Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Soldier’s Profile

I post this story every year for Memorial Day, in honor of my wonderful son Kevin. I am happy to report that he is home now for good and is pursuing a successful civilian career. This was written in 2006 while Kevin was fighting in Ramadi, at the height of the conflict there. A prominent politician at the time had made an ignorant, derogatory remark about the type of person who joins the military. I wrote this not only to speak for Kevin, but in honor of the men and women who never came home like he did, so full of the promise of a life yet lived.

It’s hard being the mother of a soldier. There are all the obvious reasons: you never know whether your child is safe; and if he is, for how long. You worry about how the stress and trauma will affect this marvelous person you kissed goodbye at the airport, and if he’ll ever be the same. Most of all, you worry about whether he’ll remember how much you love him.

But by far, the hardest thing is hearing casual stereotypes being thrown around about what kind of people our soldiers are. Most often they are subtle, passing remarks which reveal an attitude or impression about the men and women in uniform. If you will forgive the source and look past the “pedestal syndrome” so inevitable when a mother talks about her son, I would like to tell you a little bit about my son Kevin in the hopes that you come away with a more thoughtful impression of exactly who the American Soldier is.

Kevin has always been an extraordinary person. When he was four he cried himself to sleep because his baby sister had had her vaccinations that day, and it so bothered him to see her in pain that he begged me through his tears to let him take them for her next time. Throughout his life, nothing bothered Kevin more than seeing people mistreated, whether it was the handicapped kid on the playground or the victim of a crime. His childhood was very typical, and I’d like to think happy. He was active in sports and had a very full social life – sometimes a bit too full! The first day of Junior High School Kevin declared, “By the end of the year, I’m going to know every single student’s name.” I’m not sure if his goal was ever reached, but Kev would think nothing of walking up to someone he didn’t know, stretching out his hand, and introducing himself.

In high school, Kevin was very active in sports and music. Around his sophomore year, he had to make a choice between the two because it became impossible to commit to both. It was a difficult decision because he so loved sports. But ultimately he chose music, thinking it would be something he could enjoy well into adulthood. He went on to earn a prestigious spot with the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra in California and played with them for a season or two. The highlight of his musical “career” was placement with the 2000 Olympic Band, which performed during the opening ceremonies at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Kevin told us that performing for 100,000 people live was an unbelievable experience, but that most of all he enjoyed staying with his host family and learning about the people and culture of Australia (years later Kevin would return as a professional skydiver, his love of 'down under' had made such an impression).

Like every High School Junior, Kevin began to seriously contemplate what he was going to do with his future. One of Kevin’s biggest strengths – and most maddening challenges – was that he was passionately interested in so many things. He had thoughts of becoming an engineer like his grandfather and uncle; a veterinarian; and my personal favorite, an Imagineer for Disney! This at once excited and frustrated Kevin. His father and I counseled him to relax a bit, begin college undeclared, and see what interested him once he was there. But Kevin has always been unusually driven by purpose and direction so having too many choices (normally a great problem to have!) was very hard on him.

One day, out of the blue (if there is a stronger word for “where on EARTH did this come from?” insert it here) Kevin came home and told us he’d been talking to an Army recruiter. This was very shortly after 9/11. I say this was out of the blue because we were not a military family, and had no first-hand knowledge of what this was all about. Thinking it was nothing more than a fascination with something he hadn’t explored before, my husband and I nodded our heads with an “uh huh – that’s interesting” sort of dismissal. A few weeks later Kevin declared that he was actually seriously thinking of joining the Army. He had done his research and had chosen the Army because of the sheer number of job choices he would have. He had taken the evaluation exam and had scored so high that he literally qualified for any job that was open. He became the proverbial kid in a candy store, exploring all of his options.

In the end, Kevin decided to forego the more glamorous choices and “get his boots dirty”. He wanted to earn his way up the ranks and feel like he was making a tangible difference in defending his country. So, our beautiful son – the intelligent, sensitive boy with a future in music or whatever he wanted – joined the Infantry. You can only imagine the shock! One thing with Kevin though; we could always be 100% confident that the decisions he made were made for the right reasons, whether or not they were the ones we would have made for him. Because of the kind of young man he had become, we had no choice but to admire and trust his decision and support him all the way.

I watched with sadness and quiet pride as Kevin was mercilessly persecuted for the choice he had made, all the time holding his head high and being respectful to those who differed. At that time, Kevin attended a high school in California where joining the military was tantamount to career suicide and a breach of the unspoken but very real “Harvard-or-bust” expectation. Even faculty members belittled his decision to join the military. 

The overt patriotism of post 9/11 had died down in California and was replaced with open condescension toward the military. One prominent politician even went on record in October 2006 saying that the military was "for college dropouts with no other options." Ironically, Kevin went on to receive the largest scholarship award in his graduating class of 500 students - then began his travels around the world to experience first-hand what others could only read about in books.
For the next four years, while his friends were at Harvard and other universities around the country Kevin served two terms in the Middle East and lived, worked and played in every European country imaginable. His newest hobby became photography, and he enjoyed many photo trips to the most beautiful churches and buildings in the world. At work, he was consistently commended for extraordinary courage and honor. He has literally, personally, saved many lives – one time jumping into a moving Bradley to stop it from colliding with several people at the bottom of a hill. He has alternately had the best time of his life, meeting people from all over the world, learning about culture, people and politics – and the most horrible.

Kevin’s friends have literally died in his arms. These were people Kev lived with, worked with and socialized with. These were his brothers.

People throw around the word “sacrifice” very freely. Just stop and think about the kind of sacrifice these men and women make every single day. They live in nightmarish conditions of extreme heat, bone-snapping cold, violent windstorms, dirt, disease, and misery. They have to work hard to conjure up thoughts of comfort, home and the people they love. And they live every day with the real knowledge that their brothers and sisters in combat, and they themselves, could die at any time.

I am stunned at the capacity of these very young people to fully internalize the risks they are taking. Yes, they are brave and strong, and on some level invincible. But they are also old, and wise, and know the score. These are men and women of purpose, who have devoted their lives to something they believe is right and good and true.

No matter your political or philosophical position, the story of the American Soldier is unchanged. If your son believed a bullet was going to hit you and jumped in front of it, would the character of that young man be any different if the gun turned out to be unloaded? The men and women serving us are literally living through hell itself because they believe that a bullet is headed our way and they have voluntarily stepped between it and us. Where else in society can this type of selfless courage be found?

These are not rag-tag, dead-end kids who had no other option than to join the military. These are our sons and daughters who live and love and believe in the dream that is America. They are smart, capable, talented, ambitious, driven people who – despite all stigmas – are the very best and brightest of us. So please, honor them. Pray for them. Admire them. And see them for who and what they really are.

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