SEMPER FI MOM |
November 11, 2011
Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More
Even drill instructors have mothers. Mine are better than yours. That’s right I have two, my biological Mother Susan and my stepmom Marie, aka “The Other Mom." This post will primarily feature my biological mother, as she gave me the inspiration for it. I was going to write about the Bradley Manning situation, but while interviewing family members it occurred to me that I have never attempted to tackle a subject in writing that I had always thought about while in combat.
My mother birthed me when she was twenty -one. My understanding of her youth at that time had not hit me until I recently turned twenty-five, happily childless. Despite the horror of it all I believe motherhood is more difficult than combat. We were a team early on; my first memories are of us playing the original “Mario Brothers” at home in 1989. I remember her cooking from when I was very young, the smell of it, something I hung onto in war. I remember blasting ducks with a plastic orange gun in 1989. Bang bang went the piece, a two-bit duck would fall from a two-bit sky, my gun two centimeters from the television screen, and I would ask my mom to look at it, what I had done, my victory.
As I grew up, she constantly reminded me that she did not want me to join the military. I joined anyway, and sacrificed the world of women for four years as a U.S. Marine Infantryman. We had a final dinner the night before I took off for boot camp and I could feel that it was over, the childhood, the girlfriend, the old life that I had known so well, but didn’t know how good it was until it was gone. This becomes the common cry of the suburban teenage Marine Corps recruit. In boot camp we would all scream “Kill!” whenever the group or an individual succeeded at a task. If recruit so-and-so did twenty pull-ups the drill instructor would declare, “Give him one!” The platoon would in turn ecstatically and simultaneously shout, “Kill!” It was at this point of my “enhanced training” that I realized I would never be able to explain any of this to my mother in a way that would make sense to her.
The same idea became a theme in combat. I lied to my mother after we had moved into Fallujah, Iraq, a very hostile zone, and continued to tell her that I was in Kuwait, a safe zone. The Infantry Marines had no mothers to cry to, only each other to lean on, and a mother needed to be as far away from that death trap as possible. Even thinking of your mother in that place felt like a sin. My girlfriend was long gone and for many of those unfortunates that were married, so were their wives.
From the moment the combat began in November 2004 until the last one on October 31, 2006, friends around my young age began dying in what seemed a nonstop cycle. It was an old story; sparkly-eyed young men who were as funny as you began to disappear. I would see them one day and we would share a smoke and a story, a week later I would bump into a friend of his who would tell me the gory details of how the guy I used to know died. Trapped in a house and shot to death, friendly fire, vehicle accident, explosions or coming home and making a bad drunken decision that could not be taken back. While many of my friends in “the world” were in college or getting knocked up, The Marines were stuck in a corner of hell that would not translate to mothers.
My experience was not foreign to the eternal mothers of the planet, who have dealt with the blood of their children spilt since the first war. Other than the pain of it, the only thing I feared of death was the devastation it would have brought on my family. I felt that my mother would never understand why I threw my life away, and that my father would rationalize it. With their ancient divorce there would have been no forgiveness as my mother considered my father’s Army hitch and pride of service in peacetime as the primary motivator for my service during war. When I came home after my Marine hitch from the ages of eighteen to twenty-two, I cannot imagine what I must have seemed like to my own mother. There were dozens of dead friends stuck on rewind in my recent memory and a youth’s lust for alcohol as she chanted the mother’s mantra, “What have they done with my child?”
I had recently turned nineteen in Okinawa, Japan when the first Marine that I had been friendly with died. He marched to death on a company hike, walked until his brain was overwhelmed by heat. His core was too hot to process normal function, which leads to the organ failure. I heard that he had tried to quit the hike but was encouraged to continue by his brother Marines, who had no idea that their peer was dying. It was a shame, and I wondered what a person would tell their mother before they died if given the chance? When we landed in Iraq I was sure of my death. I remember thinking to myself that it was important not to consider living, as it would be a real bummer to expect to go home when you were bleeding to death and full of holes that could not be repaired.
I was twenty-two and near the end of my contract when I learned that a good friend of mine had been accidently killed in Recon tryouts when someone from the opposing force in a training exercise accidently loaded live rounds into his gun instead of blanks. The Marine had always been one of my favorites; he had the physique of an asshole, a million-mile smile and the heart of a monk. A Marine told me my friend had been shot in the head that his mother had given birth to. These were stories I did not keep my mom up to date with. How would you? We were trained to abandon the nurturing side of life; this training was necessary for all who survived and added time to the ones who did not. War is a sick and ancient dance but the fundamentals of the mental preparation for it have remained the same since its inception.
For those who have not experienced it, we cannot imagine what it must be like to exit this world in a violent fashion. Modern Americans are not equipped for demise of any kind, never mind the always avoidable death of the volunteer. There was something I was always trying to remember when I was in war. The feeling of security in my mom’s house, the way she called my name in joy and in anger. I wished I could explain my gratitude before I died. We all did.
Last week I called my mother after a month without contact and interviewed her. I wanted to understand what my close family understood about the war. I asked if she could place Afghanistan on a map and she could. I asked if she paid attention to the news on Afghanistan and she explained that she avoided the subject on purpose due to my service. A symptom of post traumatic stress disorder, a condition which myself and many I served with have been diagnosed. My questions focused on Afghanistan and not Iraq because of current media attention in that country, where I also served. We had never talked much about the war and her voice began to crack as we went back in time. I asked what she would tell the family of a serviceperson killed in action. She wept as she replied, “I hope that they have lots of pictures and I am sorry.” My mind stopped and I had asked too much. I thought of her photo albums that I had helped her preserve after nearly losing them a dozen years ago. My heart was breaking and I felt for the first time a dash of the pain my mother never talks about.
Somewhere we lost contact, six years and this war still hurts too bad to try to put my old family back together. When I was in junior high she encouraged me to participate in an essay contest. I placed in the first one I entered, and continued to place in these contests until I graduated. I remember being very young a million years ago, wrapped within in the safety of a normal American childhood and upbringing. There was a world she did not know well enough to warn about. My mom would listen to my writing and I held that feeling, the mom feeling, close to my soul in a dark world.
Gunfire and smoke locked in my mind reminds, that someday all face death, for most a distant reality. During combat we remembered our mother’s voice, her cooking, long gone summer road trips, her discipline, smile, and her embrace. First memories and last memories are for her and we will be a team forever,
I will always be young with her too,
and I can
For the war mothers of all countries.