With Your Shield Or On It

"The central struggle of parenthood is to let our hopes for our children outweigh our fears." -- Ellen Goodman

I had a memorable conversation with my eldest son when he was in the ninth grade. We'd started playing Kingdom Hearts and had just gotten to the part where the main character sneaks out his bedroom window for some typical teenage shenanigans and ends up getting dragged off to save the universe. He remarked that he couldn't do that. I would catch him, and there was no way I'd let him go on his own. The rest of the kids would insist on coming along, too. He was fine with it. With them at his side and me making sure that anything that so much as mussed their hair was very sorry, the journey to the final boss would be just a road trip.

That boy is a grown man of 21 now, and a lot has changed. The neon hunting camouflage that was so fashionable back then has given way to a freshly-pressed, pixilated ACU topped off with a tan beret and a Ranger tab. That's no sage avatar of a mystic force calling him to an adventure; it's his squad leader. His journeys to epic adventure in far away lands no longer stay within range of the controller cords. My son is a soldier, and he's being deployed overseas.

The story should sound awfully familiar. It's so ubiquitous, Joseph Campbell called it "the monomyth" in his classic work on comparative mythology entitled The Hero With a Thousand Faces. A young man goes off on a perilous journey to defeat the bad guy and save the world/kingdom/village (or maybe just a fair damsel). Challenges faced and battles won, he retires and hangs his sword over the mantel to inspire his children to go off and get into similar trouble at a similar age. That plot is an integral part of the mythology of every culture, every age, and every media, from the Ramayana to Sir Gareth and the rest of the Knights of the Round Table.

Those thousand faces have a common feature -- youth isn't any sort of obstacle. If a kid can see over the hilt of Excalibur, he's fair game. You may as well put the prefix "Children's Crusade" on the titles of many videogames, movies, and books. Time and again, it runs into the same big question: Where the heck are their parents!?

There are a lot of cheeky orphans in these stories. You'd think there would be some responsible adults around. But no. Killing off the adults is traditional low-hanging fruit for any writer laying out the hardships their young protagonist has to overcome. And even if they survive the writer's imagination, any adults still standing send the children off to save the world all by themselves at ridiculously early ages.

One of my best bad examples would be Ashe Ketchum's mom from Pokemon, who just lets him go off to catch 'em all. Yeah, he's got a sidekick. But that bouncy little zap-rat does not constitute proper supervision for an 11-year-old, especially when he's dragging himself and his friends into every bit of trouble within arm's reach. The kid gets hurt more times than I can count. Just thinking about that situation makes me want to go to Pallet Town and slap some sense into her.

I much prefer a parent like Chi-Chi from Dragonball Z. She's all over Gohan and Goten to do their homework and their chores and she doesn't think little boys should be out there in battle. Whenever they do manage to sneak out on an adventure with their father, she's after them with rocket launchers to protect them and no one who's bright enough to see lightning and hear thunder messes with her on any level.

I could do that for my son back when the worst end boss we'd ever encountered was the Vice Principal. But that doesn't last. The journey gets rougher, and the forces they struggle against become even more complicated and powerful. Then just when it all hits a fever pitch, they're grown and you have to stand there and watch them go.

You're an NPC, pacing the same senseless pattern up and down the living room and hallway, hoping for -- but also dreading -- a phone call.

Motherhood has a lot of worry and fear in it, even under peacetime conditions. It's part and parcel of the business. There's a constant questioning of yourself and all the things you do to care for your kids. It's not just baseless drama; being a mother is an awesome responsibility and the stakes are dauntingly high. To quote an old saying, "If you're not terrified, you don't know what you've gotten yourself into." A mom may not have written it, but I bet they all nodded when they read it. Him being a soldier just adds a whole new FM3-0's worth of reasons.

With no save points or memory cards in the picture, I don't get to see the whole story anymore. This isn't his first trip there and back again, so I'm more prepared for the reality of the situation. Last time around he called me as often as he could and we emailed back and forth, but he had to watch what he said very closely. I'm not supposed to use the name of his unit. I'm not allowed to know where they're going or when they actually left the base or precisely when they'll get back. Every so often he will just go silent for several days with no explanations and I have to find a way to keep my cool. Even after they come home, they're not allowed to say a lot.

His first call home did reassure me somewhat that whatever else was going on in his head, there's still a lot of that same ninth grader. We were discussing some things he'd forgotten to bring, and on the top of list (even above sunblock) was Halo 3. I asked him why. Turns out every guy in the whole unit had thought someone else would bring it, so no one had. They'd all been stuck playing an old version of Call of Duty, and that wasn't cutting it. After I quit laughing about his priorities, I got a copy headed his way.

When he got home he had some good stories involving things like a ladder, a camel spider, and a scorpion. But I could tell things were a lot more interesting than that just by looking at him. He was sun-burnt, bruised, and about 10 pounds under-weight. When asked for details, he'd duck the question and trot out pictures of the spider to ick me out. I took that as a sign that I should quit being nosy. Besides, it’s almost comforting; I'll take Aragog any day over what it could have been.

