Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Don't Do This Again!

The National Guard missed its 2004 recruitment quota of 56,000 – the first miss in a decade according to a recent story in the New York Times. The numbers were almost 7,000 short, so an effort to bolster the ranks is underway: “re-up” and receive a bonus of $15,000 tax-free! Sign to a six-year extension of your contract with the U.S. government, and you’ll receive enough money “to pay down debt, splurge on a vacation, buy a car, make a home down payment or cover education costs … .” You can be reasonably sure that reenlistment will include a 24-month repeat tour of duty to Afghanistan or Iraq. Some are signing up – some aren’t.

Am I bothered by this story? Oh, yes. Like many of the family members interviewed in the Times story, I “don’t much care for the Guard.” My daughter will be on the other side of the world, immersed in a military environment of controlled, highly mediated messages, and will have been there for more than a year when the campaign for her reenlistment will, in her case, reach its height. That’s not “fair play,” but it’s also nothing new.

I have two children in the Guard, one serving active duty and one on the wait list – both having enlisted with the Minnesota National Guard in response to what they then believed to be a civic duty. They didn’t enlist for the bonuses, weren’t interested in educational support – both were full-tuition scholars at the local university, and certainly didn’t join for the fun. Their enlistments were a matter of honor. I, along with them, expected no less show of integrity from the government with whom they enlisted to serve. I have been sorely disappointed, and find myself torn between the respect I have for my children, as well as for the men and women with whom they, serve yet am blazingly angry about the misleading and blatant breech of honor regularly practiced administratively.

Here are some examples: The $15,000 bonus – the one that looks so attractive as to immediately bolster recruitment numbers, well, that bonus will be paid in two installments not one. The soldier will receive half of the money after three years of the commitment has been served and the other half at the end of six years. Doesn’t look so attractive when the deal is laid out like that, does it? Furthermore, the six-year commitment to which you agree can, without any recourse, become an eight-year commitment simply by having a 24-month tour of duty to Afghanistan or Iraq initiating in the last months of your sixth year – exactly the situation for my daughter, Tommi. What’s more, there is no “bonus” pay for this type of extension to your contract. There is no draft in America?! Oh yes there is! But the pool of potential candidates is limited to those who currently or once did wear a uniform. All this doesn’t touch on the turmoil I feel for seeing the most economically disadvantaged among us most manipulated and deceived in the name of honor and patriotism.

Tommi, I love you. I am as proud as I can be for the service you give and the integrity with which you serve. Abe, you know I feel the same way about you and the work you do. Both of you know that I eagerly (and at times too boldly) extend the same appreciation to all those in military service. But kids, I don’t much care for the Guard, and I sure hope you don’t do this again.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

All the Way From Iraq

On Friday, February 18, I celebrated my 51st birthday. At 10:30 that morning flowers arrived "all the way from Iraq" (via the local FTD florist, Scott). An amazing daughter? Oh, yes, but there's more than a birthday wish in the gesture. Tommi is telling me what she knows: no adventure lived is easy and the days faced "stateside" present their own collection of challenges no less threatening for the way they can feel than those she faces on duty in Iraq. "Keep growing," she says. "I've got your back." Together is good stuff.

The card reads:

"I am with you always, my dear Mother! I love you tons. Here's a birthday wish all the way from Iraq. Your friend and daughter ... always. -Tommi"

Roses from Iraq

Thank you, Tommi. ... in so many ways. -mom

Friday, February 18, 2005

His Heart in His Eyes

heart in his eyes

Tommi works through translators in her day-in-day-out duty world. These men are her teachers in language, and though it may conflict with a rigid “mission focus,” they are becoming her friends. Wisam and Mustafa are brothers about whom I have gained release from Tommi to write, though she encourages me to exercise necessary precautions for the sake of their lives. “For the sake of their lives” is an idea still outside the reach of what I am really able to understand, but she uses the phrase so deliberately and so often that I have learned to respect the meaning with which she invests it.

Wisam is a university student hoping to complete his degree in electrical engineering within the year, continuing conflict being the determining factor. Mustafa finished his degree in EE last year. The brothers live in Baghdad and work for the Americans – they are at the gate each day alongside Tommi. She tells me of probing conversations – they wanting to know about her life at home and she interrogating the moral justifications of an American military presence in Iraq.

