My mind sometimes takes me back to a small dining room on an American base in Germany during the Cold War where I watch my father take apart his pistols. He lays the pieces out on a cloth like treasured items and sticks out his tongue as he concentrates, lost in the world of war preparation. While I sit next to him doing my arithmetic, subtracting and multiplying for practice, he wipes each metal section with an oiled piece of flannel, holds them up to the light. I don’t think anything of it because all the dads I know do this. They all wear olive drab t-shirts and old fatigues when they’re home, a starched khaki uniform when they go to work. They all have tattoos on their arms that speak of old battles and tell stories that aren’t meant just for entertainment. They all salute the flag every night at five when the flag is lowered on base and “Taps” can be heard across the fortress.
The mothers I know stand nearby at a kitchen sink doing dishes or potting a new plant or making grocery lists for the Commissary. They sit together in the afternoons drinking coffee and considering what future plans the commander might have. They talk about what’s new in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, or how far away home feels. I am in the middle of these two different lives, pulled each way like a piece of chicken being shared with my sisters. My father’s work, we know, is important. The message, the one that no one admits out loud, is that he is going to leave us. Soon. He will walk out the door any minute when the commander calls. Usually in the middle of the night, without explanation. We dependents live on alert for this mobilization, and it invades our lives as surely as my father’s weapon collection in his bedroom closet.
My mother’s life tiptoed around his as she sewed on his military patches when he got promoted and then ripped them off stitch by tiny stitch when he got demoted for a drunken crash or a bar fight. He had the authority in our family. But really the Army had the final authority over us. They could ask anything of my father, and we would all have no choice but to go along with the plan. My mother was at the bottom of this pile, the last one able to make a request. Her life reflected that in every way I knew.
There was drink, which was plenty in the military. Cheap and available. Though she didn’t drink for the longest time, eventually she said yes in order to join the rest of them on Saturday nights at the Enlisted Men’s Club. She might as well have said goodbye right then, because she fell down a rabbit hole and never returned the same. Meanwhile, another war began beyond the Cold War, and my father was off and running to Viet Nam while she waited for a letter, waited for a check, waited for us to fall asleep.
Her loneliness grew larger with each month he was away, each tour of duty he had to take. At some point we moved to southern Illinois to be near her family. He came back a different person. We moved back to Fort Bragg. He left again. And going to a new school felt like a scary roller coaster ride. What happened in those months away was predictable, though at the same time defied explanation. She drank more. He fought more and saw things no one should witness.
Then he died, or rather I must write: then he was killed. A sacrifice for the cause. A cause the whole country still hasn’t addressed fully. All those bumper stickers I see now on cars saying to support the troops confuse me. Who are the troops? My father used to call us his troops, as in “come on troops, it’s time to eat.” Do those stickers or flags mean support the military families too? What would that support look like? Who would give it? Are the stickers there to cover over the guilt from that now old war in the sixties, to say I am sorry for having rejected those soldiers, for having stigmatized their families, sorry for having played a part in a polarized climate? Is it a way to forget that blood is on all of our hands? Or is it simply the American thing to do right now?
Nothing has changed. That’s the truth. Those in charge make cold decisions that don’t consider family and use human capital for their own desires. None of this is new. People have been telling these stories since Odysseus and Achilles. Characters and whole countries have been undone by war. We know about the desire for revenge and glory. We think we know about the intoxication of battle. We recognize amputees and those exhausted from prolonged fighting, these outside wounds of war. But we have still not, after all these centuries, dealt with the inside wounds or considered the families of our soldiers. The invisible turns home into battlegrounds and destroys the romance between man and woman. These details never make it to history books.
Just recently I met a young soldier just back from Afghanistan. He walked into my friend’s kitchen to see her son. The two of them could not look more different. For starters, Buddhist amulets hung around the son’s neck, while dog tags hung around the soldier’s. One attempts peace for a living, the other fights for a living. Still, they are good friends. When the young soldier, Joe, spoke about his time in Afghanistan after pulling up a chair and opening a beer, I was pulled in. He is a sergeant with the 101st—a unit my father was once in—stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky—the base where I was born. He has a baby daughter named Abigail, another one on the way.
Already I had one foot back in that room where my father and his buddies become strangers to me as the spigot of war turns on and my father gets drunk, playing with his weapon like a toy, recalling moments he never forgets. I am in the same room with photographs of dead soldiers, doors slamming, and shouts of rage between my parents so that none of us can sleep or feel safe.
Joe is quickly on a rant. Something raw and wound tight inside him shows up in that kitchen and spills itself across the linoleum floor. Tension hammers away like an ancient drum. He stands up, paces across the floor, sits back down again, his voice rising with a percussive beat to a rhythm hardly his own anymore. “Pardon my language,” he starts, “but that motherfuckin’commander nearly got us blown away last time. You know how many scouts get killed with those damn IEDs?”
I try to imagine the scene he describes next of pulling a soldier from an armored vehicle, the guy screaming for four hours straight while Joe worked to get the door off. Later, he pantomimes kicking in a stranger’s front door while pointing an invisible M4. My friend’s kitchen vibrates with the chill of death and danger, the feel of Joe’s finger on that trigger; rage climbs the walls.
Finally, reaching up to touch his dog tags, he admits that his wife has kicked him out tonight. “PJ and I had another fight,” he says as he opens his third beer. “She doesn’t understand what I’m going through.” He runs his hands through his closely cropped hair and tells us in the same breath how much he loves his family, how he’s not sure he wants to stay in the military but he has a chance for officer’s training. This young soldier—smart, handsome and already an old man—says he and his pregnant wife want to see a counselor on base because they don’t understand all the fights. “The problem is,” he says, “there are too many of us and so few counselors.”
