Deployment to Iraq, a Mothers Experience

Nanette Sagastume
April 24, 2005

I wasn’t prepared for how it would be. I thought I could guess how I would feel when my son deployed to Fallujah, Iraq (in March of 2004). Instead, many times I was bludgeoned by emotional surprises. The juxtaposition of them kept me careening from one emotion to another as if thrown by the flippers of a pinball machine. In fact, the experience became as profound a life experience for me as giving birth was. It touched many core issues. I didn’t realize that, despite my son being grown, my emotions would still be as fierce when his well-being was threatened as when he was an infant. It was as if I thought that by keeping the emotional connection to him strong, I could will him to stay alive. Nor did I anticipate how wide the “ripple effect” would be: that many of my son’s experiences would affect me as keenly as they did. Through the intensity of my emotions, for both good and bad, my son’s Iraq deployment has altered and redefined my life to the depths of my soul.

DESOLATION: The gloomy winter evening matched my mood when we took our son to the airport at the end of his pre-deployment leave. Every maternal instinct was to protect my son. Yet I had to release my clutch on him and say good-bye. My only thought was that my last glimpse of him walking toward his departure gate might be the final time I would see him for the rest of my life. The child I had carried in my womb for nine months I would now carry in my heart for the next seven.  My heart sagged with the heaviness of pessimism and desolation. I was inconsolable for a long time.

ANXIETY: Anxiety was my constant companion. It hummed just below the surface of my waking and sleeping states. Its presence was sometimes so stealthy I believed in my own calm façade. But anxiety was always there, burbling below the surface.  It even permeated my sleep. When I rolled over at night, I inevitably awakened, glanced at the clock, and calculated the time of day in Iraq. Knowing my nighttime was his daytime, and that my son could be on patrol and in danger, I could fall asleep only after I’d said a prayer for him and sent him love and a kiss across the miles.
Modern technology both aggravated and relieved my anxiety.  It was aggravated by “live feed” from embedded reporters in Fallujah, televising some of the firefights as they occurred in Fallujah during April of 2004. The live coverage made me a spectator in the middle of the action. I found it unnerving to consider that my son could be involved at that very moment in the scene I was now watching, or that the camera might be rolling when one of our men was injured or killed.  Technology increased my anxiety on another occasion when my son called me on the satellite phone while he was at his base, only to have a mortar attack take place as we spoke. I could hear the loud thuds in the background. Equally distressing was to have my son phone home moments before he was to head out on patrol for a few days. Knowing he was in danger for the next several days, I tensely tried to picture what he was doing each moment throughout those days. Was he afraid? Was he tired or hungry? Was he discouraged? Was he injured?  All of these circumstances were the more upsetting because they unfolded in real time. It had the effect of making me feel I too was there.

On the other hand, technology allowed me to speak to or get email from my son every few weeks—an unprecedented luxury. The relief of hearing his voice would purchase about twenty-four hours’ reassurance. Even that brief peace of mind was delicious.

Anxiety also clutched my heart on those occasions when we returned home after a weekend away. I feared there might be an official car with uniformed Marines waiting to deliver the worst news there is. I often looked down the street before turning into our driveway, and, especially if the daily news bulletins had been grim that week, often cried with relief when no car was there.

HURT: One of the most painful things I had to deal with was the unthinking comments of strangers, friends, and family. People would ask perfunctorily how my son was, and then launch into a diatribe against the President, the military, our policy, and the validity of the war. These people wanted to engage me in debate about the war or to tell me why my son shouldn’t be there. This was a frequent occurrence. At a time when my son could die in Iraq, I couldn’t bear to hear why he shouldn’t be there. Or that the cause might not be worth his life. Or be told that he lacked good judgment to be in the military in the first place. Regardless of political leanings, such quarrelsome comments battered my bruised heart. I wanted only to be comforted, to have someone ask simply how my son was. With a son in harm’s way, I found politics could not be a casual intellectual exercise. It had become very personal. I became sensitive to political comments, all of which added to my pain. I was surprised and horrified to realize how quickly I was willing to discard decades-long friendships and family relationships after these gratuitous comments. Indeed, I am not sure things will ever be the same with some friends and family.

PRIDE: Alongside my anxiety—and as a compensation for it—was pride. As a way of coping with my anxiety, I tried to focus on a positive: pride. I was proud of the goodness and generosity of Americans and the beauty of our country’s landscape. And I was proud of my son for serving his country. I was proud he was a Marine, as his dad had been. Proud that he was willing to challenge his own personal fear and do a job that was so dangerous and difficult. I telegraphed my pride by wearing a variety of “My Son is a U.S. Marine” tee shirts. My automobile had so many Marine and American flag bumper stickers on it that it looked like a military recruiter’s van. But pride was a positive emotion that helped offset the anxiety.

SPIRITUAL TRUST VS. FEAR: One of the most difficult challenges for the duration of the deployment was spiritual.  For seven months I whipsawed one moment between trying to be open to whatever should be in God’s plan, trusting in God’s loving presence to my son, and the next moment, catapulting into panic that God might ask what I didn’t want. I then would begin to flail, beseeching God that my son not be killed.  I wish I could say that I eventually conquered my hysteria, and was calmly reconciled to God’s will. But the best I can say is that by the end of the deployment, I had made some progress in coming to terms with the possibility of my son’s death. I drew some comfort remembering that even Jesus begged for the cup to pass. But, unlike Jesus, the best I could do was to want to want God’s will. This was a daily struggle.

