“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” —Fred Rogers
Grey the sky.
Grey the waves.
Grey the beach.
Grey the village homes clustered on the beach edge, trying not to be lost to the wind and sea.
Grey the fuzzy images on the TV that morning, jumping back and forth before suddenly showing towers collapsing in the grey, grey clouds of dust.
The Alaskan village, small in number, was still extensive in connections. Daughters, nephews, cousins were studying in New York City, visiting, working. The families headed to the church to pray.
The phone lines shut down. The planes, Unalakleet’s life line to the world, were grounded. But the natives were used to being cut off and to living with tragedy. They returned to their work as the end of salmon season, the closing of a crab opener, the processing of yesterday’s beluga harvest wouldn’t wait for mourning.
And so did I. Being one who focuses on today more than long-term and who avoids conflict at all cost, I was content. We were safe in a forgotten part of the world. I put my twin baby boys in their Carhart overalls, rubber boots past their knees, green anoraks and we went out to splash in the puddles and help pick berries.
But my husband paced the town like a fenced in guard dog. The former Marine turned National Guard Chaplain tried repeatedly to get ahold of his unit, asked everyone what news they had, checked the airport for possible schedules.
When he had previously toyed with going active duty after seminary, I dismissed him. “It’s all fun and games until there’s a war!” Now, here was war. Instead of feeling blessed to be safe with his family, he was ignited.
“I can’t find out who’s getting called up,” he said while passing by us. “Come play!” I urged, and then pleaded, “Explain this to me.”
“I need to know who is going where and who is talking to those boys before they face hell,” he turned, then turned back, “And no one comes into my back yard, gives us a black eye, and gets away with it!”
There are willing heroes, and reluctant servants. September 11th pulled me into the last category and changed our family’s path, probably for generations. It was clear this was what God equipped my husband to do. A few months later, with a prayer and a signature, my boys became sons of a soldier.
As we immersed into this culture of heroes, I learned quickly the George Orwell quote, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” While my gut churned with, ‘Why mine?’ my chin lifted with “Yes, mine does the dirty work.” At a ceremony before his first deployment, I was pulling those toddler boys out from under the bleachers when we heard the war cry of a thousand warriors. It sears your soul.
I found myself surrounded by strong women who kissed their husbands goodbye and then got up the next morning. They built playgrounds, bought houses, figured out repairs, turned off the news, turned to their children with a smile.
Our children learned this too. As my boys emulated warriors, I worried. Maybe I shouldn’t be yelling “fight for it!” from the hockey rink stands. Maybe I should have taken away their toy guns, drugged them up to calm them down, downplayed their father’s honor, made them play golf, read them more fairytales and less history.
“Will you help me make a ghillie suit?” my boy asked. And so we sewed loops of dull yarn to a hooded vest so he could blend into the weeds while playing with his friends.
I prayed for a way to hide my baby boy in the reeds.
The infamous Spartan 300 weren’t chosen for their strength. They were chosen for their mothers. So goes the theory Steven Pressfield puts forth in Warrior Ethos. If the mothers caved at the inevitable death of their sons, all would be lost in the war for the whole society.
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things,” said British philosopher John Stewart Mill. “The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
One percent of our society will fight in our armed services. The majority of their children will go on to enlist or marry military members.
Some things are worth fighting for
Most never will
–Read the tattooed forearm of a young soldier eating at my dinner table one night.
I realized in growing my boys into the young men I wanted them to be, I was signing their enlistment papers. So I strapped the ghillie suit on my boy, checked it for weakness, looked him in the eye and said with the Spartan women, “Come back with your shield or on it.”
This September 11th, 18 years later, I have three in uniform. Those baby boys tried returning to the grey waters of Alaska, wrestling with the waves and wind to pull the silver salmon from the sea. But the following summer they stripped down to be rebuilt as a soldier.
We went to their graduations from Basic Training, gasping at the soldiers standing before us, even if the uniform was still a little big. Their dad, in an arm sling from reconstructive shoulder surgery from carrying too heavy of burdens, ping-ponged with me between pride and concern.
When we were driving back on post with our baby-bald, too skinny private, the greying gate guard peered in to lock eyes with him. “You got this torch, son?”