Tommi says of Wisam, “His heart is in his eyes,” and goes on to relate his stories as proof of a compassionate heart and a gentle spirit. I believe her when she speaks in this way – Tommi reads people like others read a good book. She sees in Wisam reflections of her brother, Abe, a man dedicated to the family he loves and truth as he understands it. And she tells me again, “His heart is in his eyes.”

Wisam wants to study in America, he says, and I imagine his aspiration underwrites the risk he is willing to take with his life each day. I read from River today that recent elections in Iraq have produced new lists of those targeted as wanted, and she adds “dead, not alive.”

At 9:30 this morning the instant message box opens on the screen in front of me, and the words “mom, mom, mom” shout for my attention. Of course every “mom” knows a moment like this, knows the catalog of considerations through which a mind rifles in preparation for the coming text. There is time enough only for a single “?” on the page before Tommi writes again: “Wisam wasn’t at work today.”

The (real)ities we live are so very different now, and “shared vocabulary” rarely carries common understanding. Tommi knows that a day of missed work means her friend could be dead, and the woman within the soldier wrestles with decision until at last she asks, “What do I do with all these feelings, Mom?”

It is difficult to pause in a moment like that, difficult to stop time long enough to know – to find an answer worth owning when the next moment comes. “Feel them,” I said. “Keep feeling them. Be wise, but don’t stop feeling.”

“I know,” she wrote after a pause of her own. “I won’t, but it’s hard. Pray for them, ok, Mom?”

Maybe an hour passes before I hear from Tommi again. Email has arrived to confirm the safety of the interpreter/brothers - friends. Her relief is evident, but she doesn’t talk much more about it. There are meetings to attend and reports to be filed. Life goes on.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

What Gigi Said

November 2004 brought first word that Tommi would deploy for Iraq. At the time we knew no more than the most basic of details, but of course that was enough. It was difficult news with less than a month to make all the necessary arrangements. I would fly home two weeks later for Christmas at Thanksgiving – Brad would buy the tree early, and all the decorating would be done by the time I arrived. In the meantime Tommi would be packing the last of her things into storage, suspending course work, and at the last moment, saying good-bye to her students. “Let’s keep this on the down-low,” she insisted. “Less drama is better.”

We find ways to cope – or are found by them. I found shelter in silence; days passed as if the “mute button” had been pushed and all of the sound of the world had been sucked away. I could see the noise of life around me, but none of it reached my ears – a curious numbing to be insulated in silence. I have pages of notes from hours of classes but don’t remember the professor talking. I know that I went to meetings, laughed with friends, and continued to earn my wage, but the sounds of being alive remained at a distance until Gigi.

It was a Thursday. We met for a cup of coffee that turned into a glass of wine and an hour and a half or two of conversation. Her son was in Iraq – or just back, I don’t remember, and we mourned that our children had been taken, would be taken – or we feared for them, or both. And we talked together or cried, and she took my hand across the table, and I held on for all I was worth as the roar – the glut of sound I’d refused for days – burst in on me, overtook me, and threatened to crush my heart. I choked with every effort to breathe and spoke, or tried to – I know I did, but whatever the words were, they don’t matter here. It was what Gigi said that marks the moment.

Calmly. Deliberately. “She’ll be ok, and you know it. You’ve given her everything she needs to make it through hell and back again if she has to. She’s your daughter, isn’t she, Mary? She’ll be fine.” Then, of course, she smiled through shared tears – Gigi would – and punctuated the certainty of her knowing words with an abbreviated nod of assurance.

Gigi’s right. Tommi is my daughter and as such coheir to a determined fortitude in survival. She’ll be fine. But Gigi’s words speak to more than one direction for me, and I’ve taken time in the last few days to consider the depth of strength from which I’ve drawn my being as I think of the women I come from. What my mother forever called “backbone” I call daring when I credit her investment in my life, and she was not alone. Before and with Phyllis in the work of building women were Julia, Esther, Lucille … Ruth, Alice, Mary, and Jane … Connie, Janeen, and Yvonne … and now Gigi. These are the women I come from; their spirits empower and enable my own, and there are more beside these – there are oh so many more. My list of heroes only begins here.

