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Coming Home: A Soldier Returns to a Family He Didn't Leave Behind (Part 1 of 4)

I greeted RJ's arrival with quiet trepidation, stuffing my own prejudices about this war, and any war, way down deep. I almost saluted when RJ came through the door for the first time.
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Part I: The Family

The cinematic images of the American soldier returning home from a difficult war are seared into our collective memories. Who can forget a tattered Leslie Howard staring mournfully at the ruins of Twelve Oaks after the Civil War; Harold Russell with hooks for hands walking shamefacedly up to his front door post-WWII or Robert de Niro as a skittish Vietnam vet passing by his welcome home reception to seclude himself in a motel? The narratives of Gone With the Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Deer Hunter ( devolve around the men who served, the women they loved and left behind, and the seismic changes in the world and their place in it. As they struggle to reconnect, the families hover in the background, quietly agonizing as their sons readjust to civilian life.

But what if the boy you're welcoming home is someone you haven't laid eyes on before?

My niece Camilla, a recent émigré to our home in LA, was a refugee from the Boston winters. Suddenly, her nocturnal crying jags and moody silences had an explanation: she had fallen in love with RJ, the not-quite-ex boyfriend of a college-mate. RJ had returned to Fort Carson after a year-long tour of duty in Iraq after the Army's lure of a bonus had failed to entice him to another round of the dirty, frightening ground war. Though he felt guilty about not sticking with his buddies, after a torrid start-up with Camilla and a whopping phone bill, RJ left Colorado and moved in with us too.

I greeted his arrival with quiet trepidation, stuffing my own prejudices about this war, and any war, way down deep. I am the mother of a pair of sons and stepmother to another two, none of whom has served in the armed forces. I don't necessarily say that proudly, just with some measure of relief. Though I have always considered myself a pacifist, I have a combative style that often gets in my way, and the boys are volatile too, my hair-trigger reactions having migrated to their buff, testosterone-laden bodies. Occasionally, in the blood sport of mother-baiting, they test my liberal bona fides with wildly pro-NRA hyperbole anchored by the second Amendment just to get the hot-button reaction they know they can evoke. But their images of combat are even more proscribed than mine, book ended by the flyboys in Top Gun and Alec Guinness's proud heroics in The Bridge Over the River Kwai -- and they were too young to register the frightening live combat feed when the Gulf War laid claim to CNN.

When my youngest was a high-school freshman, I discovered an Air Force video addressed to him as "Dr" in the mail; at the time, he was barely 16, neither old enough to serve nor get a medical degree. It turned out that he had seen an ad and requested a brochure; the Air Force had confused his query about their policy of paying for medical school and had targeted him instead as a doctor wanting to enlist. Which left me feeling queasy both about the reading-comprehension level of the U.S. Air Force and the writing clarity of my son, though thoroughly convinced of their desperation for any willing selective servicemen.

Or, I superstitiously imagined, maybe it was my long-dead father, the WWII ace, luring him from the control tower in the sky in a direction I most decidedly did not want him to go.

My father had been the captain and pilot of a B-24 based in Italy during WWII. "Off we go, into the wild, blue yonder," he crooned alternately with the Mills Brothers or Frank Sinatra when we picked him up at the train station and I would flash to thrilling images from Twelve O'Clock High or The High and the Mighty, (both in perpetual re-run on the Million Dollar Movie) that he'd watched with us over and over again, never seeming to tire of the simple plots (anybody versus the Germans or Japanese) or the heroism and derring-do of the debonair pilots.

Air force themes leached into our daily lives. When we picked desultorily at our brisket, he'd whoop, "Here comes the airplane," then make zooming noises as he looped the stringy meat into our mouths. Before he taught my brother how to fly, he taught him how to listen to the tower frequency from our local airport. As I did my homework, the beeps and squawks from the planes seeking guidance kept me nervously on alert to the capricious weather and the isolation of the pilots. In between practice pas de bourrees to Stravinsky in the living room, I would put on John Philip Sousa and march and pivot smartly the way he'd showed me, a little Jimmy Cagney from Yankee Doodle Dandy thrown in for good measure.

So I almost saluted when RJ came through the door for the first time, his solid, compact body and leftover buzz cut still shouting soldier to me. But we were all on our best behavior, especially me, carefully swallowing any inquisition along with the steaks I quickly added to our mostly French-Italian vegetarian cuisine. I sat at the dinner table making polite conversation, the I-marched-on-Washington-during-Vietnam leftie whose friends had all scrambled for medical deferments or low lottery numbers or dodged the draft in Europe and Canada. Not one person I knew served.

It wasn't until well after the Vietnam war had ended that I met a few vets, all of them four or five years older than I was, who had been in elite units of the armed forces. They were part of an early wave of young patriots recruited to Vietnam (like RJ was to Iraq) before the malignant nature of our involvement was known. One was a Green Beret who became the Marlboro Man and an ad genius; another was a Green Beret who went on to edit a major newsmagazine and become a well-known Hollywood screenwriter; a third was a Navy star and became an Oscar-winning filmmaker. These men were all virile, mannerly, talented and larger-than-life. Despite what I had previously thought of war (vile) and soldiers (stupid), I was attracted to them and thought maybe, like my father, they represented a special breed.

But they were light years away from young men like RJ whose father had abandoned the family when he was very young, who had grown up in economically precarious circumstances, and whose mother had developed cancer and who couldn't afford to continue his education. These were recruits who saw most things in shades of black or white, (sometimes literally) -- some of whom grew up with the inherited prejudices of narrow backgrounds and who weren't widely educated or traveled, sent to a place where there is nothing but shades of brown. Without financial resources, inductees like RJ have used the Army like my sons and their friends use university or law school or grad school: as a placeholder (albeit much more toxic) while they are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives.

For the entire time RJ is living with us, I bite my tongue. I treat him like the beloved stray dog that wanders into your life and you give over to the droopy ears and shaggy coat without caring about its precise antecedents. Once in a while he makes a reference to his service, and he patiently answers the boys' detailed questions about M4s, M9s and M240s. But it takes me a whole year to drum up the courage to ask RJ what I'm burning to know: what he actually was doing in Iraq.