander, "a vile, narrow-minded person," yelled at them all the time. RJ's concerns about regimentation bloomed right away: he hated taking orders from "incompetent people who had no vision, who didn't understand teamwork."

They reached Iraq and set up Camp Mad Dog in Ramadi on the outskirts of Fallujah in an abandoned railroad station. His often broken-down tank was his home for the next six months. Rather than sleep in the claustrophobic huts, he and his friend Matt slept on the tank or right next to it, tethered to it like babies who always keep mother well within range.

For almost a year, RJ and his platoon conducted "present patrols," house-to-house inspections looking for insurgents or weapons, first in the tank and then in more flexible armored Humvees. The raids lasted up to two days with only 2 to 3 hours downtime. They knew the insurgency was primarily composed of "poor farmers or confused kids," but Army intelligence was so weak that their missions were often severely compromised by misinformation as well as exhaustion. Though the villagers had been warned to turn in their weapons to avoid search and seizure, mostly they didn't. So RJ didn't feel any compunction about knocking the doors down if he had to: it was "us or them." I flinch when he says this but say nothing, resisting mightily the impulse to be a one-woman truth and reconciliation commission sitting in judgment on this young man.

Recently in The New Yorker, Kalev Sepp, a retired Special Forces officer who now teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School said that's how the military was operating in the first two years of the war. Though classic strategies to combat insurgency rely on isolation, security, a strong police force and economic development so that the government can inspire loyalty, the US pursued what's known as "kill-capture" during the early years of the war. "The failure of that approach is evident," says Sepp. "There's more insurgents there than there were when they started." Now, the generals are coming out of the closet to agree. In the spirit of the "new" war, soldiers are sent for pre-op training to the Mojave Desert. There, they role-play with actors to learn how to be insurgency-savvy and how to speak Arabic since once they get to Iraq they spend much of their time trying to keep peace (or provide escort for private contractors like Halliburton -- see wartapes.com), not make war. It's unbelievably depressing that this whole mess has landed in an expensive and surreal faux Hollywood sound stage.

I wish I had recorded the talk Condoleezza Rice, then a trustee of Notre Dame University, gave to the spouses at a meeting I attended as the wife of an invited architect making a presentation in Palm Beach some years ago. (Strategy numero uno for the pro-war team seems to have always be to spend as much time as possible in places as far away from the war as you could get with the words "Palm" or "Ranch" in them.) Condi, then just an informal advisor to not-yet-Candidate Bush, told us that the Clinton administration had made a total hash of Bosnia and that she and Bush were staunchly against sending our troops into harm's way as peacekeepers, something they were just not set up or trained to do. Were Bush to be elected, she suggested, we would never be tolerating this misguided use of our military.

Selective memory is probably a very good thing if you're the Secretary of State of an administration that has taken the lives of almost three thousand soldiers.

I know only one other vet, Joey, the brilliant, Harvard-educated son of a distinguished historian and former presidential speechwriter who used to babysit my boys when they were small. Joey grew up only half an hour away from RJ in the upscale Boston suburb of Concord, but it may as well have been a different planet. I was certainly blindsided when Joey signed up -- he had always been politically active -- but his parents explained his devotion to democracy and his view that everyone should be called upon equally to serve. Recently, he clarified his motivation to enlist after 9/11 with an air of inevitability that sounds like RJ: "something pretty major about me was perfectly positioned" to serve. As a college graduate, he was invited to officer training school and was on offensive combat patrol to secure Baghdad at the same time that RJ was in Fallujah. He witnessed "horrible situations" and the "fumbling of the first year" which he claims is much improved now that the Army is "not only teaching how to kill, but how to put your hand out and shake it."

But RJ says "A lot of things they preach over there were stupid to me: these weren't my friends or people I was trying to help ...this was my enemy, face to face shaking our hands, then trying to blow us up." He "kept them at a distance" and didn't learn the language; he didn't want a guy approaching him saying "Thank you mister, thank you, thank you, not knowing what he had strapped to his back." Though he came to understand why someone might join the insurgency (poverty, no food, "hell on earth"), he "never got to a personal level with Iraqi women and children." Unlike Joey, whose strategic overview was made possible by his post-Iraq service as a general's aide-de-camp, he didn't see détente as part of his mission. "You don't join the military with prospects of changing the world," he reiterates.

