They also serve

On the Fourth of July, remembering the forgotten military families

The Heivilins fly the American and Seabees flags at their home in Stirling City, as they await the return of their son, Gunnar.

The Heivilins fly the American and Seabees flags at their home in Stirling City, as they await the return of their son, Gunnar.

PHOTO ilustration by Tina Flynn

“What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world…”—Robert E. Lee, letter to his wife, 1864

“Freedom,” in the words of that oft-uttered cliché, “isn’t free,” but lots of us ain’t paying much for it these days, if those payments are measured in blood and sacrifice, or if you believe our freedom is being preserved by a 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, a medieval backwater made up of drug lords, feuding tribal factions, a largely illiterate population, a corrupt puppet government and broad swaths of Muslim religious zealots.

We’ve lost nearly 2,000 young men and women over there, the bulk of that loss occurring while President Obama has been commander in chief, inheriting a war that was supposed to have been about getting Osama bin Laden and driving out the Taliban who shielded him as he plotted the attacks on the World Trade Center nearly a dozen years ago.

The Taliban no longer hold power, of course, and bin Laden has been sleeping with the fishes for more than a year, but we’re still there, propping up President Hamid Karzai and still trying to train an army that, by all appearances, seems infinitely untrainable.

But does anyone really care anymore? An all-volunteer military allows the vast majority of us to tune out, especially since the news media barely bother to cover the soldiers, sailors and aviators who are mostly out of sight and out of mind, slogging it out in places most Americans couldn’t even find on a blank map of the world, fighting for ill-defined objectives most of us have decided aren’t worth the fighting, though we have no particular idea about how to make it stop. Instead, we make it go away by just not giving it much thought.

At a social gathering a few weeks ago, a guy I’ve met once or twice approached me rather diffidently, wondering if I’d be willing to write something about the young men and women in our all-volunteer army, that small fraction of Americans who do the fighting and dying in one or another of the wars we always seem to have going somewhere in the world.

The man’s name is Boyd Heivilin, and his son, Gunnar, is serving in Afghanistan, which means that in addition to the worries about bills and home repair and car troubles that plague the rest of us, he worries daily about whether the boy he watched grow up will make it to middle age.

Most of us barely have time to give lip service to military service, though the politicians are always quick to exploit that service to make themselves look good, as are the parade-day patriots who use them to bolster some political agenda or hobby horse they’re riding.

I called Boyd Heivilin a few days after that party where we’d spent a few moments shouting at one another above the music. Perhaps it is guilt that makes me seek out his concerns. I am no more inclined to think about those who serve than most Americans.

But, when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, Heivilin is upset just about every day. His son is on his first tour of duty in that benighted nation, but Boyd lost a nephew over there back in 2008, a loss that surely invigorates his worries about his son. It bothers him that the news media devote so little attention to the war.

“You have to watch either BBC World News or Channel 9 up here to hear much of anything anymore,” he said, with both frustration and sadness in his voice.

Heivilin lives in Stirling City, a tiny town where the son who was the focus of our conversation grew up. A disproportionate number of those who serve come from rural places where jobs are few and prospects for the future are, quite literally, out of reach, with local economies hit hardest by the depression we’re so reluctant to call by its proper name. But, though grim economic necessities may drive some of the volunteers, many more are driven by simple patriotism.

“My son is a Seabee, and he’s on the base where the president recently visited,” Heivilin told me. “I think I know more than I’m supposed to about what’s going on over there because Gunnar is serving in Afghanistan now.”

“When my nephew’s body was flown home,” he continued, “we went out to the airport [in Colorado] and picked it up, and there were vets following us on motorcycles. And people on the freeway would see the procession and pull over. They put their hands over their hearts in respect as the body passed.”

That memory from 2008 seems more and more like an anomaly.

“It’s like we’re forgetting the kids who are over there,” Heivilin said, “and I’d like to remind people that there are kids serving in Afghanistan even from places like Stirling City. In my family alone, we’ve got four people serving. It just seems like we should be behind ’em even more, and should remember what they’re doing.”

Heivilin spoke in a flat tone, but when he brought up the conditions he’d heard about, irritation crept into his voice.

“Even if they want a cookie between meals,” he said, “they’ve got to buy it. I don’t know how many are dying each week, but the BBC shows the faces of those who died each week, but you don’t see that on American channels. Their lives are on the line, but they have to shell out for soap and toothpaste and sheets. They can’t take stuff with ’em, so they have to buy. We send cookies and stuff, and they share a lot, but lots of these families can’t afford to send them things. And that just says to me, shame on us.”

