By Helen James
Issue 128, January - February 2005
Raeanne’s 22-year-old son has just come back from active duty in Afghanistan, but she’s still worried.
“Jason saw a lot of action in the army infantry—kids being killed, his friends dying—it’s all so dehumanizing. He’s home now, but he is very, very hurt. And he is angry. My son’s still suffering. He can’t sleep at night. He wakes up screaming with nightmares.”
Her voice lowers to a whisper. “The war is not over for us. For my son, the war may never be over. He says he’s OK, but he has .”
According to Raeanne, Jason tells everyone that he wants to get on with his life and leave the war behind him, but he’s always tense; Raeanne says he “has no sense of anymore.” She worries this might lead to alcohol, drugs, or other problems, but then tentatively adds, “I think he’d go get help first, but then again, it might take something going very wrong before he’d do that.”
Jason didn’t write much from Afghanistan, but he called home often. Even though he never wanted to tell her what he was going through, she could tell he and his army buddies lived with unspeakable stress 24 hours a day. “Those desolate villages,” Raeanne says, “are nothing but poisonous fear for them. Every day they know they might get killed.”
Back home, she worried and waited for the next call. “Sometimes I would be thinking of him and just start crying. I was so sleepless, and I felt so frustrated.” Raeanne’s two younger daughters, too, felt the constant loss of their brother.
“It’s natural to worry. I would ask myself, ‘What if he was taken prisoner?’ I didn’t know what I’d do if he were wounded. Or killed!” She still wonders how she would have coped with that, but she knows she would have had to.
“Now that he’s back home, I just listen to him, I let him talk.” Older vets have advised her not to ask Jason any questions, but instead to be there when he needs her. “It’s so hard to see how raw he is—and then my mom thing kicks in, and I want to fix it, to make him better, but I can’t. I feel so powerless.”
Jason joined right out of high school, just before 9/11, because he wanted to serve, his mother says. She also suspects that her son’s not having a father made him easy to recruit. “All that older male attention from the recruiters was intoxicating for him. He’s a smart kid with good grades, but he never had a dad.” The army must have felt, she imagines, like a way to fill a big, unmet need in Jason’s life. She thinks the military must have recognized that need in her son. Raeanne is angry about that—very angry.
“My children already had disadvantages. I’m a childcare provider, so we never could afford horseback-riding lessons, soccer camp, things like that. We were strictly ‘rice and beans.’ I worked so hard trying to raise decent kids, trying to do the job of two parents. Then here comes the government with their big army vans, free pizza, a climbing wall . . . I felt preyed upon by the military!”
Raeanne stops talking about her son long enough to tell other parents, “You don’t have to let the high school send your kid’s information to the military. You can write a note to the high school administration and tell them not to. The No Child Left Behind law says they have to do it, but you can stop it for your child.”
Jason tells her now that he feels betrayed, too. “He’s reading more and saw Fahrenheit 9/11; he and his friends feel ripped off by the government. It’s a bitter pill for all of us,” she says.
Jason could legally be called back to duty anytime in the next three years, and he doesn’t know what he’ll do if that happens.
Now Raeanne worries—but not only about her son’s and that he might get called back to war. She’s also afraid of what might turn up physically for him in the future. “There are so many long-term . They give them all these vaccinations, meds, all sorts of things. I don’t think he was around depleted-uranium weapons, but you never know. I used to take care of a little girl who was born to a Gulf War vet, and she had so many severe health problems.” Raeanne is even frightened about what defects might show up in her future grandchildren.
Raeanne takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “This war may not be over for our family for a long, long time, maybe even the next generation.” Her voice trails off. “I just don’t know . . . ”
Helen James is a mother of four and grandmother of many more. She lives and works as a photographer in northern California.