But I thought somehow, he might eventually feel differently, once he'd had time for reflection, so when the Kerry campaign teetered towards its own crash and burn, I reverted to type: I offered to pay for him and his combat buddies to travel to a swing state to help campaign. Hearing his politely confused reply, I realized he was in no shape yet to test his belief system about the job he had just finished doing.

Instead, I watched silently as RJ traded one door-to-door gig for another. Carless and low on cash reserves, he became a salesman for a company that marketed everything from baseball tickets to restaurants. Though my father had also gone into sales -- the career with perpetual upside for self-starting veterans -- I worried that RJ's employers were part of a Ponzi scheme. I was relieved when very soon, restless with the dubious opportunities for advancement, he moved on to his next career as a quality controller for a hardscape firm making "present patrols" to construction sites. And not long after, when the thrill of the truck perk had worn off, he left and became part of a tsunami of mortgage wrestlers who are taking homeowners by the lapels and shaking them into submitting to our overheated, low-interest economy.

I joke that he's gone from being the aggressor of innocent civilians to the aggressor of innocent civilians. But we're already at risk of going against the grain with each other so I resist running my hand backwards through his shaved head, the way I used to when my boys got buzz cuts at the beginning of football and basketball season, and giving him advice about going back to school and finally taking advantage of the education the military promised to provide, because he says he can't afford to not work. I try to keep from being the big butt-insky I normally am, micromanaging my children into irate and vengeful beings.

Though heightened awareness is often a hallmark of post-traumatic stress, RJ isn't skittish or jumpy. Yet, though he's unfailingly sweet-tempered around me, I get the feeling that drop-shipped into a hostile environment, he could be easily provoked. He admits to getting "a little stressed if I'm in a big crowd of people...a guy blew himself up three feet away from me so I'm very much aware of what's around me...I feel like there's always something lurking behind the scenes." And when his new company dispatches him to northern California and his building is heavily populated with Muslims, he confesses to "having general anger toward Muslim people." I am mournful but not surprised, even though RJ says he's "ashamed to have those feelings." This is exactly what I fear the soldiers are bringing home -- one more layer of fear and racism to add to the already potent mix.

When RJ looks back on his service, one of the few measurable accomplishments he can point to was the capture of Saddam Hussein and the death of both of his sons. "The rest of the time, I'm concerned by what happened," he finally confesses. This concern is what I've really been waiting for him to acknowledge. Doubts about the mission of creating an Iraqi army bedeviled the troops right away; RJ thought it was "so far-fetched... Bettering the lives of the Iraqis was just a joke... They couldn't even get their produce across the street." For now, this admission is as far as RJ goes. He says he has no regrets about having enlisted, but that at least four of his good buddies have died and he did feel guilty about not "being there...with all my friends" when they had to return to Iraq for their second tour. But he never feels sorry for himself. "I've never been a poor me...I made great buddies and that experience I went through -- I've done everything I've wanted to do....[I] toughed it out and served [my] country."

Joey is proud that during the war his "mind didn't cease to be fertile." He hopes to go back to Harvard for a joint degree from the Kennedy School of Government and the Business School. Though he avers that the Army wants soldiers to be an extension of the political will, I'm confident he will find a way to incorporate his military service without it being at the expense of his personal beliefs. He is the extremely rare exception to the class disparity of our troops and we will be lucky to have this hybrid polymath as a leader whether he runs for office or stays in the private sector.

