When our son Daniel left in June 2001 for Marine Corps boot camp, the World Trade Center’s twin towers still pierced the New York skyline. Americans bustled about their business, complacent in the belief that their country was impervious to harm. Four days after my son’s graduation from boot camp, when the Towers crumbled, so did my world, as I realized that Daniel would now go to war.
War had already woven itself into the family’s emotional tapestry as a result of my husband Mario’s combat service with the Marine Corps in Vietnam. When Daniel became part of the War on Terror, war would once again shape our family. By virtue of technological advances in the past several decades—live video news feeds, e-mails, satellite phones, webcams, Skype—families have become inadvertent real-time companions to their warriors on the battlefield.
On November 10, 2009, Mario and I and hundreds of Marine veterans attended ceremonies at the Marine Corps War Memorial, where the keynote speaker was the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Marine General Peter Pace. My heart lifted to hear him tip his hat to the often-overlooked role of military families. Scribbling quickly to pen his words that morning, I wrote:
“Our military families have served our country as well as anyone who has worn the uniform of the United States. When we Marines are tired, our families dust us off, tell us they love us, and send us back. And when we come back from war, our families stand in the background while we get our decorations and medals.”
My story traces how my husband’s and my son’s military services affected—indeed altered—our family’s relationships in ways that surprised and, sometimes, dismayed us.
Mario’s combat service had been an intermittent leitmotif in the years of our early marriage as he began to experience the after-effects of war. The emotional roller coaster of Daniel’s military service began with his Marine boot camp graduation, but continued even after his return to civilian life. Not only the warriors, but family members, too, may suffer combat-related Post-Traumatic Stress.
The morning of September 7, 2001, pride washed over me as I watched the new Marines graduate from boot camp. More than five hundred young men, fiercely proud, their right hands angled crisply in rigid salutes, stood in precise columns before a crowd of beaming families and friends. Though puffed with maternal pride, I gradually became aware of a darker emotion below the surface, one that mystified me, even as it vaguely disquieted me. What was wrong, I wondered, just before awareness bore down on me: these new Marines had just offered to put their lives down for us. The significance of that gift pierced me. Their youthfulness prevented them from appreciating the magnitude of their commitment. Even though our country was not at war, I knew peace could never be guaranteed.
With the events of 9/11, the next four years challenged my views about the world, patriotism, non-violence, the morality of war, and the will of God. Our relationships with many family and friends were fractured over the politics of war. I have yet to resolve questions of the morality of war in general—this war in particular—however, further internal debate was a luxury my heart could not afford while my son was in harm’s way. If my son’s morale was key to his well-being, I could not risk anything that might damage it.
Despite the terrible anxiety triggered in me as well as the fractured relationships provoked by passions about the war, living in constant tension provided an exhilarating edge. My life was more desperate, yet more intense and focused. All my emotions seemed sharper even though they were much more mercurial than at any other time in my life. There was an intoxicating sense of immediacy, of dealing with what was purest and most fundamental in life.
Then, too, there was the thrill of my association, even if vicarious, with events shaping history. While it is true that these years were fraught with angst, they were also heady times.
Daniel’s boot camp graduation turned out to be one of several events during his service that jarred my world and forever changed me. I didn’t foresee that his decision to serve would have such a profound impact on my life. But how could I have imagined the world itself would shift a mere four days after his graduation?
Knowing how polarizing different perspectives on the war’s merits can be, I do not wish my story to be construed as for or against the war. Rather, I believe the military family’s story is too important to risk it being dismissed for reasons of politics. With one percent of Americans volunteering to serve, there is a gap in awareness—even a “disconnect”—about the military family’s experience. Instead, I ask the reader to accompany me, as I relate how our family served, and continues to serve, our country.