My cell phone rang at about three in the morning.
“Dad! Dad! I just wanted you to know that I’m ok. We took a hit but I’m okay. ”
“I haven’t got time to talk. I’m busy. But in case you hear
anything, I wanted you to know I’m okay.”
My son was doing his mother and me favor. He knew that every time we heard of an American soldier killed in Iraq, our stomachs took a brutal twist.
He arrived in Iraq with a Special Forces Unit more than two years ago. For a while he went native and become an honorary member of an Arab tribe. For that he had to eat the left eye of a goat. Later, he became an observer for the 101St Airborne Assault Division and directed air strikes on retreating Iraqi soldiers. Once he picked up a wounded and bleeding Iraqi girl of about 8 and carried her to a medical facility. The doctor said they were too busy, but relented and said because of his rank and insistence, they would care for the girl. Just by chance, he was not in his Humvee when it hit an improvised explosive device which killed his captain, a sergeant, and blew off the legs of a young soldier. During his tours in Iraq, two of his interpreters were killed along with their children.
When he came home after serving two years in Iraq, he was awarded two Bronze Stars. My older brother, Mike, received a Bronze Star for operating a radio behind German lines in World War II. Mike has never explained the reason for his medals.
In high school, my son was not much of an athlete. He played trumpet in the band and jazz ensemble and was on the debate team. He was a good student and received a full ROTC scholarship. After college, he surprised us all and decided to make the Army his career. But it wouldn’t be just “Army.” He became an Airborne Ranger, an elite special operations force, and then qualified as a Pathfinder, specializing in combat parachute assaults. When he was a platoon officer he participated in a number of night jumps. Once, during a storm, he had to walk off another soldier’s chute. His chute opened just in time. Tom Clancy wrote of his company when he was its commander. He referred to Baker Company of the 7th Light Infantry as “elite night fighters” and “athletes in uniform.” I have gotten tired counting, before Mike gets tired doing pushups.
When soldiers come home from Iraq, they are generally astonished how normal life is. This is comforting, but they wonder if there is any real sense of commitment and sacrifice in the home front. Cars have “Support our Troops” ribbons and there is a longer wait at the airports. But that is all.
Meanwhile, as the war continues, politicians promise to lower taxes. Lower taxes? Military equipment in Iraq is old and deteriorating. Lower taxes? Medical benefits for veterans have been cut. As one Iraqi veteran observed after serving a year in the Green Zone, “If this is a war in which civilization is at stake, where is the sacrifice? There are three things in life you can be certain of — death, taxes and the contract goes to Halliburton. Some people are making a lot of money in this war.”
As violent as it is, I can understand how my son finds appeal in the military. I was in the Army during the Korean War and never had such good friends, while at the same time feeling so very alone. I was a pastor of a church in the 1960s, when two sons of my congregation were killed in Vietnam. Their families said their sons believed in what they were doing and that they died for freedom. What else can grieving parents say? Later, much later, we found out that the war in Vietnam was based on a lie. When I am in Washington, D.C., I have a burning compulsion to visit the wall. I brush my fingers across the names of the two young men from my congregation: John Ilstrip and Curt Haerle.
I have become a vocal peace activist who has signed petitions and spoken against the war in Iraq. I have a son who is an elite warrior who has fought there.
The war must go on, it seems, more Americans and Iraqis will be killed. I try to restrain my anger over the lack of any real sacrifice here at home and how unaccountable our elected leaders really are. Recently, I made 14 phone calls to the two U.S. senators from Minnesota and to Congresswoman Betty McCollum. I got answers, but they were not answers to the questions I asked.
My questions were not that complicated. They were:
1. We are building the biggest embassy ever built in Iraq, said to be bigger even than the Vatican complex. What corporations received the major construction contracts?
2. The construction of the embassy is by law supposed to be carried out under the oversight of a congressional committee. So who are the members of that committee? What are their names?
3. The embassy is about half finished. Have there been any oversight reports to date?
Are we spending $5,000 on toilet seat in this spanking new embassy? I made 14 calls and still do not have any answers. That is 13 calls too many.
So what are we to do? I will make 14 more phone calls. No, I do not have the time, but I will make the time.
Will you, for the sake of real democracy, join me?
Bill Albertson is a retired minister in the United Church of Christ.