Monday, June 2, 2008

All quiet on the home front


"War - I know it well, and the butchery of men
Well I know. . .”
Homer, The Iliad

Houston, Texas -- This first day of June 2008 is turning out to be a real scorcher. It’s just past noon, and the temperature’s at 94 degrees with a heat index of 101. In spite of the hot day we’re having, I head out to Memorial Park for my Sunday afternoon walk on the mountain bike trails that meander through a lush green and densely vegetated forest featuring giant loblolly pines and massive water oaks.

In a city the size of Houston, it is good to have a place such as this. As soon as I step into the forest, the canopy erases any sense of being in a large metropolitan area. It isn’t too long before you find yourself taken in by the smell of pine and magnolia. Aside from the physical benefits of a five mile hike, it is also good to have a place for wrestling with any particular angst you may be experiencing, which, in my case, I have been experiencing a lot lately.

It’s been one year since my son was deployed to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Division. He’s a paratrooper assigned to 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry. Since “Operation Rock Avalanche,” last October, his unit has made its home at Firebase Restrepo in the Korengal Valley; an outpost built on a mountain outcropping, “rockbag” by “rockbag.” It was named in honor of Army medic Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who was killed by small arms fire after his unit came under attack by the Taliban.

In an article that appeared in the January 2008 issue of “Vanity Fair,” Sebastian Junger wrote: “The Korengal is widely considered to be the most dangerous valley in northeastern Afghanistan, and Second Platoon is considered the tip of the spear for the American forces there.”

Certainly his time over there has not been easy for him or the men he serves with, but they have handled the situations they’ve had to face remarkably well, especially the cold winter months they had to endure. But with the generous donations they received from friends, family, and the community of Belfast, Maine that adopted the 173rd, they had an ample supply of tuna, beef jerky, hand warmers, arctic socks, and thermal underwear that made being out in the cold a little easier to take.

When I asked my son in an email how he was holding up to the weather, I got a response that was the best possible assurance he could give me that he was going to be just fine: “I don’t think I’ve ever been this cold before. It got down to -5 or so. And you know it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been in -degree weather; after all, it got to -30 once in Maine. But I was never like, hmm, let’s go . . . sleep outside in it.” And sleep outside in it they did through three long months of sub-freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.

When my son was here on leave last month, you never got any sense from him that he had been through one hell of an ordeal. It was so good to finally see him. Running around for whole a year carrying 80 to 100 pounds of weapons, ammo, and other equipment has put muscles on him that make young women fawn into long stares whenever he walks into a bar or nightclub. We spent one night in Austin to take in the “blues scene” and I had just as much fun watching the young ladies clamoring around him as I did listening to the music.

Needless to say, I will be glad when he is finally home safe and sound. It has been hard not to worry about him. I try to assure myself constantly that he will be OK but even still, it is not a particularly easy thing to do. That quintessential “What if?” always seems to linger in the back of my mind.

While leaning against a giant pine overlooking the meandering water of the Buffalo Bayou, it occurs to me just how scarred to death I’ve been these past several months that something terrible might happen to him. And even though I felt relived when he was here on leave, I have started to feel anxious again knowing that he’s back in the thick of it, and has three hard months left to go.

Sometimes I chide myself for even thinking such thoughts, but the truth is I really don’t know how I would react should I ever become the parent who comes home to find two Army soldiers waiting for him at his doorstep. I can only imagine the pain and grief a parent experiences over the loss of a son or daughter killed in action. I cannot say what that experience would be for me. It is one I hope I never have.

Even though it is a sultry hot afternoon, the shade from the trees towering above, with a slight, constant breeze, makes for a comfortable walk along the trial that runs along the bank of the bayou. I reflect back on a letter he had written to his grandmother that he shared with me. In describing his experience in the Korengal, he said:

There's no other time in your life
that you will feel as alive as you do
in the seconds that you are in a real
firefight. There is no comparing it.
Jumping out of a plane is one thing:
you face the probability of death with
a certainty of success. Success is not
guaranteed in the Korengal. Everyone
wears the same face; everyone gets the
same feelings. We all are aware that
every bullet has a final destination.

