Target practice for a soldier's mom

I was in the arms of my son the first time I fired a gun. How Roman and I arrived at that moment is something I'll still be trying to figure out probably 'til the day I die.

I have my reasons for hating guns. Several years ago, a friend's little girl lost her eye in a BB gun accident. A couple years after that, our neighbor across the street - a university professor - was killed, along with two of his colleagues, when a graduate student shot them at San Diego State University.

Just this spring a teenage girl we know tried to kill herself with the handgun she knew was hidden in the quiet suburban home she shared with her mom and dad. She very nearly succeeded.

Toy guns were never part of Roman's childhood. I was adamant about that. The shelves in his room teemed with other things: Legos, plastic dinosaurs, books, Play-Doh, finger paints.

"Your son is so creative," people often said, usually after getting that year's homemade Christmas card decorated with Roman's detailed sketches of funny elves or reindeer or Santas stuck in chimneys, every brick drawn. But now it's guns that he is drawing, and not with Magic Markers.

Four years ago, after high school, Roman joined the Army. The infantry, of all things. His reasons for choosing the military included not wanting to go to college and wanting to make it on his own in the world. Perhaps a certain amount of delayed rebellion factored into that decision as well.

He was home on leave when the topic of accompanying him to a shooting range came up. It was his idea. One 15-month stint in Iraq was already behind him; another loomed just around the corner.

"Come on. It'll be good practice for me while I'm here at home. You and Dad can try it, too. I'll show you how," Roman said. Earlier he'd boasted about his recent scores - highest in his battalion - at the rifle range in Fort. Campbell, Ky., where he is based. And he knew these parents of his had always been proud of his good report cards.

"Uh, no. Really. That's OK," I said at first, but eventually, reluctantly, I relented. What turned me around was the thought that as a soldier, my son's very life could depend upon this skill. Like it or not, in war it's a good thing to be good at.

"So, which target do you want?" the guy at the American Shooting Center asked, jerking his head toward the line of poster-like papers hanging above the counter. The three of us - Roman, his dad, and I - had agreed we'd share the same gun and target. We'd already signed the center's standard release forms and been issued protective goggles and heavy-duty plastic earmuffs. The guys chose the weapon: a handgun, a 9-mm Beretta. And they settled on the number of bullets we'd need: 100.

The target choices ranged from the traditional concentric circles to the image of a broad-shouldered man in silhouette.

"You pick, Mom," Roman said graciously, sensing, I think, how strange I felt there among the for-sale Remingtons, holsters, and "Got Ammo?" baseball caps.

A few minutes later, leaning against the cinder-block back wall of the indoor range, I watched my son and husband tape our target of innocuous geometric shapes to the cardboard on the automated pulley system. With a push of a button, it flew out into our designated shooting lane. And there, 30 feet or so away, jiggling just a little, it waited.

"Want to go first, Dad?" Roman asked after the intermittent gunfire from other shooters in the place had died down. My husband, as new to this as I was, nodded.

The two of them stood side by side behind the barrier between shooters and targets. Almost six inches taller than his dad, Roman had to lean down a bit to show him what to do. Apparently there's much more to it than pointing and shooting. Locks to click. Flanges to slide. Forces to be reckoned. And Roman explained it all to his dad with patience and a professionalism I had never seen in him before. It was something to behold.

Over the brassy clink of the empty shells falling on the concrete floor, I heard his heartfelt "Good, Dad. Good!" when one of his father's bullets made a hole near the target's center.

Then it was my turn. Roman reviewed all the steps with me several times, slowly, carefully. It seemed, in fact, as if he were more interested in showing his dad and me how to shoot than in showing off what he himself could do.

"You're a natural teacher, you know that?" I said.

"Just part of my job," he shrugged. "Ready?"

Holding the gun with both hands, just the way he'd instructed, I gulped. And in the hesitation that followed, felt his arms fold around me from behind, his cheek rest gently against the side my head, his warm hands encircle my wrists. I stretched my arms forward, his too, closed my eyes, and squeezed the trigger.

Pop!

Amazed by the raw power of the weapon, I recoiled - at the force of the bullet leaving the chamber, but even more so at the realization of the consequences of a force like that. The target trembled, but it was me that was shot through - with an awareness of things most tender and terrible.

Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written several articles for the Monitor about her son's military service.

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