Right there as the clock shifts past midnight a couple of generations removed from that long war in Asia, I begin to think of PJ and Abigail. Memories of my mother return. Like PJ she was young and wanted a family, love, and a home. But being married to a soldier meant being married to the military, which was the first betrayal of their marriage. She didn’t have a chance against such an authority or a mistress.
The army says it’s doing it differently this time with more help for military families, better food and communication for the men. Joe says they fly things like lobsters and steak over to Afghanistan and Iraq, build gyms, and install air conditioning. But however much war changes with each telling, it is the same story. Tiger stripes have become sand-colored fatigues; the names of countries have changed, but it is still a story of two places: life falling apart at home, life disappearing into a far away war. The men still return changed with the line between family and war stretched thin, allowing war’s toxins to seep through. The higher ups demand as always: Fight this war. Bury your own. Come home in glory. What irony that the soldiers go to protect supposedly the very thing they cannot keep when they return home.
Joe and PJ and Abigail have no idea yet what an impossible task this will be. They do not yet recognize that they live in a society that does not allow for the kind of sorrow necessary to a war’s grieving. Nor do they live in a place where we can honor the soldier and still hate the war without being labeled an unpatriotic traitor. Lots of rhetoric gets tossed around about protecting the soldiers, VA benefits and the like, but the truth is mostly they are on their own when they return. So little is done for the suffocating despair that settles itself on whole families and military communities. This anguish eventually destroyed my mother, divided my family.
Long after her death I can still see her drinking coffee with the other army wives while they sit on the stoops of army-issued apartments behind barbed wire fences. I see toys scattered on a worn lawn, Jeeps headed for the motor pool, and soldiers marching by with their rifles and rucksacks. She listens to the radio music of Pat Boone or Brenda Lee while the other women share stories. She’s young—maybe nineteen or twenty-three with her dungarees folded up near her knees—and she waits with the other military wives to hear about deployment possibilities, waits for mail, for babies to fall asleep, for a soldier to return from maneuvers. For her ship to come in. Always waiting for something.
I was her first child, born in a wooden hospital at Fort Campbell. I learned as a little girl that the military came first in our family, no matter how much we tried to catch my father’s attention. We knew without being told that he had signed papers in the presence of Authority saying he would always place mission first. We believed it was a matter of world safety, so how could we complain? Where did our love fit into that promise?
This patriarchal consciousness presumes that noncombatants to be absent from war and therefore, not affected. But the women on that army-issued stoop know differently. They already know that they live in a culture that prizes heroism, but not the stories of women and children.
When I am a grown woman decades after war has brought my father home in a black body bag, and after my mother dies one hot morning standing at the kitchen sink, I stand on a small hill in Viet Nam not too far from Saigon. I am talking with another woman who lost a father in the war. As we talk, our feet brush back and forth through red dirt in an area once called Third Corps, which might as well have been the moon back when the war was on and we were young girls sending thin blue aerograms. Our Vietnamese bus driver waits while others in our group take a path to an old Special Forces bunker, the sandbags now hardened with time so that they feel like ancient bricks left behind in a jungle.
Under the tropical sun, we are not talking about our fathers anymore. Not about their battles or the year they were killed, medals or ranks. Instead, we are talking about our mothers. About how far away Viet Nam is from places like South Carolina or southern Illinois. We talk about how the perimeter of war keeps spreading and including more people over time, even generations later. We wonder why the military hasn’t figured that out yet. We aren’t speaking about the politics of Nixon or Johnson anymore. We are recalling the details of life behind barbed wire, where this invisible nation remains unbeknownst to the rest of America, where the nightly news slices into the lives of families like a giant knife hanging over our heads. We talk about the unpublished statistics of war.
What should I tell Joe and PJ when they come back a few days later together with their baby girl? They will return to active duty at Fort Campbell in a matter of days, then soon after the second baby is born he will be deployed to Afghanistan. Should I tell him about my father’s medals in the museum at Fort Campbell? Or about my parents’ failed marriage, their broken bodies and violence buried in alcohol? Should I ask about the palpable distance I see between Joe and PJ as they sit on the couch saying their goodbyes to us? Should I tell them that time does not heal all wounds; or that goodness is fragile? Should I tell them about my mother?
I wish them well as they pack up their car, put Abigail into the backseat, and drive away. As I wave goodbye and they head down the street, I can’t help but feel the divisions already at work. History repeating itself.
Gail Hosking is the author of the memoir Snake’s Daughter (University of Iowa Press), the poetry chapbook The Tug (Finishing Line Press) and a recent book of poems Retrieval (Main Street Rag Press). Her work has been anthologized several times and her poems and essays have been published in such places as River Teeth Journal, The Timberline Review, Lilith Magazine, Post Road Magazine, Camera Obscura and Reed Magazine. She had a special mention in The Pushcart Prize: Best of Small Presses 2002 and was a finalist for several poetry and essay contests. Two of her essays were most notable in Best American Essays. She holds an MFA from Bennington College and taught at Rochester Institute of Technology for fifteen years.
Joe Lugara began creating digital paintings in the 2010s, debuting in a 2018 solo exhibition at the Noyes Museum of Art in his home state of New Jersey. Lugara’s work has been featured in several publications (multiple in ACM: “Inkling, Sketch, Tattoo, Scar” and Two Poems by Donald Stang) and has appeared in more than forty exhibitions in museums and galleries in the New York metropolitan area, including the New Jersey State Museum and 80 Washington Square East Galleries at NYU.