He was home for the holidays and then on leave for two weeks, so he got to be around a lot and hang out with his friends and his siblings. Outside of the usual holiday and family bustle, I didn't really know what to say. I don't want him to think that I don't see the scope of what's going on, or that I'm going to be sitting around worrying and weeping for three months either.

As far as moms go, I'm pretty educated in these things. I'm an armchair grognard who grew up hunting, playing hockey, and loving paintball. I've been present for two gun accidents, one of which was fatal. I know enough to knowledgeably discuss his training with him when he comes home with his stories full of acronyms. But I've never been in real battle. I've never fired a weapon at another human. I don't know how to deal with that possibility.

I know I'm not alone. There are a lot of soldiers over there. And mothers have been facing this since before Plutarch reported in his book Moralia that Spartan boys were admonished to come back with their shield or on it. When he first signed up I said and wrote a lot of brave words. I still stand by them, but the intervening time has worn some of the shine off the bravery.

In the stories, there are lots of parents who stand there at the door and nonchalantly wave their kids off on their quest. Even with my practice from last time, I couldn't quite manage that. I couldn't find a way to give him a hug and let him walk out that door into harm's way while also keeping tears from running down my face. I'll have to find a way to grind that skill before he gets back and has to go again. There's not really anything left for me to do but watch him pack and make sure he's got Halo with him with him this time.


Excellent article, Momgamer. William is being deployed in March and this article really hit home with me.

I think this is my first comment ever, but that was a great post. Your son and family as well as his other fellow soilders will be in my prayers.

Thank you

Woah, heavy stuff. Thanks for sharing.

One wonders what kind if experiences the young Halo/CoD players of today will eventually come to face. To go from playing at war to being in a war... wow.

Pogue please. Pouge is a french name.

Nice article. My son is in the Air Force working on combat helicopters, and it's made me think a lot. I rode in a submarine for my service, and I sometimes wish his job was more poguey.

Excellent read, thank you so much for sharing.

I'll keep your son in my prayers.



momgamer wrote:

And Crowley, I hope that was a joke. Please re-read the second paragraph. Pouges don't get to wear tabs, or tan berets.

A number of pogues wear tabs, they're simply a recognition of completing Ranger School. As for the tan berets, from what I heard only the color has changed. Before the regulars got black berets, there were plenty of pogues sporting them and now they're doing the same with the tan. It wasn't uncommon to someone sporting a beret (especially com guys) even though he never saw RIP.

Interesting. I was under the impression that only the 75th got to wear the tan beret as of September 1, 2001. Before the rest of the Army changed to black in June 2001, those pogues were probably supposed to be wearing tan and the Rangers wore the black.

As far as the tab, you're right about what it means. But even if you're off the line now, if you got through RIP in one piece the derogitory comment is probably not as applicable as it would be otherwise.

--edit: For those of you reading who don't know what that word means and why I am having a mannered cow about it, try this. I'm sorry if I'm being oversensitive. A part of me is proud of where he is and what he's doing, but another part is currently very worried and it hasn't paced a grove into my soul yet for this time around. It'll take a few weeks, if previous experience is any judge. --

Great article.

As for the other bit, I have a lot respect for the command staff and other people who are over there getting the work done, whether they're infantry or not.

A well-crafted and compelling read. Best wishes for his safe return.

Thanks for the great article, I wish your son a safe return.

By the way, where is he being deployed?

As many others have already said before me: Thank you for sharing this. Poignant and very beautifully written.
I am grateful for your son and his service, and wish him the best in a safe journey home.

Thank you for this, Momgamer. My thoughts are with you.

Thank you for sharing. That was moving. Good luck to your son.

Amazing article. Thanks for letting us read it.

I hope your son comes home safe and sound.

Excellent article. Thanks for sharing.

Excellent article, momgamer. I can't even imagine how hard it must be for you. Thank you for sharing this with us.

War sucks, if I may say so myself. I still have no offspring, but regardless, my greatest wish in life is to never become an NPC like that. Being that teenage "protagonist" sure was hard enough. The mere thought that I will ever find out first hand what my parents were going through at those times absolutely terrifies me.

You touched my little grinch heart with this article. Thank you for that.

I wish you both the very best...

I'm a little late to the party, but this was beautiful and I need to add my kudos to the pile. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Best wishes for you and your son - I hope that only good luck and good news follows him there and back again.

Colleen, thanks. I can't even imagine how difficult that must be for you. I hope that sharing it with us is as helpful to you as it is moving to us.

Oh, and if his unit needs more games, I am in.

As someone who has served and whose mom fretted non-stop while I was in, I ached when I read this.

If you ever send out a care-package and need some fillers, I am sure a lot of us would be more than happy to chip-in for goodies!