It's been over 10 years now that my son joined the U.S. Marine Corps. From birth, at least it felt that way, he wanted to be a marine. He wore G.I. Joe underwear, socks, and even carried the lunchbox. At Halloween every year he was either a soldier or warrior of some sort. It was definitely harrowing for me, an anti-war activist from way back since 1969.
I had begged, pleaded and even promised him a new car for him not to join when he turned 18, but hence, he did. The recruiters showed up at our house the day after he had his high school diploma, and whisked him away to boot camp in Parris Island. I felt as if someone had ripped my arm out of its socket! When he graduated, the entire family went to watch as this young boy was supposedly turned into a "man." I ran up to him after all the military hoopla on the Parris Island field, and he didn't even look at me. He wouldn't hug or kiss me, told me that he was in his uniform and was not allowed to show emotion. Needless to say I was crushed.
From that moment on it was a proverbial nightmare for myself and my family. James went off to join the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in San Diego, California, the infamous Camp Pendleton. He wanted to be a grunt, his MOS being 0305, demolitions expert. Of course, I didn't find out until he was there training. He learned how to kill, basically, and operated every piece of weaponry the Marine Corps. had to offer. His specialty was the Javelin, which is an 80mm shoulder held rocket launcher, which each round cost over $80,000 in taxpayer dollars to shoot.
When September 11th befell us, he was already in the Gulf. He was on training maneuvers, and I had become accustomed to his calling home at the wee hours of the morning, wanting to chat about his latest adventure about getting drunk in Australia, or bringing aid to E. Timor. I thought "well, this isn't too bad. He's helping people." I had hoped that his 8 years of duty, 4 years active and 4 reserve as his contract stated, would be quiet enough that I could stop worrying and maybe we would all come out of this episode of his life unscathed. But that morning, when I watched the towers fall across the street from my office building, I absolutely unequivocally knew that we were at war. I knew that with our resident cowboy in the White House, we were doomed to another Viet Nam. I envisioned what the next 8 years of my life was going to look like and it was not pretty.
The following week, our illustrious president announced we were going to catch Osama bin Laden, "DEAD OR ALIVE!" And off went James, right into Tora Bora blowing up caves, trying to obtain the $25 million reward. Over the next 6 months, he grew more weary, and I didn't sleep. Phone calls at 3 AM, explaining that they were told bin Laden was somewhere, and they went to catch him, only to be told to retreat or "pull back." We were both puzzled. There were no answers at that point in time. Of course, I had my own personal beliefs, but the entire country, if not the world, was on fire with hate and revenge. Who was I to question this.
When he left Kandahar, and they turned it over to the Army, he was disappointed, but still feeling the spark of patriotism. At that point my daughter and I were protesting against the war with her college group. There was no place for me, an anti-war military mom. She was arrested, and I bailed her out. James continued in the war theatre with two tours in Iraq. By 2009, he was haggard, hurt many times, and really started questioning his mission. At first he attempted to stop my protests, but we both agreed that we would love and respect each others' lives and beliefs. In fact, at one point, his commanding officer called him in, had the Pentagon on the phone asking about me and did he agree with my anti-war opinions. He said "NO, Sir," but I was his mom, and was entitled to have an opinion, and he would not stop me. They threatened to dishonorably discharge him, and told him that he must call me to convince me to stop. He did, I said no, and he said okay. I told him at that point I would be happy if they discharged him.
By April 2010, James was home and done with his military service. My life was forever changed by the constant fear of losing my child, the phone calls at all times of the day or night, and looking out the window for that military vehicle to show up at my curb. I knew many mothers who suffered through that horror, and thought I would be one of them. My son was not at a desk job, or building parts for the war machine, he was the war machine. A trained killer. Every time I spoke out, I would apologize for him, and worked very hard to explain that his choice was not mine, his training was not something I condoned, or supported.
Last year, after his return home, he lost his job, and had severe blackouts and nightmares, he began on his road to the awakening and recovery. I witnessed it myself on a daily basis. The ups and downs, the rage, fear, helplessness, and anger that what he had dreamed of, being part of the U.S. Marines, was what destroyed him, physically and emotionally. He ranted at the government for lying to him. He became cloistered, depressed and at 28 could not maintain a relationship. All those problems most people only read about, or don't even understand, were staring me in the face. I traveled to VA visits with him; called him several times a day; and, begged him to go get help before he ended his life.
I'm not sure how I was able to survive through years of this type of torment, but I kept telling myself that other mothers had lost their children, so I was one of the lucky ones. So James and I traveled down this road together, mostly at odds, but locking arms against the darkness. Until several weeks ago.
There was this change that came over him, and from what I could see it started when he read Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States." He started to read Wikileaks, and books written by veterans that had similar experiences as he had. Every day he would learn something new about how his government betrayed him, and his fellow marines, and all the troops serving in the military. He would call me and like a child who discovered ice cream for the first time, explain this newly uncovered secret as it were, and acted amazed all over again.
I kept telling myself that I was dreaming, or, he would re-up or give up. I couldn't bring myself to actually be overjoyed that my son had joined me in my fight against the wars. Until he stood up in front of a group of high school students in New York City where we live and declared "Don't join the military. For me, it was a mistake. I'm 30 years old, go to physical therapy twice a week, can't get out of bed in the morning without pain, and am unemployed. I wouldn't wish that on anyone." James decided to join the "We Are Not Your Soldiers" tour, a project of World Can't Wait, bringing Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans into High Schools around the Country.
As I watched him speak to this class, the floodgates of my soul opened. "It was true!" He changed. How did this happen? I cried softly in the front of the room, as I was videotaping the entire transformation right before my eyes. Ten long years of struggle. My very own personal battlefront with my son, who I love dearly. I actually won, but at a cost. A huge expense to my own emotional health, my daughter who has a hard time forgiving her brother for leaving her to kill people; and to watch James struggle everyday with his traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and chest pains from the burn pits he slept next to for a year in Iraq, is a life altering experience I wouldn't wish on anyone.
It's great to watch him now, listen to him talk about the reality of war, and tell kids to stay away from military recruiters. From a staunch nationalistic patriot to an independent thinker who has become an anti-imperialist, the strength and fervor he brought to his young dreams, he now applies to his daily life.