My eldest son, Lance Cpl. Stephen Webber, is a marine serving in Iraq. Thousands of other parents have sons and daughters there, too. More than 130,000 families have loved ones in Iraq. Lots of people are going about their daily lives with their minds and hearts elsewhere.
Stephen graduated from high school in 2001, finished boot camp in March 2003, and returned to his junior year at college in the fall. Like many other reservists, he was activated last December and reported for more training in January. It's likely he will be in Iraq until fall, but military plans change quickly.
His absence is a distraction, his location a matter of concern. I feel the way a lot of people felt after 9/11 - a bit bummed out, easily distracted, not quite right. The cure for me at that time was to see Stephen, who was away at college.
I have a while to wait this time.
Having a son become a marine is a startling process. One doesn't join the Marines; one becomes a marine. It's a serious undertaking. Marines are different. It's enough to cause most parents plenty of concern.
It will be a relief when he becomes a veteran.
Stephen enlisted in the Marines because of his respect for the World War II generation, his concern with social equality, and his sense of social responsibility and political obligation. If our country has decided we need a military, he argued, why should he not do his part?
Since Stephen was about 6 he has been interested in military history. When Stephen Ambrose, the best-selling author, died two years ago, my son e-mailed me that "outside the family, Ambrose probably has had as much influence on me as anyone." Mr. Ambrose is in good company. Stephen has had several influential Scoutmasters, soccer coaches, relatives, neighbors, and teachers. My son would be much different had he been raised in a dictatorial society, ravaged by war, and undernourished as a growing boy.
I have learned more about the military and foreign policy because of Stephen. I have read several books I would not have read had he not suggested them. He seemed to especially like James Bradley's "Flags of our Fathers." I now have a deeper respect for Marine slogans such as "there is no better friend or worse enemy than a US marine."
While I expect history will judge our military action against Saddam Hussein as unwise and more costly than most of us can imagine, I believe now we have a moral and political obligation to restore Iraq to self-sufficiency. It is great consolation to me that Stephen is contributing to the reconstruction, rather than the destruction, of Iraq.
People cope in different ways. Learning the details of another suicide bomber or the workings of mortars or RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) doesn't calm my anxiousness.
While I appreciate the kind words of understanding and support people offer me, I don't need sympathy. What I need is to run with Stephen at a nearby park. I need to hear his voice and his views on the 9/11 commission or the upcoming elections.
With Stephen in Iraq, I am less willing to debate the politics of the war or how it should be resolved. I am dealing with the personal side of America's being in Iraq. It is as if I am preparing myself should misfortune befall him or he comes home a stranger to me. His being in Iraq is a distraction.
I think about him and our nation's involvement in Iraq as any parent would. I wish he did not see human suffering - Iraqi or American. I worry he might come to physical harm or lose his zest for life because of the heavy demands being made on his body and mind.
People tell me I should be proud of my son. While "pride" doesn't seem to capture my feelings, I know what they mean. I admire Stephen's courage, character, idealism, kindness, and strength. He is the kind of guy you want to have on your side.
I remember leaving the hospital a few hours after he was born 21 years ago this month. There was dew on the grass and the sun was rising over the mountains where we lived. Birds were chirping, and people were just waking up.
I looked out across the hills, over the campus, the houses, and downtown, and thought, "Almost everybody's life today will be pretty much like yesterday. But because of Stephen, my life will be changed forever."
Indeed it was. Indeed it was.