When my boy first enlisted in the Marine Corps just days before 9/11 my heart sank not out of fear for his life, we were more or less at peace then, but because he felt at that time of his life he had no other options. The morning the twin towers fell I knew we were going to war and my son John, for the first time in his life, was overcome with patriotism as he watched again and again the free fall drop of the World Trade Center buildings. Despite high test scores that allowed him to pick his military occupational specialty his youthful testosterone fueled by those images pushed him to infantry. John chose to be an assaultman. His life and the lives of those who love him changed irrevocably with that decision and so too the lives of many around him and I tell a bit of that story below in an open letter to three Iraqi women penned in 2008.
During John’s second tour in Iraq beginning in the fall of 2004 the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines suffered many casualties and amongst those killed in action was PFC Timothy “Shane” Folmar, 21 of Sonora, Texas. Shane had just arrived in Iraq and been assigned to Fox Company in the morning and was patrolling the streets just a few feet away from John when a bullet to the neck ended his life that afternoon. First Lieutenant Matthew Lynch was riding in a humvee in a convoy directly behind the humvee John was driving when a remotely detonated IED severed his carotid artery and took the legs off two other Marines. John wheeled around and was on hand to hear the lieutenant’s final words. Captain Pat “French” Rapicault was featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes and cameras were rolling when a vehicle born IED ended his life. John was on QRF Alpha and provided security as they “cleaned up” afterward.
These men and more gave their lives and many more lost limbs and sanity only to come home and lose their homes and families to a system ill prepared to deal with troubled warriors. More than 25% of America’s homeless population once served their country and are now discarded and ridiculed because they can’t find a job or cope with stress of daily life. Since my son first went to war I have had the sad honor of becoming friends with several Gold Star parents and my heart aches for their sacrifice and as we reflect on lives lost don’t forget those lives lost that are still breathing and walking amongst us.
Finally, we must remember those lives affected by the decisions of our leaders and abetted by our own complacence. Let us never forget the consequences of our own complacence…
The steam has dissipated from my coffee cup as I strain to write this letter to the three of you. You don’t know me and one of you will never have an opportunity to read this letter but you have each left your mark upon my soul. Though I do not know your names you will recognize who you are and I speak to you woman to woman and mother to mother and mother to child.
If you don’t already know it, the US military can train a man to kill but cannot train that man how to handle it when he does. For this reason amongst many others my Marine son, John, who touched your lives in Iraq is in treatment along with other veterans of this and earlier wars. They are ten wounded warriors, five from the Iraq war and five from that earlier American fiasco, Vietnam.
John has bonded with one of these older Vietnam vets, “Old Man”, he calls him. The reason I am telling you about Old Man is that it took him thousands of bottles of alcohol, dozens of jobs, seven marriages and forty years to accept that he had never recovered from his war time experiences. They never recover really I want you to know that.
Our paths have crossed, tragically and we are connected now. This connection has provided me with certain details about your lives that I feel I have to share if only that some small light may be shed on dark places.
There was a firefight in Baghdad, a 360 degree battle with the Marines taking fire from all around and overhead. You were there, not as a participant just a civilian and you are my first connection though I learned of you last.
Training had the Marines firing back reflexively at anything that moved, vehicles, stray dogs a blur of a shirtsleeve. The Marine who fired upon your husband and two children was almost 100 yards away and he jerked his weapon up in horror at the end of the burst as he watched your family fall.
You didn’t know but he watched you run out to your family. He saw you in your light blue wrap as you went from one body to the other. He tried to avert his eyes as you picked up your dead child and then the other and wailed in your grief. He tried to look away but that light blue color was always in his peripheral vision, pulling at him drawing him back.
It might have been five, seven even ten minutes when unable to bear your grief any longer he swung the barrel around and fired. So you see we are connected because my son saw you die.
Does it matter to you about this man who killed you and your family? Perhaps not, but he hailed from what we call the Deep South. John called him a friend and at 6’5” and solid muscle he looked the perfect Marine but he has not fared well since that day in Baghdad. Within months of returning stateside, he amassed multiple alcohol related assault charges.
Finally he plunged over a beachside cliff and lay in a coma for months. Karma, John calls it or self imposed penance but he is only now relearning how to speak.
Not long ago I met a Lance Corporal who had determined during the siege on Fallujah that he must enter your home in search of combatants. He prepared and set a timed charge to blow a new doorway in the side of your building. He gathered intelligence assessed the situation and finally gave the order to blow the charge and his men darted through the newly opened breach and he followed closely behind.
You will remember him because when he entered to find your husband and children dead from the blast you were crying out, “lemad’a, lemad’a” (why, why?) You will remember him because when he saw what he had done his knees buckled and the blood drained from his twenty two year old face. You will remember him because he fell back against the wall and clutched at his chest and gasped for breath.
You saw his reaction. You watched him try and shoulder the enormity of the order he had given and when his eyes finally met yours you placed your hand on his cheek and said, “masha, Allah” (God’s will). Your compassion, your understanding and your forgiveness that day destroyed him.
He would give his life to undo what he did. Today he works hard to end our occupation of your country. I have thought of you every day since he told me your story.
You cannot be more than six now, if that. With luck you do not remember that October ’04 day in Ramadi when your parents died. With luck you are far away from Iraq now.
To you I feel the closest connection, the greatest responsibility and the deepest agony. You see your father wanted only to rescue you. He wanted only to grab you from your dead mother’s arms and he gave his life trying because he loved you so much.
My son and his sergeant did not understand. They mistook your father’s actions as a threat to their comrades and fired upon and killed him. So you see we are connected because my son killed your father.
When weapons platoon found you, scared and crying many of them including John fell apart. You undid them. You and your scared wide brown eyes and dark curls brought some of them to their knees.
They took your picture that day. You are a tiny bundle of pink and blue flowers and puffy sleeves set against the digital camouflage jacket of John’s sergeant who did not set you down for hours. Please know that John keeps your picture though he looks at it rarely because it hurts so much to remember.
What can I say to you? That I am sorry goes without saying. Does it help that my son suffers because of that day? Does it matter to your life that he will carry your image with him forever? No, I don’t see how it can but I will tell you I love you.
None of you can welcome this connection but I feel it nonetheless. Taking your families from each of you has also lost my son to me for he will never be the same. To each of you, Assalamu alaikum, peace be upon you.
A Marine mom