I know they both have a kind of maturity my sons may never achieve. When RJ came to live with us, my eldest had dropped out of school and was still suffering with his own post-traumatic stress: he lived in a dorm adjacent to the World Trade Center on 9/11. The youngest was in rehab for a major surgery on his pitching arm after a troubled freshman year at college. RJ saw my solicitous ministrations to them during these and other important but not at all life-threatening moments and seemed not to bear them any ill will. When I ask him point-blank if he's resentful he says no, he's proud they're "enjoying this freedom of our country." He says that even as a child after he'd spent the day with wealthier friends at their pool, he was grateful for "a glimpse," that it added to his character and the "good feeling within [himself]." At a wedding reception he attended not long ago, one drunken guest was imitating Vince Vaughn's Wedding Crashers veteran rap as he put the moves on a pretty girl at the table. As the parody veered towards real hostility, RJ could feel himself getting agitated. But the hothead in him seems to have had his fill of strife: in his place is a wise young man who just got up and walked away.

A recent study by the Walter Reed hospital stated that 35% of the Iraqi war veterans have sought counseling, 12% have had some kind of trauma and that many believe they have fought in a senseless war and that we should get out.

So far, RJ is not among them.

Though casualty figures for our troops are slightly down, as the civil war has blossomed in Iraq, they are up for almost everybody else. And now there is no mystery that our mission is deeply flawed, its entire raison d'etre in doubt. The front pages of almost every newspaper have been filled with the graphic images of post-war repatriation, severed limbs and bloody shrapnel holes marking forever the bodies and souls of the vets and permanently scarring the vision of the rest of us.

But the ability to have no regrets, to look forward, to be optimistic, kept RJ alive in Iraq and keeps him productive and neurosis-free back home. I'm continually astonished at how well-adjusted he is. He and I have experienced this war so differently: I find his ability to move on both admirable and disturbing. As news about our missteps has come closer to home, I sense that RJ is willing to give peace a chance at least on one front: by playing at John and Yoko with Camilla in the big bed in the guest room.

Thus even though the two women who welcome him home aren't the ones who sent him off, we've risen to the occasion.

So can you be an anti-war mom and support the troops?

HBO, often smartly one-step ahead of the national zeitgeist about New Jersey wiseguys, LA funeral directors or Utah polygamists, has recently been re-running Michael Moore's film as the administration's poll numbers plummet. But more striking today than the flagrant Bush/Cheney dissembling is the moving last half hour, which follows the lives of a few families in Flint, Michigan, and their offspring serving, and sometimes dying, in Iraq.

Moore sensed that this was where the anti-war movement would have its most visible and passionate leadership: within the ranks of mothers who had lost their sons. Before Cindy Sheehan appeared on the national radar, Lila Lipscomb of Flint, a proud patriot who taught her "multicultural" children that the military was the only way of getting the education and training she couldn't afford to provide them, traveled all the way to Washington to confront the President after the death of her son.

The War Tapes, which this week won the International Documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival, turns three New Hampshire National Guardsmen into brutally honest verite documentarians while the US-based director concentrates on their troubled loved ones at home. The most moving section follows Zack Bazzi and his mother, who fled from civil unrest in Lebanon and emigrated to the US when he was eight. He considers himself a professional soldier though he is now attending college and reminds us that his job is to complete his mission irrespective of political considerations. But the irony of his returning to the Middle East and functioning as a translator for his unit won't be lost on anyone who sees this film. As a single mother, Mrs. Bazzi tries to reconcile his need to serve (he's already a veteran of two other tours, in Bosnia and Kosovo) with her fear.

Not unlike the generals, mothers, too, have emerged as partisan, unable to watch passively anymore as the soldiers are alternately praised or reviled, hired or fired, captured or killed. Confederations of like-minded mothers have proliferated since the war began. In addition to each branch of service having its own mothers' group, there are the American War Mothers founded during WWI, a group affiliated with the Veterans Administration. Then there's the Blue Star Moms of San Francisco, identified as non-partisan but pictured waving little flags. They're a branch of the Blue Star Mothers, mommy-vigilantes on the alert for anyone "dishonoring" the troops. The American Gold Star Mothers whose children have died are also zealous on the subject of patriotism. Their stated mission is to perpetuate "the noble principles for which [the soldiers] fought and died." Other bereft mothers, the Gold Star Families for Peace, are Cindy Sheehan supporters, "organizing to be a positive force in our world to bring our country's sons and daughters home from Iraq." Each of these groups organizes lunches, readings, knitting circles and letter-writing campaigns. Only the Mothers Against the War, presumably with no entry requirements other than maternal instinct, have a minimal website that doesn't give much comfort about their reach. But just last week, the Granny Peace Brigade, whose eighteen members had been arrested at the entrance to a military recruitment center when they tried to substitute their service in Iraq for those of the younger soldiers in Iraq, were exonerated by a NY judge.