Spoken like a true warrior with keen insight and understanding of the reality he has to contend with each and everyday.

As I head back to my car, I reminisce on my experiences I had with him during his childhood. Among my favorites was the time when he was three years old during the Christmas of 1989. We had just finished decorating the outside of the house with blue Christmas lights. He liked the effect so much that he wanted to camp outside in front of the lights. And so I pitched the tent, piled in lots of blankets and rolled out the sleeping bags. It was a cold night, but not anywhere near as frigid as were the long winter nights he experienced in Afghanistan.

It is good to spend time out here in the woods. I especially like how the mid-afternoon sun filters down from the tops of the trees, enhancing the lushness of the undergrowth. As I walk out from under the canopy, I am greeted by a blast of hot air from the parking lot. “He’ll be just fine” I say to myself. “He’ll be just fine.”

By S L Cunningham

Published in The Waldo Independent, 6 June 2008

14 comments:

mojo shivers said...

There's nothing like getting back into the world to find out what's important to you in the world.

S L Cunningham said...

Mojo,

Hadn't quite thought of it that way. But you're right about that. Thanks for sharing.

Scot

Lorna said...

Funny how the peace of the woods brings out the things we're most caught up in---I love walking and thinking and finding a truth I'd just been poking at for a while...

Roberta S said...

scot, these are such sobering thoughts yet woven in between are things achingly beautiful.

I was particularly struck by your son's letter to his grandmother. A letter that spells 'courage' in a way few understand.

I would say more, but how can I? Angst, I understand, but not the depth and breadth of it for those in the midst of the battle and the loved ones that must wait for their return.

S L Cunningham said...

Lorna,
Getting out in the woods for a long hike has always been about the best form of meditation for me. And you are so right in saying "it brings out the things we're caught up in. . ." It is by "bringing it out" that we create context for the issues we are dealing with in our lives.

Thanks for coming by,
Scot

S L Cunningham said...

Roberta,
Appreciate your thoughtful comment. When I served in the Marines during Vietnam, I could never understand why my mother always seemed so worried about me. Now I know.
Scot

Deborah said...

As a parent, your post touched me in so many ways, especially the imagery of two Army soldiers meeting you on your doorstep and how the Army has changed your son. Keep thinking positive thoughts. He'll make it home.

S L Cunningham said...

Thanks, Deborah,

Appreciate your thoughtful comment and encouragement.

Scot

elpound said...

Just discovered this article through an online search of the 173rd. This is hearfelt and poignant. Enjoyed reading.

pia said...

I'm not a parent but can too easily imagine the pride and anguish you feel.

Your son's letter to his grandmother was wonderful

May he come home soon safe and sound and you continue to find solace and peace in the bike trails

You moved to a large city. I moved from a large one, but every day when I walk to the beach I know how right it was for me

S L Cunningham said...

elpound,
Always good to see a first time visitor. Appreciate you taking the time to comment.

Pia,

Thanks for coming by. Florida can grow on you pretty quick. I used to live in Cocoa Beach a while back. Appreciate your thoughtfulness.
Scot

Anonymous said...

Sir-

Wanted to let you know that I enjoyed reading your words and feeling your emotions.

I too understand it, and likely better than yourself--I was your son's Company Commander there.

He is a great young man and will do wonders in life. I thoroughly enjoy his company--which is likely the complete opposite from what he would say about me.

Please know that your son is a true warrior and hero, and you should be very proud of how he has turned out.

CPT Kearney

S L Cunningham said...

CPT Kearney,

I am honored by your comment, and I appreciate your praise of my son. From what he has said about his experience serving under you, I can assure you he has expressed nothing but the highest regard for your leadership.

Sincerely,


Scot Cunningham

Anonymous said...

Thanks Dad, You know you should have prayed for the taliban instead, they need it ; )

I love you.

CPT Kearney... Absolutely not true, I enjoyed every minute as much as you did.

-Battle 6R Actual