Thursday, February 24, 2011

Burntcore Week 40: Left Behind


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Burntcore's Choice: Picture 1

Left Behind

Today is supposed to be a happy day, a day of remembrance and honor. Today is Memorial Day. All across the country, communities are honoring their men and women who served in the armed forces - for the sacrifice of their time, their energy, their youth, and even their lives. Parades are being held, people are cheering, all is right with the world. Everyone feels a little more American, a little more patriotic.

Except for me.

I can’t celebrate. I can’t feel patriotic. I used to; I want to, but I can’t. I can’t join in the festivities that honor our government and our armed forces when my own sacrifice isn’t even acknowledged, isn’t mentioned. There is no honor as far I am concerned. What honor was there when you are forgotten?

My older brother and I grew up believing in our country and what democracy stood for. We were just kids during the first Gulf war, but old enough to know what was going on. Even before 9/11, my brother enlisted into the military. He wanted to make a difference. Never was that needed more than after the towers fell and we as a country cried and gasped in horror.

When my brother was shipped out to the Middle East, I thought it was going to help settle a war-torn country, to bring peace and safety to the innocent people there. I didn’t worry about him too much, he was a part of the US military might, after all. He had the best training possible and he was a good man.

He came back much the same, but the time spent in Iraq had changed him. He was more careful, quieter, older. I had hoped he’d be able to stay home and maybe be discharged, but he said there was still work to do. I was proud of my brother and the good he was doing for the world, for people he didn’t know and had never met.

Another deployment. I stood with my sister-in-law, her belly barely swollen with their first child, as we watched Tom depart with the rest of his company for Afghanistan. I was still proud. I worried more now, things in Afghanistan didn’t look good--things were wilder, more dangerous. Now, Tom had a family of his own, he had something at home to be concerned about. Debbie tried not to let her anxiety show, but her grip on my hand was painfully tight as she watched her husband leave. I agreed to stay with her at their house on base for awhile. She said she needed help with the baby coming. I think she didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to be either.

It was four months later, with Debbie quite visibly pregnant, that things changed. Up to that point, we had heard from Tom periodically while he was overseas. Debbie and I clutched one another’s arms as we watched the evening news describe a particularly bloody battle in eastern Afghanistan. Tom was foremost in our thoughts that night. We didn’t know exactly where Tom was, just that he was somewhere in there. Due to the nature of his orders, he was not allowed to reveal his location. Our thoughts were buoyed with hope that he wasn’t there, that he was somewhere else in that vast desert of a country.

Those thoughts were dashed a week later when a uniformed man came to Debbie’s door. His face was drawn and haggard. I opened the door full of dread, already knowing what this visit must mean. I was very glad I was the one that opened the door and not my very pregnant sister-in-law.

The officer identified himself and asked for Debbie. I told him that she was resting but he could talk to me; that I didn’t want to disturb her as the last months of her pregnancy were hard on her. He took the hint and we sat down in the living room, as far from Debbie’s bedroom as possible.

“What do you mean, missing?” I demanded, furious tears streaking down my face. “How can a US soldier go missing in the 21st century?”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, I don’t know all the details,” the officer replied in a conciliatory manner.

“Well, who does know the details? What am I supposed to tell Debbie? What is she going to tell the child that is growing inside of her that her father is missing? That the US government lost one of their soldiers?” I questioned, whispering harshly.

I stood up and paced the room in my anger. It was bad enough to know that my brother was probably dead, but to find out that they couldn’t find him? That was just not acceptable.

“Ma’am, I am truly very sorry.”

I whirled on the poor messenger, my eyes narrowing. “Sorry doesn’t bring me any answers does it? It doesn’t find my brother, does it?”

The man hung his head as he stood slowly. “No, ma’am, it doesn’t. But it doesn’t mean I can’t be sorry and empathize for you. You aren’t the only one who has lost someone today.”

His last sentence struck me cold. I was projecting my anger and frustration at the wrong person. My shoulders sagged.

“I...I apologize for yelling at you. You are only the messenger... and you are correct. I am not the only one hurting right now. We saw the news the other night about what happened. I guess now we know.”

The officer looked down at me with sympathy and patted my arm. It was awkward, but he was trying. He pulled out a business card from his pocket and handed it to me.

“You can call this number to get any additional information available . However, we will let you know anything as soon as we can.”

I took the card from him numbly. We walked slowly to the front door, grief weighing down my steps. Before he left, I turned and asked him one final question.

“Is there any hope of finding him?”

The officer looked pained but answered me honestly. “I don’t know, ma’am. The rules aren’t the same over there. We are fighting a different kind of enemy.”

I nodded and opened the door for him. He quietly took his leave of the house to the waiting car in our driveway. I stood by the door and watched through the glass as the car backed out into the street and headed down the road. My head whirled as I tried to think of the least painful way to tell my sister-in-law that my brother was probably dead.

That conversation wasn’t an easy one. There was no way to butter it up or make it any more than what it was. In case the stress was too much for her, I had my cell phone ready to call 911. It turned out I had good cause.that. Debbie collapsed when I told her. She managed to not land on her stomach but the stress put her and the baby in jeopardy. My nephew was born a few hours later, small but healthy. Debbie came out of it okay as well, if but only physically. Emotionally and mentally, she had withdrawn into herself... where she would remain for some time.

The months went on, and still, no word about Tom. In the beginning, I called every day to try to get more information. Then it became every other day, to every few days, to now where I called just once a week. Never anything new, just apologies and sympathies. Some people had even advised Debbie to declare him dead. Neither one of us were ready for that, yet. We weren’t giving up.

And now, Memorial Day two years later, a parade, balloons, confetti, men and women in uniform walking proudly. What you don’t see are the kids without mothers and fathers, mothers or fathers that are deployed, missing, or dead. I stand with Debbie and little Tom and try to be proud and try to be happy, but it brings too many feelings, too many thoughts. I love my country and I am proud of our military, but I am angry, so very angry. My sister-in-law is in a similar state, except she is incredibly sad. She knew that this was possible when she married a military man, but never thought it would actually happen to her. For her son, she tries not to be sad all the time, but it is difficult for her sometimes. Sometimes like today.

I watch as a bunch of balloons broke free from a float and drift upwards until they are caught by some power lines along the road. Somehow, they don’t burst. They remind me of my brother, lost and adrift, in a dangerous place, and all alone. I choke back a sob as little Tom sees the balloons and tries to reach for them, his tiny hands uplifted and straining.

“Momma,” his small voice cries out.

Debbie looks at her son in her arms, almost a mirror image of her husband, with affection.

“Yes, baby?”

“The balloons, Momma. They lost.”

“Yes, they are,” she replied sadly.

“How they get home?”

“Hopefully they’ll find a way.”