In the face of that exploitation and neglect, the families mobilize to take up the slack.

“We’re going to have another drive on July 4th to send toothbrushes and toothpaste,” Heivilin said. “They can buy some of the stuff we send from the contracted vendors who sell stuff to them over there, but the guys who are out on patrol can’t get back in to buy it before it’s all gone. So the stuff we send is meant to fill those gaps.”

He paused, collecting his thoughts.

“I don’t know how to explain how I feel sometimes. I understand why we’re over there, and I understand a lot of what’s needed, but we’ve got things worth doing here at home, too, and I suppose that eventually we’re going to be in more wars, but I’ve heard rumors about guys over there working for private contractors making $600 a day. I don’t want to say something I can’t back up, but I keep hearing about people making in two days what the enlisted guys make in a month.” He sighed. “Something has to be done; I don’t know what.”

U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan hit a high-water mark of 101,000 in June 2011. Draw-downs have begun that will total a reduction of some 33,000 troops by the end of this year. That will still leave a lot of American families spending a lot of time worrying, and a lot of holidays in which a heavy sense of absence hangs over the dinner table.

As I listened to Boyd Heivilin express his frustrations, I could hear his wife in the background, reminding him of things he needed to tell me. Jerri Heivilin is Gunnar’s mom. As so many mothers do, she mostly keeps her worries to herself. But there was a writer on the phone with her husband, and this was her boy they were talking about. After awhile, I asked Boyd if I could speak to her, and he put her on.

“I think what we’re trying to mostly say,” she told me, “is that the only time we hear about our local boys is when one of them gets killed. They’re over there doing other things besides dying. And what they’re doing really matters, not what Kim Kardashian is wearing, or who she’s marrying.”

The Heivilins suggested I talk with Cassandra Null, a friend of their son whose husband, Adam, is also in Afghanistan, deployed there last January, just a few weeks after the couple exchanged their wedding vows.

I called Null a few days later, reaching her in Gulfport, Miss. She is, herself, on active duty in the Seabees. She’s also pregnant, with a child due in September. We talked for a half-hour or so.

The questions I asked Cassandra were innocuous enough, and her answers were direct, unguarded and mostly unremarkable, but there was something deeply touching in her innocence. She finished each sentence with “sir,” and it was clear that she had respect for and faith in older men and women in and out of the service. Some of those people control her fate, and her husband’s. Old enough to be her grandfather, I’m not quite as sure as she is that her faith in her elders is justified.

“I try to avoid the news,” she told me on the phone, “because if you hear anything, it’s always bad. I don’t know where my husband is, specifically, somewhere near Bagram, but he can’t tell me his exact location. But around the base here, I hear all kinds of rumors. A lot of my life is pretty much waiting for phone calls. Of course I worry. There’s not a second I’m not worrying about him.”

She is 21 years old.

“We just do what we got to do,” she told me. “We both have an understanding of what the military requires of us. From my perspective, we’re treated fairly.”

Every 18 hours, a U.S. soldier takes his or her own life. Military suicides are now claiming significantly more casualties than are being caused by enemies in the field. I asked Null about that, wondering whether it was a subject of conversation among those who serve.

“I see it, and I hear about it,” she responded. “It’s a problem, but the military is trying to deal with the problems. I know they’re trying to prevent the suicides. I do wish civilians did understand more of what we go through, and what we see over there. But the military is trying to deal with the problems.”

She was extravagantly grateful to know that a writer out in California had taken an interest in doing a story about people like her husband, and like her.

“I think it’s great that y’all are doing that,” she said. “All you hear is the bad that’s happening over there. I want people to know how much the support is appreciated. I understand that politics are politics, but we’re still over there, no matter what the politics are.”

Cassandra Null had just completed her training as a steel worker construction apprentice. Because she’s expecting a child, there’s no likelihood that she’ll be deployed to Afghanistan. So, part of her service is to simply wait.

“We have a baby on the way now,” she told me, “so we won’t be deployed together. I just got to Skype him for the first time yesterday. But mostly it’s just phone calls. They can’t have cameras where he’s usually located.”

And what about morale, I asked.

“You do one day at a time,” she said. “You have some people who don’t want to go, and who try to get out when they get orders, but the military is all kinds of people. You try to stay motivated.”