I use the word “heroes” because of the song that’s been playing in my head most of this week. I first heard this signature piece by Ann Reed when she played it in concert at Bemidji State University two years ago. It’s speaking to me again now. I include it here for you to enjoy! And Tommi, if you’re listening, this one’s for you. Add your name to my list of heroes today.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

At the Gate

While Tommi waited in Kuwait for transport into Iraq, I consoled myself believing her trips in and out of the country would be the most dangerous aspects of her deployment – once “behind the wire” she would be ok. A junior officer trained in military intelligence, she is an officer nonetheless and a female, all indications being that she would be assigned to grunt work for top brass deep inside the compound. Though tedious and too often demeaning, she would be a reliable distance from bullets or bombs. I rested in that belief, resolved to the difficulty of being without her but insulated against greater fears with a blanket of security that once again proved misleading.

Tommi, too, had anticipated a post in the “mayor cell,” the equivalent of a town hall for the community of 20,000 plus soldiers stationed there. Several days pass before she is able to tell me about her job, and when she does, I lose a day of my life just from knowing. Tommi is the officer in charge of initial access privileges; her duty post is a forty-by-eighty foot barricaded trailer at the front gate.

Please pause. Read that last sentence again. Can you feel the moment with me? Tommi is the only woman in her duty area, replacing a captain – a male six foot, five inches tall. She is in charge of pass security for Nationals employed by U.S. contractors engaged in the rebuilding process inside the wire. Her job is to issue passes, enact and approve security checks, and most significantly, detect and confront those attempting to scan falsified documents.

I had (almost) been ready for her deployment to Iraq; I had (almost) steeled myself to the unwelcome forecast of a two-year absence, but nothing could have prepared me for the realization of her work in that arena. I was not ready to know. I miss another meeting, am late to teach, and struggle to remember exactly what Burnett has written about images and the networked society. It takes more focus than I seem to have right now. My need for touch must show in some measure, and Wendy/friend/fellow graduate student stops what she is doing to meet it. I find my breath and begin again.

Tommi starts her day at 5:30 a.m., working ten and a half hour days, seven days a week – evening meetings are extra every other day. She oversees a staff of three and, together with them, processes in excess of 3,000 Nationals passing to and from work each day. A quick study, she is already a master in surveillance, able to instruct in the mutability of falsified documents at any moment from a pocket of fifty or more confiscated in a single day. Always a lover of language, Tommi is learning Arabic “like lightning,” she says. Assisted by translators, she is nonetheless the confronting officer when any effort is made to enter the base without access approval, a status requiring official Iraqi identification, pass validation, and a military escort.

She boasts of her work, and I’m glad to hear the strength and pride with which she is invested. “Ours in the most secure base in the arena,” she says. But I know security is a measured event, and my daughter is working the gate.

A U.S. dignitary pays a surprise visit to inspect training facilities at Tommi’s base – it’s Tommi’s base in my head now. “Nobody here even knew he was coming,” she says, “and eight minutes after his bird is on the ground, a bomb goes off two hundred and fifty meters from my post. We didn’t know he was coming, but they did. Nothing has ever pumped my stomach into my throat that fast, Mom.”

I didn’t ask if anyone was hurt. I didn’t want to know. …too much to know. …two hundred and fifty meters from the gate.

My daughter is working the gate.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Don't Worry, Mom. I'm Safe.

Just two days ago, after a Kuwaiti layover lasting nearly a month, I heard from Tommi for the first time from “in country.” A chance exchange of email found us on our computers at the same time, and only minutes passed before we were exchanging instant messages. She explained that outgoing troops were being jointly housed with incoming troops in both living and working quarters, making a phone call home the prize of a two-hour wait in line. We celebrated the connection we’d found, shared the “love-you”s and the “miss you”s that are a part of the package of having a soldier/child gone to war. And then we found one another on that frequency of friendship with which we both most define our relationship.

She tells me about where she lives – a dorm-like room she can decorate to her own liking, though she adds that she is “scrounging” the left-behinds of other soldiers in an effort to conserve funds. Top news is the air conditioning/heater unit installed by a couple of new friends – contractor types who mention mischievously in passing that they’ve left a surprise. “And you know what it was?” she says all in caps, “a remote control … for the air conditioner! … a remote control! Sweet.” Small celebrations give single moments long life. It's still winter there, she explains, and it's cold in the desert at night - hot in the day.

