Out of the Woods / The inner battle of a soldier's mother
Published 7:31 am, Wednesday, October 10, 2012
As I entered the store in Westport to look for a fall bargain, I asked a friendly-looking saleswoman about buying something on display marked "Sale." She was attractive and well-spoken, with a broad, welcoming smile.
She graciously asked me how she can help, and then began to show me around the store. After a few minutes, her cellphone rang. She glanced at the caller's number and looked at me, politely asking if I mind waiting a moment while she takes the call.
"By all means," I said, noticing that she is the only salesperson in the store.
I tried not to listen to her conversation, but since I am standing near her I could not help but overhear snippets of her dialogue.
"No, that's alright. I am with a customer now, but I have a moment. ... Yes, that sounds good. Okay, but don't drive too fast. ... See you later."
"That was my son. He's in the Army," she explained, even though she did not have to. I guess she wants me to understand why she, the manager, took the call instead of continuing to wait on me. We resume our tour about the store while I contemplate prying a little into that phone call just because, as a journalist, I am naturally curious.
"Do you mind if I ask you where he is stationed?" I asked as casually as I can.
"Not at all," she said comfortably. "In the States," she says. "He just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan -- the Kandahar area. I'm so relieved that he is finally home for good."
"How long has he been in the Army?" I asked.
"That's tough duty," I said. "Was he in combat?"
"Yes," she replied with a serious look. "He's a medic. He saw more than his share of horror and bloodshed. He was decorated for saving the lives of five other soldiers. I don't know how he did it, except that I know he's always calm in a crisis."
"Is he making a career of it?" I continued.
"No, no. He told me he has had enough. He said he's lost too many buddies and he no longer sees the point in fighting."
"Has he become disillusioned with the war?"
"Not at first. He felt it as his duty to defend his country. He is proud to be a soldier. But he told me that his main reason for not re-upping is that he sees no point in fighting anymore. We went into Afghanistan to get bin Laden, and now that we have, what's the point?" she confided in me. "Of course, he does not express that thought to his superiors. It's just his own opinion."
I asked if he has been badly affected by being a medic in combat.
"Yes," she replied with a pained expression. "He still has trouble sleeping. And he's getting therapy through the Veterans Administration for post-traumatic stress syndrome. I think it will be a while before he completely recovers."
Awkwardly, I told the saleswoman that I have a lot of respect for her son, that I admire his courage, and that I honor him for serving his country.
"That's kind of you," she replied. "Not everyone feels that way about the war or our returning soldiers. I don't think many of our veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are getting the help they need. So many of them are having a hard time finding jobs -- or even homes to live in."
Does her son have any other reason for not wanting to remain in the Army?
"Well," she said, somewhat reluctantly, "He's fed up with what he calls the bureaucracy. It takes so long to get answers to his questions. `The paperwork is unbelievable. I've had enough. It's time for me to come home,' is what he said. `America should pull out. We've done as much as we can.' "
"I understand," I said. "You must be glad he's home for good and that he shares his feelings with you."
"I am," she said with a wistful look. "When he was away for long stretches at a time, I could hardly concentrate. It was very hard. Almost unbearable. But I am proud of him and he knows it."
By that time, I realized I had strayed a long way from the purpose of my trip to the store.
"I apologize for asking so many questions," I said.
"Not at all," she responded, a smile returning to her face. "It's good for me to talk about it. I am just so grateful that he's back. The long wait is over."
We continued our conversation about the item on sale, and I said I would think about it and get back to her. Again, she was very obliging. She told me I can come back any time and she will be glad to hold anything I am interested in. (I telephoned her and bought the item the next day.) We shook hands goodbye, and momentarily, I felt like leaning over and giving her a hug.
Of course, I didn't. But my heart goes out to her.
As I left the store, I realize how much her experience touched a nerve in me. It is not often that most of us get an opportunity to gain a first-hand insight into the anxiety and stress that so many families in America -- including many in Westport -- are experiencing as a result of the war.
This young soldier hit the nail on the head. He's absolutely right. It's time to get out of Afghanistan now.
There is nothing to be gained by continuing this hopeless war that continues to take such a heavy toll on our young men and women -- and on their families.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.