I wonder how this will sit with Joel Stein, who stated in a recent column that "being against the war and saying you support the troops is one of the wussiest positions the pacifists have ever taken."

But how can I fault the young men like RJ who answered the call, however mixed their motives, when my four sons are safe and sound, pursuing their educations and careers because they can? We have heard a great deal about the "bad" soldiers who have abused prisoners and have lost their moral compass. We have heard about those who are maimed or traumatized. RJ is my proxy for all the rest -- the ones who seem to be fine so far but are coming home to very conflicted messages about what they did in this relentlessly miserable war. He often feels that his service, and that of his buddies, is overlooked or forgotten. In Iraq, late at night under the stars, and here in the U.S., he wonders if anyone knows or cares.

I feel the pain of Cindy Sheehan and Lila Lipscomb and Mrs. Bazzi from my cozy kitchen window seat. I also feel the pain of the mothers of Darfur or the Sudan or Niger who have had to watch as their children waste away and die. But Cindy and Lila and Mrs. Bazzi aren't even in a remote African nation. These are my countrywomen. RJ says in his eyes, his mother is the "true survivor."

This Mother's Day, I think all of us, especially the mothers that don't have children serving, need to own this messy war with the mothers that do. The Blue State moms must find common cause with the Red State moms. Without this solidarity, the anti-war effort will remain what it is now: a splintered, fractured, powerless collection of spare parts. We're the insurgency that needs to rise up and humble the Bush administration and its murderous policies. They're the ones that seem to have gotten the Kuwaiti sand in their eyes and never gotten it out.

Meanwhile, here's some things we can all do today. Contact Mothers Against the War and volunteer to help. Then, though we've missed the deadline for the Mother's Day message posting at the daily newspaper of the US military, I think we should all send messages to the troops.

Finally, since other than Joey's parents I'm the only one I know who has actually cohabited with a veteran (what a scary statistic), I'm here to tell you that if everyone were to adopt a veteran, we'd get a lot further toward troop withdrawal, faster. Seek out veterans and open your homes to them. Though the Army now has programs for repatriation and retraining the soldiers, why go to the desert to be debriefed when you can debate spoiled formerly pro-Kerry Dems, grow plump with gourmet cooking and hibernate under the comfort of a goose-down duvet? Now that RJ's eating his steak "a la béarnaise" and the potatoes "alla romana" I somehow feel that he and I have found out how to meet each other halfway. When the midterm elections roll around, I know I won't hesitate to ask him to do the right thing.

Plus, in my head, I have developed a complicated equation that trades my hospitality for his years of selective service and I'm using him as a human amulet to ward off the draft.

I have lived with two veterans. One taught me the glory of war, the other the misery. One told robust tales of bombing raids and aerial maneuvers, his brown leather flight jacket a permanent totem in our front hall closet, often taken out for sorties as pedestrian as trimming the backyard bushes. The other talked about stifling 14-hour days living in the belly of a tank amidst sandstorms and fierce heat, his only talisman against fear a hidden tattooed necklace with an ancient Yaqui motif. One boasted of welcoming Italians and dishes of pasta, the other kept his own quiet counsel about door-to-door raids conducted in dusty villages on foot in the dead of night. Though they were separated by half a century, both made their way without continuing their educations, re-entering the work force as ambitious salesmen. Each was defined by his war and the irreplaceable camaraderie, proud to have served, still a believer in defending an American dream from which they'd previously derived little personal benefit.

I've tried to give RJ the unconditional support a mother would. But sometimes during my nightly brawls with insomnia, I can't help but wonder what RJ (and the other soldiers) did in those Iraqi homes -- and if they could imagine, a mere two years later, ever repeating those flawed and unsettling missions.

But I think that he's probably going to marry my niece and I'll never really know.