"A Soldier's Silence"March, 2006
"So, what do you hear from Roman?" Mary asked, as friends and family often did, more than ever after our son's Christmastime brush with an IED. My answer was always the same. "Not much," I'd tell them, with a shake of my head and a helpless shrug. "Since that day in December, not much."
That's not the way it was during Roman's previous deployment. Old-fashioned letter-writing had never been his thing, but the first time he was in Iraq, his dad and I "chatted" often with him online via instant messaging, sometimes for hours at a stretch. We joked that our son talked to us more in the months he was in Baghdad, than he did all through high school. During those online conversations Roman schooled me then in the shorthand of that new form of real-time communication. "BRB" for "be right back." The letters "OIC" for "Oh, I see." That phrase became a favorite of ours, typed in response to questions about everything from the weather in Baghdad to, occasionally, the political climate – there and here. Our conversations, for the most part though, were chatty and light.
That's not to say Roman's initial fifteen months in the Sunni Triangle were easy. No one's time in Iraq is easy – not by a long shot. But in light of "that day in December" and the region's escalating violence and instability, Roman's first deployment was beginning to look like a march in the park. I continued to drop a card or a letter in the mail to him a couple times a week, along with an occasional care package. But the only communication we had had from his end in the months since Christmas had been a brief phone call with a bad connection, two short e-mails (one about his bank statement), and a late-night conversation with his dad on Instant Messenger. My husband initiated it when he noticed on his computer screen that Roman had signed in online.
"Is that you, Roman?" he typed, clicked, then waited for an answer.
Finally it came. "Hey! What's up, Pops!"
"How are you, Roman?"
"Eh, I'm alright. How are you?"
Their "hellos" behind them, a few lines later my husband asked, "Do you want or need anything from over here?"
"No, I'm good."
"How about some chicharrones or pickled pigs feet?" (Convinced, apparently, that the way to a soldier's heart is through an eclectic assortment of pork-based snack foods.)
"No, really, Dad. I'm good."
"Need any extra armor?"
"No. It's going to warm up soon."
And so it went. A fatherly offer here, a quick "no" there. Interspersed with small bits of small talk about the Olympics, rumors of a recent troop visit by Jessica Simpson, and at the end, a sudden, "Dad, I gotta go."
The next morning my husband shared with me their conversation, and coupled with Roman's silence in recent months, the gist of it all seemed to me to be, "Mom, Dad. For your sake and for mine right now, don't love me so much."
I didn't really understand what his reticence meant, but I wanted to try. The Web was as good a place as any to begin. On one site I read about the psychological aspects of combat. It described "psychic numbing as a defense mechanism and an aid to survival for the soldier." Another noted, "If troops think too much about emotional issues in combat situations, it could undermine their effectiveness in battle."
I closed my eyes and saw my son's face. He didn't return my gaze. Of course not. How could he, when he stared down death every day he was over there? I pictured him heading out on another mission, no glance backwards, at me, or anyone or anything he loves, or wants. There was nothing, nothing I could do, but whisper a prayer that he would come back. Lt. Col. Jerry Powell, an Army chaplain for eighteen years, veteran of Iraq, and cyber-friend of mine, explained something else. "Soldiers do not have the ability to describe the events because the activity is so visceral," he told me in an e-mail. "They are able to share the experiences with one another only by looks, tears, hugs, and the inevitable Army grunt. To convey the same emotions and thoughts to parents is just not possible. The only alternative is silence.
"When I called home during my deployment," Lieutenant Colonel Powell continued, "the sound of my wife's voice on the other end caused such a lump in my throat I could not speak for a moment. I could only squeak out, 'Hi' and let her talk until I composed myself. I blamed the phone connection when she asked if I was there and could I hear her, when the real problem was I was wrecked by a simple, 'Hello.' "
And as for what we here at home could do, Powell offered this, "I think that sending funny cards is very healing. Comedy DVDs are a good idea as well. All the squad has seen all the war movies ever made. What they probably need is laughter late at night when the world goes quiet."
Later, still turning over in my mind the chaplain's words, I recalled the instant messaging phrase Roman taught me back when conversation between us came easier and more often. "OIC," I heard myself sigh, scanning the sale bins at Blockbuster for Ferris Bueller's Day Off.