Charles is a Lance Corporal in the United States Marine Corps. He has been in Afghanistan since August of this year and is scheduled to serve there until April 2012. Just last week, his unit, while on a routine patrol, was shredded by the explosion of an IED. One of Charles’ buddies lost both legs in the blast. Several civilians, including a young girl, nine years old, were injured as well. The little girl lost a leg and bled out as Charles held her in his arms and yelled for a medic. Charles is twenty years old.
I don’t know Charles. I only met his dad, Rick, a few minutes ago, in the Starbucks in Fernandina Beach, Florida. I overheard Rick say to the barista, “I’m here to pick up some coffee to send to my son in Afghanistan, hopefully, it will get there before Christmas.”
Rick and I struck up a conversation while he was standing at the counter, waiting on Charles’ coffee to be ground. He told me the story about last week’s IED attack on his son’s unit. As he talked about his son, Rick carried the simultaneous expressions of “proud” and “worried” parent. He told me, “Yes, things are winding down there, but it’s still very, very dangerous. Most folks know that truth intellectually, but I live with it every day and my son faces it every moment he’s there.”
Rick also shared with me his daily prayer for his son and the other service personnel stationed in combat zones, “I pray for their safety, and I also pray their hearts won’t become hardened by the evil that is war.” He then allowed that both prayers are tall orders. We both agreed it would be a good while before we know how the latter prayer will be answered in the lives of those who return from spending time in places most of us couldn’t locate on a map or even pronounce properly.
Yet again, I was aware of the invisibility of this now decade-long war for most of us. Service personnel continue to serve, continue to bleed, and continue to die. Civilians are caught in the crossfire of the violence — even little children. Parents, spouses, siblings and children of our service personnel pray for the safety of their loved ones, mourn their deaths and live with the wounds (physical, mental and emotional) that come home with their loved ones after a tour of duty. I’m not really interested in the “rightness” or the “wrongness” of this particular war at this point. The prospect of winning a theoretical argument (whatever my particular political viewpoint) has little impact on the reality of what men and women are suffering — in service of this country — in real time, a half a world away.
Seventy years ago today, in an action that continues to “live in infamy”, war came to the United States. The attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized this nation’s response. Eventually, millions of people served in the U.S. Armed Forces in places throughout Europe, Africa, and all over the South Pacific. As I have talked to veterans of World War II through the years, I have learned that the horrors of war are a given. Some of them have told me stories of losing buddies, walking through the carnage of a battlefield and seeing things that have haunted them in their dreams for their entire adulthood — over sixty five years. I have also talked to people who lived through the World War II years “Stateside”. Their lives during those years were times of rationing (gas, sugar, meat, rubber and other commodities). For those who lived on the coasts of the U.S., there are memories of blackouts and the constant fear of submarine attacks or an invasion of some sort. Back then, no one was able to ignore the fact this nation was at war. Everything here was impacted by what was happening “overseas”.
There is an impact on this country as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That impact in terms of lives lost and lives irreparably wounded cannot be calculated. The economic repercussion of these actions is currently tabulated with so many zeros as to be essentially incomprehensible. The other cost that we’ve not talked about though, is the cost of conducting a war in which the general populace remains largely unaffected. Does waging a war become an easier option to exercise when it doesn’t affect our trips to the mall? How can we wrangle over the next American Idol, fantasize about Dancing with the Stars and expend so much time Keeping up with the Kardashians while our fellow citizens are slogging through mud, dodging snipers and living under threat of sudden death from an explosive device at any moment? How does plastering a “We Support our Troops” bumper sticker on our automobile only fuel our disengagement? Wouldn’t figuring out a way to get these men and women out of harm’s way as quickly as possible be a better way to support them?
Standing in Starbucks with Rick, the war came home to me as a parent. My son was a pre-schooler when this war began. He’s now a freshman in high school. My guess is, even though my son knows there’s a war going on, he wouldn’t necessarily say that our country is “at war”. This distancing of the general population from the horrors of war is disconcerting. I wonder, “How have we all colluded in keeping this war hidden from ourselves?”
And so, when the barista called to Rick that the coffee was ground and ready to go, I couldn’t resist. I bought the twenty dollars’ worth of coffee for Charles and his buddies in Afghanistan. It seemed to be not even close to “the least I could do”, but it was something I could do. I also hope the coffee gets there before December 25. It was Christmas Blend.