Guilty of Gratitude

I wanted to hug my kids last night.

I wanted to hold them so close and so tightly that neither of us could breathe for a heartbeat or so. I was so incredibly grateful they were alive and well, both in body and soul. And, I felt guilty for that gratitude.

All day yesterday, my heart was filled with sadness. I could not put out of my mind the young man who died so tragically just feet from where I work.

A 22-year-old soldier, a Marine who recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan from what I’ve heard, went berserk after the bars closed. News reports indicate he was wielding a gun as he yelled for local law enforcement to “come out” as he stumbled around on Main Street. Then, he apparently got into his vehicle and drove around recklessly, ramming into things, including the sheriff’s office. A shoot-out in which he died followed.

This is the fourth death related to the current military action in Iraq and Afghanistan which has come this close to me. Only one death actually occurred overseas. Frank, a young man with whom my daughter was romantically involved while stationed at Shaw AFB in South Carolina, was killed in Kabul by a pilot he was training for the Afghan military, one of five Americans to die that day. It shouldn’t have happened.

When my kids were deployed, Sara to Qatar and Brodie with his A-10 to Afghanistan, I lived with a tight band of fear wrapped around my chest. I didn’t take an easy breath for months, not until they were both home safely and I had wrapped my arms around them.

And then, I still watched and worried. Did they come back whole in soul as well as in body? Sara protected me from what she experienced, but I knew Brodie had at least one heartbreaking experience. He and his wing man had pushed back insurgents so helicopters could go in to get our soldiers out. As he was lifting off so the helicopters could enter the airspace, he watched as one crashed into a mountainside. I cried when I read that email, and worried about the effect it would have on him.

As I said, the young soldier who died this week is the fourth war-related death I have seen. Frank was the third, and the first two were in Pierre shortly after the 200th Engineer Company of the S.D. National Guard returned from Iraq.

They were among the first to be called up. When they first went over, they lived in tents and didn’t have the amenities soldiers deployed later would enjoy. They stood in line for hours to call home, and didn’t have direct Internet access. Skype, which my kids used to keep in touch with one another, wasn’t even an option for soldiers in the 200th.

They did not suffer a single loss while they were in Iraq. The losses came later.

I remember the day they returned to Pierre. I rode with them. Only later did I learn I had been given that honor because, while the unit was deployed, I refused the let the community forget the soldiers were gone. I wrote story after story in a series called the Yellow Ribbon series. I wrote about challenges families faced, the soldiers’ stories when they came home on leave, community efforts to support them.

As a result of that storytelling and months of praying for those troops, I carried them in my heart. I remember meeting with Maj. Gen. Michael Gorman shortly after the unit returned. He’s retired now, but was head of the S.D. National Guard then. As a result of my series, and a number of phone calls, we were on a first-name basis by that time. Both of us were worried about readjustment.

The soldiers had, if I remember correctly, five days from boots on the ground in Iraq to home with their families. The Guard had done what they could to help families prepare. I had done what I could to educate the public with informational articles about the challenges soldiers would face with readjustment. Mike and I were still concerned, though – and rightly so.

Three months later, in a stupid drunken fight with one of his buddies, one of the soldiers shot and killed a friend from high school, a friend who was like a brother. When he was sentenced to federal prison, the victim’s family asked the court for leniency. We all believed, though the soldier’s attorney didn’t use it as a defense, the shooting was a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

And just a month after the shooting, the unit commander, meeting with his unit for the first weekend exercise after the deployment, forgot to drop his infant son off at the babysitter’s. The child spent a hot August day in his dad’s SUV. At the child’s funeral, his grandfather hugged me, tears running down his face, and said, “My grandson was a victim of the war.” I could only nod.

One after another, it seems, these precious lives are being taken from us. It breaks my heart.

I have opposed this war on terrorism since Day One. No war on terrorism has ever been won through combat. Terrorism is best fought with diplomacy, with listening as those who feel powerless to affect change and negotiating to find solutions to address the injustices they see.

Terrorists are like trapped and wounded animals, striking out because they have nothing to lose. They become religious extremists because they nothing to lose, and need to believe God is on their side or they can’t get through the day. I firmly believe, if we – as a nation – would learn to accord others a little more respect instead of seeing others as either tools to help us get what we want or obstacles which prevent us from getting what we want, peace would be a lot closer than it is now.

Until there is peace, or at least until we have decided to withdraw from military action, I can only speak out when the opportunity arises, and bear the guilt of being grateful for every day my precious children are safe.

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