When the call ended, I wondered what had left me feeling so emotional. I don’t know Cassandra Null, don’t know Boyd Heivilin’s son, don’t really know anyone currently serving in the military. It might be that Cassandra Null had gotten me to thinking of my own mother, a 17-year-old girl cradling her infant son in her arms, enduring nightmares about Japanese soldiers with bayonets, and wondering if she’d ever see a husband she barely had time to know, a young father on a destroyer escort some five thousand miles away in a place where people were trying to kill him almost every day.

Or maybe Cassandra Null reminded me of a student in one of my classes at Butte College on the eve of the war in Iraq. That girl’s name was Aimie, and her husband, too, was a soldier, among the first to enter the country after the “shock and awe” bombardment that kicked off that criminally misguided war.

Aimie was 19 then, a young mother. I’ve lost track of her entirely since then, so I don’t know if she’s still married to that young soldier. I don’t know if he survived Iraq to soldier on in Afghanistan, and I don’t know if that young woman’s child got to spend much time with her daddy. I don’t know if the years since then have been kind to Aimie, who would now be in her early 30s.

But here is some of what I wrote about Aimie back in 2003:

Aimie is going to miss class today, though Aimie is never absent. She’s a tall girl with an open face, and she’s seldom without a smile. Even this morning, she offers one, though she tells me she’ll be absent because her baby is sick and she’s managed to get an appointment with the doctor, an appointment that conflicts with my class.

She apologizes profusely for the upcoming absence, and tells me she is worried she may have to miss the next class meeting as well.

“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “Our kids come first.”

I can see a flicker of stress leave her face. Her daughter is nearly a year old. Her husband, she tells me, is in Iraq.

“In Iraq?” I say, puzzled, because the invasion has not yet begun.

“Well, not in Iraq exactly,” she says. “Not yet, anyway. But you know, over there.”

The clouds of war have hung heavy over this entire semester, but now those clouds are low overhead. Aimie’s husband, the father of her baby, puts the coming storm on local radar, and I can see clearly that it’s going to rain here, too, not just with heightened terror alerts and spiraling budget deficits and global tensions. Here, in the brave and smiling face of this young mother, is the war in Iraq embodied in flesh—hers, her husband’s, and her new baby girl’s.

Aimie’s sick baby has been enlisted in the war Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld started, and Congress approved. Across the nation, young people like Aimie carry on while waiting for the next thing to happen. They do housework and homework, and take sick babies to the doctor.

“Our kids must come first,” I’d told Aimie, and she’d said, “That’s very true.” I wish I had confidence that the men who launch the wars were more mindful of the babies. And their mothers.

That was what I wrote nearly a decade ago. Some of the young men and women who were in 4th and 5th grade when Aimee’s husband went to war are now at war themselves, putting all their parents’ hopes and dreams at risk.

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton wrote those words a very long time ago, and I first read them when I was actively protesting my own generation’s war in Vietnam, but the thought kept demanding inclusion in this piece. I kept thinking of the worried parents who serve the nation each day as they stand and wait, or lie abed at night, waiting out the limbo they occupy in which a phone call might bring them the worst news a parent can ever hear. My sympathies are with them, even as I am relieved that I am not one of them, waiting by the phone for news from far away.

“What if they gave a war and nobody came,” was one of the anti-war slogans that could be seen in the massive anti-war marches so many of us marched in when our own butts were on the line. But if we were to draft a slogan that would fit the zeitgeist now, that slogan would be closer to “what if they gave a war and nobody gave a shit.”

These days, most of us don’t have to expend much thought or energy on our nation’s wars. They are far away, the dead come home quietly, and the wounded are cloistered in VA hospitals, doing years of grueling rehab in order to wrest back a bit of normal life from the horrendous wounds they managed to survive.

As Rachel Maddow points out in her best-selling book, Drift, the creation of an all-volunteer army has made it easier for politicians to engage in dubious foreign adventures, allowing a very few Americans to bear the burden of those conflicts while the rest of us blithely ignore what’s going on, even on weekends meant to remind us of who we are as a people.

So, on the Fourth of July, we ate the hotdogs, drank the beer, slathered on the suntan lotion, watched the fireworks, but it was all largely an abstraction, and it mostly didn’t involve much thinking about people like Boyd Heivilin and his son or Cassandra Null and her husband. Unless we’re waiting by the phone in hopes of a call from one of our own, it’s likely we didn’t think of those people at all.

In a 2007 interview, comedian Chris Rock talked about a cousin who was about to leave for a second tour of duty in Iraq. “There’s nothing sadder,” he said, “than having that ‘hey, hope you don’t die’ party before someone goes off to war. That’s basically what it is: ‘Please don’t die. I’m going to send you stuff. Hope you don’t die. Come back.’”