SAN DIEGO — The drawing looks like him, in a cartoonish kind of way, though the face is longer. The jaw line, more defined. The eyes, a whole lot rounder than I remember. But the peace sign in one hand and the 12-gauge in the other captures his complex character perfectly.
I'm studying the small self-portrait my son, Roman Diaz, a soldier with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, sketched in the letter to his dad and me that arrived recently. He mentions that his camera broke, and writes, "In the absence of photos, I've included this drawing of myself." He goes on to bring to our attention the, as he calls it, "ridiculous" Zorro-like mustache he's added - just barely - in real life and here in the drawing. Says it's earned him the nickname, "Dirty D." In those lines, I hear his laugh, and feel almost giddy myself with relief.
It's the first letter we've received from Roman since he began his second deployment in Iraq almost two months ago. The first few weeks he was back there, we were able to chat with him now and then on the Internet. But we hadn't heard a word for nearly a month - nothing, not an e-mail, not a call.
"No news is good news," good friends would say.
But his silence grew louder every day - mornings especially. That's when I read the paper with my Cheerios and coffee and routinely turn to the section titled, "Army Deaths," a matter-of-fact listing of who and where. Why do I do this? In a word, hope. Hope that in the not-too-distant future there will be no more names to report, nothing to read under a heading like that. I look for that feature each morning, hoping never to find it again.
But to date, there seems little hope of that. In fact, on a recent Wednesday that listing was the reason my workday got off to a late start. After seeing four names followed by the letters and numbers I recognized as part of my son's current address - 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division - I stared for too long out the breakfast nook window. I sat there wondering if Roman knew, maybe even had nicknames for, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Tesser, Spc. William J. Byler, Pvt. Adam R. Johnson, Pfc. David J. Martin. Wondered if he had been on or near that road south of Baghdad when, as the paper said, "an explosive detonated near their vehicle."
It wasn't out of the question. The last time we'd talked online he'd mentioned that he'd been serving as a gunner, a guard, for a convoy. An interim mission he'd volunteered for, he said, "Because the places they stop along the way - like this one - have Internet! So I can check my e-mail." Not the most comforting words in the world, but not surprising either. A techie at heart, Roman has always managed to find his way to a computer. Sometimes it's simply been a matter of walking over to the next tent. So when his messages stopped, my concerns grew.
Like anyone who's seen the evening news, I'm well aware of the physical dangers that surround him - and everyone over there - these days. And I am not unaware of the toll war can take in other ways. The invisible shrapnel that tears up souls, lodges in memories, hardens hearts, wounding in ways no one there can see nor the rest of us really understand. The kind of wounds that might, I imagine, cause a soldier to retreat for a time - from family, friends, and things once familiar.
Thoughts like these can make letter-writing hard - from this side, for sure. I confess I've puzzled at times over what newsy news to share, wondering under what circumstances he'd read the words I'd write. Through what new filter might he view my latest ramblings about Charger games, hassles with work, dinners with friends, visits with his sister and her husband, plays at the Old Globe, hikes in the canyon - or even the recent growth spurt of the pet turtle he entrusted to our care when he left for the Army three years ago. I've even wondered whether heartfelt "stay safe's" and "we're proud of you's" could, in the midst of war's worst-case scenarios, come to sound like so much "yadda, yadda."
Perhaps then, news from home would not always be welcome, underscoring as it inevitably does, the differences between war and peace, the "then" and the "now." Seems like not all that long ago I tucked permission slips for Cub Scout field trips into his pockets, sending him on his way with a hug and reminders to "have fun" and "be good." Today he fills the pockets of his khakis with things like extra ammo and just-in-case tourniquets. When he was a boy, he marched off to school with mom's peanut butter sandwiches in his backpack. Now it's Uncle Sam's meals ready to eat. How does a young man reconcile such disparate realities, especially against a backdrop of roadside bombs and memories of buddies who never came back?
But Roman's recent lack of communication seems to have had nothing to do with any of that (thank God). The reason, as it turns out, was logistical and linked to his unit's new long-term assignment.
"My platoon lives way out by ourselves," he explains in the letter he penned by flashlight nearly three weeks ago. "There is no phone or Internet access in sight. I sleep in a basement. Our food and water is dropped off by Blackhawk helicopter."
Other paragraphs in the letter are intended for his dad and me alone. But I will share one more passage here - the postscript - as much for the thoughts it helps put to rest, as for the one it expresses:
"P.S. If you send a box, please include some peanut butter."
• Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written several articles for the Monitor about her son's military service.