Fare well, son

One family prepares for a tour of duty.

By Mark Pothier
May 30, 2010

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When my son joined the Army National Guard last year, he talked about the challenge of boot camp and landing a bonus to make his credit card debt disappear. My wife, Elizabeth, and I worried about him being required to put his life at risk in another country. Today, those distant war zones seem dangerously close to our home: Justin has volunteered to serve in the infantry in Afghanistan. Even more frightening, he wants to carry grenades strapped to his body and go building to building in search of the enemy.

Like many 23-year-olds still charting a path in life, Justin is not able to crisply articulate why he made this decision. He speaks in short bursts about helping soldiers already there, about being bored by his current lifestyle, and about the benefits accorded those who earn veteran status. We don’t understand. Can’t you do something less risky? What about going back to school, like we talked about? He does not waver, he does not explain further, and after a while the “whys” seem weightless. He is going. As a parent, I am truly powerless for the first time.

So my wife and I are doing what we can to help Justin – and us – prepare. I clip Afghanistan stories from the newspaper. We bought him Sebastian Junger’s new book, War, about the author’s time with a platoon in the perilous Korengal Valley. And Elizabeth suggested Justin compose a checklist of his reasons for signing up to war – personal reinforcement he can keep to himself.

Earlier this month, he returned from his regular monthly National Guard duty weighted down by some of the new gear he will take to Afghanistan, including a camouflage-patterned helmet. It sits on the floor of his bedroom, beside the Xbox console. By summer’s end, video games will be replaced by a reality that only allows the slimmest margin for error. I pick up the helmet and think, This is not enough, not nearly. Kevlar can’t really keep him safe. Neither can I.

Too soon, I’ll be the parent in waiting, scouring news reports by the day, by the hour, hoping for no news, awaiting the best news: He is coming back, whole. For Justin, for Elizabeth and me, for his sisters, and for the other relatives and many friends, the next year will be impossible to measure. Until it is over.

Send comments to How have you helped a son or daughter prepare for a deployment?

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