When I was a student at James Madison University in the fall of 2007, an old war buddy and I would get together every Friday in a campus restaurant, catch up, and generally agree that everybody was stupid except for us. I’d served two tours with him – and at least 50 missions with him in my vehicle. During long drives, long hours on watch, or just sitting and waiting to roll out, we’d shared our dreams, our expectations, and discussed post-military life like were eagerly anticipating the end of a prison sentence. Though our schedules rarely aligned in the least, we had about 35 minutes of overlapping free time on Fridays, and it was good to see him. Contact since then has been unfortunately scant.
What we encountered at that restaurant, however, neither of us expected. The restaurant manager, a woman probably in her early 50s, had a rather strange connection to the military. When we first arrived and been seated, it soon came up in conversation that we were Marine veterans trying to maintain contact with each other despite geographic distance and hectic schedules. When she heard this, she went quiet for a moment.
“My son was killed in Desert Storm.”
Neither of us knew much what to say besides express our condolences. Statistically, the odds of us meeting the mother of a Desert Storm casualty were effectively zero. The entire war sustained only 190 killed in action (to hostile fire) for the United States. While it still represents 190 families now missing a father, a son, a husband or a brother, the numbers are so low that we never anticipated meeting anyone from this small group.
Seventeen years after his death, it was obvious that the tragedy still stung bitterly with her, and understandably so. Telling some details of the story one day, she started crying. Yet she had volunteered the information, and seemed almost eager to share it with us. What we had not considered is that while veterans are frequently drawn to each other on account of our mutual backgrounds. I understand it – and I do it, too. But I had neglected to consider the bond that a military mom may feel with military boys. And in this grieving woman’s case, she was missing her son.
Aside from her, and one military funeral I attended in 2006, I have never known or even met surviving loved ones. Overseas, our dead are quickly whisked home for funerals. We aren’t there to bury them, and by the time we return home, their families have long since left the area, moved in with parents, or simply escaped the military town where they have no further reason to remain. None of my friends, at least to my knowledge, have ever managed to track them down, anyway. And frankly, I don’ t know what they’d say to them anyway. “I’m sorry?” That’s awfully empty. In time, we give up even looking for them.
Whenever Drew and I would come in for lunch, she would always come over, inquire how we’re doing, and proceed to bring us out samples of the daily special, the soups, or any new concoction she found particularly appealing. She’d sit down with us, ask us about our classes, and generally socialize with us. Humorously, she would also sit with us and chat – something we both heard her counsel her subordinates not to do – hog the diner’s time. But in our case, she was absolutely welcome. Basically, she mothered us, and we enjoyed it. She was helpful, and made the two of us, already very oddly-connected brothers, now feel like we had an oddly-connected mom.
While in some regards, seeing men about the age of her son when he was killed in Desert Storm probably resurfaced wounds that may have only recently begun to heal, it’s questionable if they ever heal at all. But on the other hand, she was presented with an opportunity to do what she at one time enjoyed so much. Being a mother.
I haven’t spoken with her since spring of 2008, regrettably. I don’t visit the area much. But I should, and I’ve encouraged my buddy still at JMU to also. At the very least, I will call her on mother’s day. While her son is gone and none of us can bring him back, I still have something to offer her, and she has something to offer me. I may never her HER son, but I can certainly be A son. And just as she so clearly adopted us, we adopted her. She’s a military mom, and we’re military guys – roughly the age of her son when he gave his life for his country. And so, she gets a pseudo-son, and I get another mother. I don’t think you can have too many of them. Here, perhaps, we will all find solace.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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