CONNECTEDNESS: Just as I came to feel that all my son’s combat buddies were my sons, so, too, I was blessed to come in contact with military families who became my family. I had several circles of support during my son’s deployment. I belong to a hometown military family support group, which still meets monthly. A dozen of us had sons in Iraq at the same time. It was so comforting to have people who shared the same concerns and fears and with whom I could share my pride in my son’s service.  This group became a new and treasured family that offered their ears, their prayers, and their hearts to each other.

My son was in exactly the same battalion, regiment, company, and platoon as my husband when he was a Marine in Vietnam almost forty years ago. My husband and the other Vietnam veterans from this battalion have had annual reunions for years. Of course, these men were keenly interested in my son, and how my husband and I were doing. They so graciously offered us a steady stream of encouragement. They wrote letters to the injured and sent frequent care packages to their “little brothers” in Iraq. The support of those who had “been there” and come out the other side was invaluable. This group became another family for us as well.

I had the good fortune of having had email contact with about forty people from all corners of the country whose sons, brothers, and boyfriends were serving in my son’s battalion and regiment. Over the months we shared newsy tidbits from our Marines about the temperature in Iraq, the availability of the phones or computers there, life in the desert, etc. We emailed each other to keep each other’s spirits up—particularly when the situation there had become precarious. We prayed for each other and his/her Marine. And we comforted each other when those Marines were injured or killed. Over the course of the seven months our little email group became almost as tightly bonded in our own unique “fighting hole” experience as our Marines are with their brothers in their real fighting holes.

GUILT AND GRIEF: One early morning just a few weeks before our Marines’ tour was due to end, news came that, while we slept, a suicide bomber had crashed into a convoy vehicle, killing seven Marines and wounding five others. Our email family held its collective breath. Despite the fact that the news bulletin only stated cryptically that this occurred in Al Anbar Province (where several battalions of Marines were deployed), somehow we KNEW this had happened to our Marines. Cautiously we emailed each other, tentatively asking how each other was doing and reassuring and comforting each other—holding hands in cyberspace, if you will. Throughout the day we waited to see if one of us would get the knock on the door. I tried to prepare my heart in case I had lost my son. I prayed it wasn’t my son. But if not my son, it meant that it was someone else’s. I felt ashamed that my relief would only mean another mother’s worst nightmare had begun.

As it turned out, only one of the injured had family in our email group, but none of those killed did. My son called twenty-four hours after the bombing to let us know he was okay. It indeed had been his platoon that had been hit and was now decimated. My son had almost ridden in the ill-fated truck, switching only at the last minute to the truck which followed it. My heart twisted in grief as he told in graphic detail of that excruciatingly gory scene. It broke my heart to hear him speak of such things happening to his friends, and to know he had seen things no one should ever have to see. It hurt to know I was so far away and helpless to reach out to him.

The loss of these young men (I felt they could have been my sons too) was like a blow to the solar plexus. It felt—no, it feels—very personal. Despite the fact that, gratefully, my son has been back on U.S. soil for months, I find my heart is still heavy with grief. I will never be the same. I still mourn the loss of these young men. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of those young men cut down before they had lived life fully. It comforts me to wear a memorial bracelet that honors their memory. These young men are etched forever in my heart.  

I grieve for their parents; their endless pain is unimaginable to me. I feel guilt that my son came home to me while theirs did not. I only hope that these parents have some small satisfaction in knowing that their sons have not been forgotten. Their sons’ lives and deaths have mattered to me. 
And I grieve for my son who has forever lost both best friends and his innocence.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible that an event on the “battlefield”, happening to persons I didn’t know, could “ripple” out so widely and affect me so deeply. I was unprepared for that outcome. This grief is yet another emotion that blindsided me during my son’s deployment.

GRATITUDE AND ADMIRATION:  There were many situations during those long seven months that I felt had aged me. And there were others that also stretched my heart and enriched me. I have had the privilege of knowing some of the most wonderful, decent, loyal, earnest people in this country: our military families—past and present! I am so awed by their quiet everyday grace and courage. I hadn’t been acquainted with any military families prior to my son’s entering the Marine Corps, but I know now that my life would be emptier without the friendship of these wonderful people.
After the experiences of this deployment, I will never feel the same way about our freedom. Our military men and women have been given a very difficult and frightening job to do; yet they do it well and with such personal courage. I am in awe. These young people are my heroes!

I now know that the “ripple” effect of a deployment extends much further than just for those who serve. For each person deployed there is probably a score of people deeply affected, who also psychologically deploy with their loved one.  I am likewise grateful to each of those friends and family members for their sacrifice for our country.

I am so appreciative of those who have generously given years from their young lives in service to our country. And I am deeply humbled and honored by those who have given their most precious possession—their life.  Now I know something about the personal cost of freedom. I shall NEVER take my freedom for granted again!
Message from Nanette:

"Operation Homecoming" is a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts to encourage persons in the military  from the year 2000 onward, as well their immediate families, to write of their experiences. The submissions could be journal entries, emails, essays, poetry, or short stories. All will be archived with the Library of Congress but some were included in anthology edited (pro bono) by Andrew Carroll and titled Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of the Troops and their Families , published in September. My essay was initially accepted for inclusion in the anthology but, at the last minute, was cut for reasons of space by Random House. The version that had been edited for the book was just placed on the website. (By the way, I went to a book signing when I was in DC and Andy Carroll commented that "for whatever reason" most of his friends were Marines!)

While I think the editor didn't distort what I said, given the space restrictions some paragraphs were cut--some of which gave credit to military families and honored the sacrifices made. I really wanted you to have the original.