This photo makes my heart turn over. The soldier in the driver's seat of that truck is my son's friend Brian, and he's taking a nap. In a truck in Afghanistan. I think what makes the tears prickle is that Brian's doing something so ordinary in the midst of something so surreal. Brian. A kid I consider a son. Sleeping in a truck. In a war. I hadn't heard from Brian in a few days, and then I got this photo. A couple of days later he sent me a message that said only, "I [bleep]ing hate this place." My Mom Radar told me that something was wrong, more wrong than the usual homesickness and boredom and fear (he rarely admits to) of being a 23-year-old Army soldier in Afghanistan. But I waited for him to tell me. My boys, as Brian and my son Dylan are collectively known, are like that: independent, smart, tender-hearted enough not to want to worry their mama until they really need me. Brian is especially reluctant to tell me things he knows will make me worry. Because he doesn't have kids of his own yet, he doesn't know I worry anyway. Every day I worry over little things like whether he has enough snacks to eat, if he's too warm or too cold, if he and his fellow soldiers are getting enough rest, if he has a good platoon sergeant.... I suppose I do it to keep myself from worrying about the big things, the obvious things to worry about, the things I cannot even put into words because merely thinking them puts a cold lump of fear in the pit of my stomach. So I waited for him to come to me.
And he did, in a conversation on Facebook chat that lasted nearly an hour, until he was called away to chow. He began by asking me if I'd seen the news or read anything about Jalalabad, the closest city in Afghanistan to where he is. I answered, more brave than I felt, "I don't watch the news, remember? You told me not to. :)" And I knew, I just knew what he was going to say. The short of it is that his unit, along with some other soldiers, were handing out candy to little kids when a terrorist wearing a suicide vest walked into the crowd and blew himself to bits. Children were killed. Reports vary, but according to NATO it was two. Two, too many. Brian received very minor injuries, what he described as "a couple of burns and some little scratches". I tried to find out more about his injuries and he shrugged off my questions. "It's nothing, Mom. Really." Then he told me that some local people believe a soldier had thrown a grenade into the crowd. "They said we fragged em, Mom," he told me. "We're out here trying to help them and they said we fragged em." That's what hurts him, I realized, much more than those little scratches—the thought that the families of those children believe that soldiers were responsible for their deaths. I told him, "It's propaganda, honey. If the Taliban can convince the locals that kids are being killed by soldiers, it's all the better for them." Of course it is. Of course he knows that already, has been told exactly that in briefings and by fellow soldiers, and said as much. I scrambled for more to say, sitting there at the end of my desk in the comm center, while the ordinariness of shift change and routine radio traffic flowed around me. I typed, quick as I could, "If you were here right now I would give you a big hug. I can't do that, but I can still tell you what I'd say if you were sitting in my kitchen instead of the freaking desert: I love you. I know that you and the boys [because they are, all of them, so young] in your unit would not do that. Americans might hate this war, but they still love their troops. Don't worry. Don't fear. Go to the Combat Stress Office when you need to. And remember Psalm 46. " I hope it was enough. And I hope, in the face of what's being reported, that I am right. I hope that when, God willing, Brian comes home in October that his country embraces him again. I hope that we have learned the foolishness in rejecting our soldiers just because we reject the foreign policy that sent them into war.