FOREWORD BY JIM FREDERICKOn March 15, 2010, I received an email from someone named Sue Diaz. I did not know Sue Diaz, but during that spring, it was not uncommon for me to get mail from strangers. About a month earlier, I had published a book called Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent Into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death. As the subtitle indicates, it was a rather blunt look at a particularly brutal subject: The 2005-2006 deployment of one company of soldiers —Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division—to perhaps Iraq's most dangerous region at arguably its most dangerous time. The Triangle of Death, which was about 20 miles south of Baghdad, served up daily doses of carnage to the 135 men of Bravo Company. Bravo's 1st Platoon suffered a particularly high death toll and a breakdown in leadership that led to an epidemic of poor discipline and unsoldierly conduct. Such bad behavior would, among some men of the platoon, spiral and intensify, culminating in an unspeakable atrocity. Four 1st Platoon soldiers would go on to commit one of the worst crimes of the war: the rape of a 14 year-old Iraq girl and the murder of her, her parents and her six year-old sister. Despite the undeniably unsavory subject matter, I tried throughout my research and writing to maintain what Norman Mailer called a "severe compassion" for everyone in the unit and all the Iraqis that they encountered. Without excusing such a brutal crime, I tried to understand the how the unthinkable actually happens.
In the weeks following publication, the book received several favorable reviews and was embraced by a wide range of civilian and military readers (including many members of Bravo, and the other companies of the 1-502nd Infantry Regiment). I started receiving emails from readers who said they were touched by the book. I was always flattered and gratified when I received feedback, but especially when it came from the men of Bravo, their wives or their family members. Those were the readers who meant the most to me. Sue Diaz was, I thought, one such correspondent. The subject line of her email, after all, said, "Message from mother of soldier in Black Hearts." Before clicking the message open, I had already recognized her last name. She must be, I thought, the mother of Sergeant Roman Diaz, whom I had interviewed during my research and who makes a few small but unambiguously positive appearances in my book, brief glimpses of combat heroism, short but clear-eyed quotes about the untenable nature of the whole company's situation, fleeting but strong impressions that if the platoon were filled with more guys like Roman Diaz, things might not have ended so badly.
But the content of Sue Diaz's message was quite different than most of the moms who had written me. "You and I share a connection," she wrote. What she meant by that, she went on to explain, was that we were both journalists (me, for TIME; her, for the Christian Science Monitor) and we had both written books about the Black Heart Brigade. Mine was already out, obviously, but hers had yet to be published. Would I read it, she wanted to know?
I did. And I am glad I did. I sat down to read it on a Sunday afternoon, and I did not put it down until I had finished it. Not quite a memoir, not quite a collection of essays, Minefields of the Heart is like a scrapbook, exactly like the boxes filled with newspaper clippings, photos, report cards, childhood drawings and other milestones of a life—boxes filled with memories—that form one of the earliest and most enduring metaphors of the book. To call it a "scrapbook," however, is not to suggest that it is not finely written. Minefields of the Heart is very finely written, which is why I kept turning page after page after page. Because a mother's love is so overpowering, so singular in its focus, I had half-feared that this book would be a morass of melodrama. But Sue Diaz is a disciplined and careful writer and this, ultimately, is where the power of her book comes from. She is spare where most writers would be mawkish, she is understated where most writers would be sentimental, and she understands that life, death, war, grief, gratitude and the loss of innocence—hers, and her son's—need no baroque writerly adornments. The truly great and terrible stuff of life is most dramatic when told as simply and plainly as possible. Over the course of her book, due to Sue Diaz's finely tuned "severe compassion," the reader comes to know not just Roman, but the whole Diaz family and how they all aged and matured both during and after Roman's two harrowing deployments.
Sue Diaz was right. We do share a connection. In some ways, our books are oddly complementary. My book tells the story of a year-long deployment of an entire infantry company. Eighty-three soldiers are mentioned by name. And, quite consciously, I located almost all of the action of Black Hearts, geographically and psychologically, in Iraq. I pay almost no attention to the soldiers' families or home lives—or even their thoughts of home. In framing my book that way, I aimed to emphasize just how far away the very idea of home is, just how alien a warzone is, just how distant the notions of kin and kindness and love and familiarity are when men are engaged in combat for prolonged periods of time. My book purposely shut out the home front.
Minefields of the Heart, on the other hand, is all told from the home front. It is all about what goes in a mother's and a family's life when a family member goes to war. I was fascinated—and touched, frequently to the point of tears—to see the life story of Roman Diaz (whom I had only known as Sergeant Roman Diaz, soldier and veteran) unfold in this carefully curated collection of his mother's memories. By focusing on the intensely personal and specific—the silly name Roman gave his turtle, the way he surprised his family by joining the Army at all (let alone the infantry), and his quiet selflessness (such as when he insisted his family charge a nice dinner out on him even as he was deep in a war zone)—Sue Diaz has managed to make her family's plight both unique and universal. Her work is a window into the ordeal that every service member's loved ones endure, with every deployment, and for that, she has done us a great service by making their sacrifices palpable.