Then, tentative at first, Tommi eases into the meat of conversation, broaching the threshold of do or don’t say – should or shouldn’t tell me the parts of her world that will steal the comfort away from mine.

“They put extra deadbolt locks on my door before they left … for safety.” I furrow my brow and question the statement: For safety? where is her room? isn’t she on base? can Iraqi fighters get on base? “No,” she answers and pauses. The words on the page stand deadly still. “I need you to be ready to hear the things I’m going to say,” she says.

“Ok. I’m ready. What?”

The locks keep female soldiers protected from other U.S. troops. There haven’t been any recent incidents reported, she offers in assurance, but a significant number of reports in previous months have prompted female soldiers to take added precautions. Though Tommi hadn’t known, her contractor friends had acted on her behalf, and she wants me not to worry. She wants me to know she’s safe.

The screen between us mediates the sound of my voice, and Tommi believes me to be in command of my emotions, believes my responses crisp with confidence. I keep typing to belie my bewildered distress at the words I am reading from her. She has been trained. She is prepared to engage the enemy. Was she supposed to believe the enemy would be inside the gate? Confined to a post of over 20,000 people – so few of whom are women – on the other side of the world, and the whole point is … what? Tell me the answer is freedom. Go ahead and tell me that again.

And she says to the face on her screen, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m safe.”

Friday, February 11, 2005

When Tommi Needs to Talk

Right now it doesn’t matter that I’m in graduate school, that there’s another assignment due – always another assignment due, that there’s a class to teach or a meeting to get to … when Tommi needs to talk, I stop what I am doing and … talk.

Tommi is my daughter and a soldier recently deployed to service in Iraq (see previous post), an officer in military intelligence trained with the Minnesota National Guard. She’s been on post in the Baghdad area for a little more than a week now, and I find that, as she tells her story to me, there is a story of my own taking shape.

“I am …” admits a fascinating toss of ingredients when I give any thought to defining me in these days of my life: a doctoral student at fifty-one years – that in itself quite a story to tell, a long-distance wife, a mom of three (or more, depending on how you count), a daughter, a tennis partner, a friend, a counselor, an artist, a volunteer … but of course we all have a rack of hats demanding wear time – I know. As precariously balanced as those competing realities could be for me, I was nonetheless doing ok … until Tommi began to call from Baghdad.

The “call” is really an IM (instant messaging) connection, so there’s little room for multi-tasking – my attentions must be entirely commanded by our conversation. I don’t need to be told how lucky I am to hear from my daughter each day or to be reminded there are scores of parents across the U.S. and elsewhere who pass days and weeks with no more than conviction in faith that a call will sooner or later confirm their belief in the sustained well being of their child. In this sense I am blessed. I know she is alive.

In a different sense, however, an informed awareness of her other worldly experiences deprives me of an ability to “hide” from another kind of knowing. When Tommi calls, I listen to her, and I am forced to know what the circumstances of my own surroundings might otherwise have allowed me to forget. Suspending the knowledge of her reality in favor of an easier, numbing preoccupation with my own noisy days is no longer an option for me. In those moments I am her mom, her friend, and a single anchor for securing remembrance. I am a safe place for speaking away some of the weight of her day.

She asks if I can “take it.”

“If you can’t listen to what I’m going to tell you without freaking out,” she will say, “then I’ll tell you only what the rest of the folks tell their families… It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m safe. Everything is great.”

“No,” I say, “I can take it. I’m with you. I’m cool.”

What else would a mother say?

