Today is the deadline promised by Barack Obama for the complete withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. After more than seven years of war for a cause most Americans couldn’t believe in, I should feel relief, even elation, as the date approaches. Reassurance, however, has been elusive to me. I am the mother of a soldier, and I’ve come to question my government’s pronouncements.
My son is Cpt. Jess Greaves, U.S. Army. Jess joined the military in 1995 just out of high school. For my son, enlisting was a choice. He wanted to serve and was on a quest for adventure and camaraderie. But for many other young men in the rural, struggling agricultural region of upstate New York where I live, the military is their only opportunity. Our communities are closely knit, with strong family ties and friendships holding these towns together. But with a failing economy, families are suffering. Joblessness among 16 to 19 year olds is at the highest rate ever, making military service the only path for many of our working class youth to get a job, an education, or even a home. In my part of the country, the economic draft is in full swing.
Though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 filled me with dread for my son and his friends, for the first two years I remained blissfully unaware of what our soldiers were going through during wartime. In the summer of 2005, I learned of a march on Washington, D.C., in protest of the war in Iraq. When I read about how huge the march was projected to be, I began to look at why this war was so unpopular and realized how many troops were being damaged, wounded and killed in “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” I attended this march and learned so much more about the war that I could no longer ignore what was happening to our troops in Iraq. I became a vocal anti-war activist. I joined the groups Military Families Speak Out and CODEPINK, speaking up wherever, whenever and however I could in support of bringing our troops home and of taking care of them when they get here.
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Though my message was heartfelt and sincere, it became personal when I learned my son would deploy to Iraq. My precious son, whom I never allowed to play with guns or watch violent TV, was going to war. I thought I’d lose my mind.
The bittersweet visit when Jess came from Georgia before leaving for Iraq was too brief, too final. As I watched him board his plane, I was painfully aware that Jess and I had said a last goodbye. My son, were he to survive, would be changed in ways I could never imagine. So would our whole family. I was grief stricken and frightened, but not silent.
The first of Jess’s two lengthy tours in Iraq was with the 1st Infantry division, 26th Battalion as Alpha Company commander during the surge in 2007. For 15 months, this battalion endured horrific violence and suffered an extraordinary number of casualties, including the loss of a 19-year-old PFC who threw himself on a grenade to save his Blood Brothers and the tragic suicide of a much respected 1st sergeant. Jess finally came home from Iraq, uninjured but not unharmed. Post traumatic stress disorder is his constant companion. PTSD means that while our family is gathered, laughing around a board game, Jess will suddenly excuse himself and quietly go to his room and close his door, leaving his wife and his parents in sad concern. Or he will clean out his kitchen cabinets and throw away each noisy appliance and later have no recollection of doing so. PTSD is that infamous thousand-yard stare evident in soldiers who have experienced the unimaginable. And it’s gut wrenching to see that look in your own son’s eyes while he’s holding his baby daughter tight as if clutching a lifeline.
Just as the cost of the war in Iraq cannot be measured only in terms of lives lost or billions wasted, its end cannot be “scheduled,” as is the unstated implication of combat troop withdrawal. For the Iraqis who have to deal with broken lives, broken infrastructure, a broken political system, the war is not over. And here at home, besides the fact that 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq indefinitely, this war is not over. It will go on and on for too many of our warriors and their families because of PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other devastating injuries to our soldiers. It will NEVER end for the Gold Star families who have lost their loved ones in this war, like the family of Cpl. Michael Mayne from the tiny neighboring community of Burlington Flats. As a teenager, Michael, for his Eagle Scout project, erected several flagpoles in the quaint village park, one for each branch of the military and one for the American flag. In 2009, Michael was killed in Iraq. Never could his proud family and friends have envisioned that a beautiful memorial stone engraved with his name would sit among those flag poles—a constant reminder to this community of its loss.
And now, with the scars of the Iraq war still fresh, President Barack Obama plans to endanger the lives of thousands more troops and funnel billions more taxpayer dollars into the escalation of an unwinnable counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
So while I welcome the pending withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, I find the promise that we are “winding down” there hollow. With 50,000 troops in Iraq, more deployments to Afghanistan and the traumas the soldiers bring home, I feel we are still at war, with no end in sight.
Is this the best our leaders can do for our soldiers and our country? August 31 is fast approaching but so is November 2. Our leaders would be wise to heed the cries of the military moms: “Bring our troops—all our troops—home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and take care of them when they get here.”
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.