The 101st Airborne (Air Assault) out of Ft. Campbell, Kentucky was returning from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan. This was my son’s unit, and I was determined to be there when they got off that plane.
Twenty-four hours after I got the news that my son was killed in action, I was in contact with his unit in Afghanistan. I knew many of these boys, I had met them several times and was in contact with quite a few of them. I was their buddy’s mom and I sent messages back and forth with them on Facebook, listened as they complained about wives and girlfriends and gave motherly advice and encouragement. I had joked and teased with them about my son not sharing the goodies I sent every week. I sent my son strawberry-scented body wash, which actually turned out to be quite a hit among the guys. They liked having something sweet smelling, but liked even more having something to tease one of their buddies about. A couple had even made special requests, asking me to send things like Double Stuff Oreos or more of a particular flavor of instant cappuccino.
When a soldier is wounded or killed over there, the base is put on a minimum 24-hour communication blackout. Once the blackout was lifted, I was desperate to hear from the unit. I knew my son and one other soldier were killed and that there were several injuries, a couple of them quite severe. The Army wouldn’t tell me the names of those who were injured, and I was consumed with worry. Michael, Jason, Josh, Martin, Aaron — were they okay? Michael was at my house for Thanksgiving; Jason has a wife and two babies I said, but they wouldn’t tell me anything. I finally spoke with one of the boys, but he couldn’t tell me anything without breaking OPSEC, or Operational Security. But, having spoken with him, that was one name I could cross off my list of worries.
It took several days, nearly a week, actually, for me to find out who was injured, or rather, who was not as I could not officially be given the names or status of anyone. As it turns out all the boys I knew personally, all those with whom I’d been in contact, all those whom I had met were okay or as okay as could be under the circumstances. At that point, I still didn’t know the full scope of the attack, didn’t know it was not just a suicide bomber but was instead an all-assault on the base. The one communication I did get, unofficially, was, “We got them all. Those we didn’t kill, we captured and turned over to the ANA. Those guys will wish we either kept them ourselves or just killed them, as their life expectancy is now a very unpleasant 3-6 months in the hands of the ANA.” I’m not even a little ashamed to admit my sole concern was for the well-being of the guys who went on those missions. As for those who instigated or participated in the attack, let’s just say I have more concern for the dogs running around the countryside of Afghanistan.
In those first days I had received phone calls from Afghanistan from my son’s commanders, expressing their sympathy and sorrow. I listened as grown men, battle-hardened officers, wept, apologizing to me for not keeping my son safe. I knew then that I was far from alone in my grief. No matter what I was feeling, I was talking to those who were there with my son in his last moments, young men who risked their lives alongside my son. I understood that their road was going to be just as hard as mine in its own way. It was during one of those phone calls that I was told that one of the boys, the one whom I knew the best, was home on his mid-tour leave. The unit and the commanders knew this boy was very close to my son and they were very worried about him; they had each other for support, but this boy was alone. I promised that I would get in contact with this boy immediately and bring him to Plainfield and that we would take care of him and make sure he wasn’t alone. Again, I listened to a grown man weep.
Over the next weeks, word spread in the unit that I was here and available to talk to anyone who wanted to; it was a message I had made my son’s commanders promise they would deliver to everyone in the unit. I told them to just give everyone my phone number and email or just contact me through my son’s Facebook page. One by one, they contacted me. They needed to hear from me that I did not blame them, that I was not angry at them, that I was sad, devastated and utterly broken, but it was not their fault and I did not begrudge any of them for being OK. Many of the messages I received began, “Ma'am, you don’t know me, but I served with your son…” Two years later, I still hear from guys who were at the base that day, were in Basic Training with him or were stationed with him at one point or another.
In February of 2011, my family and I were invited to Ft. Campbell for a memorial service for my son and some of the others from the units out of Ft. Campbell who were killed in action. The care, consideration and comfort we were given, and receive still from these remarkable men and women is impossible to describe. The 101st is a legendary unit and those assigned there take great pride in being part of the most-deployed quick response force in the Army. I learned that words like honor and dignity have a depth and breadth of meaning I had never before imagined. And every care was taken to ensure that my family and I understood that as long as there is a 101st, my son will be honored and remembered and that we would be cared for. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, but it was only the first among many I’ve had since because of these incredible people, with that incredible unit.
When the rumors of the units’ return home were finally confirmed and I asked if it was appropriate or allowable for my family and I to be there, I once again listened to a tough, battle-hardened warrior choke up. I wanted to be there, I said, to see each of them get off that plane and welcome them home but I didn’t want to be a distraction, to dampen the joy of their return. I was worried my presence would be too hard on them; they were worried the whole event would be too hard on me. They told me there would be a Brigade Memorial for all the fallen from this tour, and my family and I were of course invited to attend as honored guests. We did attend that service, and it was the most singularly moving and healing event we’ve attended.
But, I wanted those boys to see me as they came home, to see that I was applauding and cheering their safe return, that I was on my knees thanking God that no more were lost and that I held none of them responsible for the fact that my son wouldn’t be getting off that plane. I knew it was going to be hard, very hard to watch them come down the stairs and not think about the fact that my son was not among them, but then I knew that he was; he and all those who returned in the Arms of God rather than to the arms of their families were there in the hearts of every one of those men and women.
As the homecoming days progressed, as the returning flights were spread out over several days, and I got to see the joy and relief on the faces of so many wives, mothers and fathers, the wonder on the faces of soldiers meeting their babies for the first time, it got easier. It got easier still when I asked a couple of the boys to dinner, telling them to invite anyone who wanted to come and more than 30 showed up, several with wives and babies in tow. There were moments that weren’t so easy, like hearing the details of that day that changed all our lives but my smiles were as genuine as my tears, and not all my tears were from sadness. Imagine the pride and the pain hearing that your son was being credited for saving the lives of five others, hearing how your son is the hero to a young husband and father as he cradles his infant son. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. In all, I spent five days that May in Kentucky, receiving much more healing than I could ever give, than I could ever imagine.
Many of those young men have since deployed again to Afghanistan and are still there as I write this. When I think of veterans and what Veterans Day means, I think of the faces of those young men and women as they descended that staircase on the tarmac at Ft. Campbell. I see their bewildered eyes trying to absorb the fact that they made it, that they were home. In these newly minted veterans I saw the same cautious hope that they would be able to get past, rise above or simply live with what they just experienced as is in the eyes and faces of photos of troops returning home from previous wars.
I hope and pray that this generation of veterans receives the honor and recognition they deserve for having stood in the gap for all of us. I wish we lived in a world where no more veterans would be created, a world with no more war-weary eyes searching the crowd for the faces of their loved ones as they gratefully return to U.S. soil. I hope and pray this generation of veterans is able to find here at home some of the peace they fought for so far away from those they love and those who love them. Most of all, I hope and pray they will be greeted with thanks from a grateful nation and that their service is forever honored and never forgotten.
Read the first three installments of Denise's story: