Last Wednesday night I sat in a packed auditorium with my husband and daughter, watching the students of the JROTC receive their annual awards. My son, my small, skinny, sweet little son sat with the other JROTC students, standing only when his name was called. He got an Academic award, as well as some chevrons that go on his shoulders that I still do not fully understand. Unsurprisingly, I was so proud I nearly burst.
I will also admit that I teared up just a tiny bit when the veterans took the stage and led the crowd in the pledges and prayers that typically accompany such a ceremony. I haven't had an occasion to put my hand over my heart and pledge my loyalty to my country in quite some time. It felt good. It felt right. It felt very positive.
That night my son casually mentioned, again, that he might like to change his track in school to JROTC instead of the college track that he's currently on (emphasis on history). I told him that the intent of the "track" that you select is to prepare you for whatever you plan to do after high school. I then asked him, "Are you seriously contemplating a military career?".
He said maybe.
I will now admit that every patriotic feeling I had during that ceremony only a few hours before fell into my heart and then fell further into my feet. I felt like I was going to puke. None of this felt very positive anymore.
I don't want my son to join the military.
There. I admit it.
I love my country. I support our troops. I have absolutely nothing but the deepest respect for the brave men and women who fight and who have fought for my freedom. My dad is a Vietnam veteran. Other family members have served. Some of my best friends are in, or have been in, the military. I dated a military man and while he was a huge dick, I honestly don't hold it against other service members.
I don't want my son to join the military.
Because he's my son. My son. My only, only son. Even if he weren't my only son, there would never, ever be another boy like him. There is no one else on this planet that makes me laugh the way he does. There is no one in this world who is smart the way he is, no one who is kind just like him. He is incredibly precious. He is my baby. My skinny, little, just as tall as his mama, size 11.5 feet baby. I cannot imagine my baby in harms way.
I know all moms feel this way. I know this. I know every single mom who sends her son or daughter off to the military has these same feelings. I know that every mom thinks "My son is precious. There is no one on this planet like my boy." I know this. I know I'm not alone. I know that no one, no one ever, wants their child in harms way. I know that, God forbid, my child could be killed in an auto accident, could fall ill with some horrible disease, could just slip out of my hands for any number of reasons. Not joining the military won't necessarily keep him safe. I know all this.
The other part of this that I know? Is my dad.
My dad, the Vietnam veteran. The Vietnam veteran I am extremely, extremely proud of.
I say that I know this, that I know my dad, but I only know part of the story. I don't know that I will ever be able to piece together the puzzle that is my dad. I don't know if he can either.
Of course I did not know him before he went to Vietnam, in 1969. He was nineteen.
I cannot even begin to pretend I know what my dad went through. I cannot imagine the things he saw. The things he smelled. What he felt. What he had to live through, when he was only four years older than my little boy. He was just a boy himself, from the coal fields of Virginia. I cannot imagine zipping up a body bag on a friend. I cannot imagine not knowing if you would ever come home to your wife and the baby you hadn't met.
It's been forty-four years. He's still living with this. He's still dealing with this. He still jumps when a loud noise occurs, he still watches every plane that flies over his head. Part of my daddy is still there, in those jungles. I never got to have that part of him. My brother didn't. My sisters didn't. I'm irrationally angry and sad that I never got to have my whole dad because of this horrible war. He worked so hard, still works too much really, and could never escape that horror. That even as a very young child, I knew that I could not ask about his experience. He never, ever talked about it. That he's good and kind and wonderful, and he has to suffer. Every. Single. Day.
As a child I looked at his pictures from Vietnam. There were so many of the children. Little Vietnamese boys and girls who would gather around him, wearing little hats like I'd never seen before in East Tennessee. I remember being maybe eight years old and reading magazines at my grandmother's house. She kept everything, forever, and the magazines were old. There was an advertisement in one of the magazines which for some reason talked about the little Vietnamese children who carried pen bombs into the crowds of soldiers. I don't remember, at all, what the ad was actually for. For weeks I dreamed of those children. I wondered if any of them had exploded. I wondered if my dad was just lucky. If any of those children in those pictures had ever tried to blow my daddy up.
I knew it was horrible. I didn't understand how horrible it was. Still don't. I watched the movie Platoon when I was about twenty-five and I called my dad, in horror, and asked him if this was real, asked him if this was what it was really like. He paused for a long moment and told me yes. It was. I couldn't get that movie out of my head for weeks. For months. I still think about it sometimes.
It's nothing compared to what is in his head.
I don't want that for my son. I don't want my son to hurt. I don't want him to suffer. I don't want him to be afraid.
I know I can't shield him from everything. I know this.
Am I a horrible person for wanting to shield him from this?