So here begins my/her/our story of a tour of duty in Iraq. I have Tommi’s permission to write the story for both of us, which I do as much for release as for record. Tommi is reading along and will comment from time to time. I expect to find her version/corrections/additions a fascinating aspect of the telling about to unfold. It may be of interest to mention that her brother, Abe – himself a National Guardsman, might also be persuaded to join the conversation along the way, adding a perspective outside the reach of either Tommi or me. Look for more frequent postings, the first of them tomorrow, as I catch you up to the beginnings. Until then…

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

An Open Letter to My Daughter Serving in Iraq


I just finished my reading assignment and I have to get in the shower or be late for class, but ... forget that ... late for class is better than not saying “hi” and “I love you” and “I am missing you right down to the bone just now” ... sometimes the missing you gets positively "fierce" but I wiggle through those moments remembering that you’re ok, telling myself you’re ok (mostly, I can remember that) and I get on with the business of my day – the next 75 pages and classes and teaching and growing ... I think of you being proud of me and I keep going ... I wear my orange sweater - the one we bought together on our last-chance-to-shop, "say goodbye"-for-two-years night ... I cry a bit, but not too long and not too much … I’m ok … I’m ok … I do my Estee skin care (blue-brown-purple-pink) and lavender eyes and mega lashes – making “girl looks” for both of us – or maybe just for me, and I imagine you are here, making plans for goin’ out tonight and feeling all proud you have a mom doin’ grad school at Purdue –makin’ life keep happening ...

My dear Daughter … I am so proud of you … what can I say? Making a human being is an amazing thing, really. First I make you, and then we make each other in wholly unexpected ways. …child, friend, confidant, honing stone (oh, yes), shelter, competitor, advisor, teacher … my own flesh in motion outside my body … which of these have we not been one to the other?

And now you are on the other side of the planet wearing a uniform that doesn’t really fit as much of you as has to wear it … and what can I say? Am I proud of you? By God I am, but come home soon … I’m keeping a place for you till you get here … I’m tying you down in this world ... keeping you connected to blue carpet and make up and mathematics and gossip and coffee at the Uptown and Fiona Apple piano music and photo albums and eight alarms you miss every day and it doesn’t matter when you come to think of it after all … and I miss you right down to the bone and … I’ve gotcha and there are so many "strings" attached to you, tying you to home that there is no chance at all I will lose you. Count on that, Kid! Lean into those words like a promise, like when we learned to climb rocks and a woman on the other end anchored the rope so we couldn’t fall – well, that’s me now and I gotcha … no worries, ok?

Love you always and always love you ... mom


Two months shy of fulfilling a six-year commitment to the Minnesota State Militia, Tommi was called to a two-year deployment in Iraq. She serves as she lives, with integrity, competence, and compassion.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

This Is What Fifty Looks Like

Throughout this year of celebrating fifty, I’ve received a fair share of inverted compliments, those surprised if well-intentioned remarks “You look so young for your age,” or “You sure don’t look fifty” – a lingering emphasis on the word “look,” and I’ve thought myself remarkably clever for responding, “This is what fifty looks like.” I’ve since discovered myself trumped by a number of commanding women who lay claim to those words before me. Urban legends most credit Gloria Steinem with first use, who, when told by reporters on her 50th birthday that she didn’t “… look fifty…,” responded, “This is what fifty looks like.” Others ascribe some turn of the phrase to Jane Fonda, Patti Scialfa, and Colette Dowling. I’m in good company.

Just a couple of days ago I struck up a conversation with Carol. Now, I don’t know Carol, and we’d never spoken before our paths crossed at the local auto-repair shop. I was getting the oil changed on a Ford Escort, and Carol was having a tune-up done on her “box truck.” That was the starting point – I’d never heard of a box truck before, and Carol was happy to describe her work. It turns out Carol had been driving truck for a little over eight years – semi for the most part and then, to keep her work closer to home and her 14-year-old daughter, the box-truck route she drives now.

Carol is a beautiful woman – tall, slender, with long, red hair and a comfortable confidence she wears like a pair of easy-fit Wranglers. I told her I’d been doing some thinking about what it “looks like” to be fifty, and she offered an answer of her own. “Hell,” she said, “it looks like whatever you want it to look like. This is what fifty-two looks like.” She stood and turned in a deliberate display of “Damn, I look good,” and we both laughed. I conceded, “You’re so right.”

Carol’s heading out to a “cowboy bar” this Friday and tells me I can come along if I want to. I plan on joining her there where, she assures me, "the line-dancing is the best in town." Before she left I told her about the weblog I was writing and that I thought I might write her in. She liked that idea but said she’d have to pass on the reading – “I don’t have a computer at home.”

No problem, Carol, I’ll give you a copy of the story on Friday.