No soldier stands alone in a battlefield
SAN DIEGO — If I could, I'd begin this with my son's account of what happened to him and the men of his Bravo Company unit at 14:30 on Dec. 22, 2005. Roman and his squad were on foot patrol somewhere in the south of Baghdad. An insurgents' bomb exploded. That much I know. But I can only tell my side of this story right now. And it begins with a call from an Army captain.
"Is this Susan Diaz?" a man's voice said when I answered the phone in my office here at home the day before Christmas Eve.
I'd just finished feeding Roman's pet turtle in the guest bedroom down the hall. When he joined the Army three years ago after high school, Roman entrusted "SpongeBob" to our care. Now every morning before my workday begins, I drop several handfuls of arugula and baby lettuce leaves into the wooden enclosure Roman built for his old buddy.
The voice on the other end sounded like a telemarketer. I answered with a wary, "Y-y-e-ss."
"Is your husband there?"
"He's not available at the moment," I said, rather than offer that he'd left for work an hour earlier and that I was home alone.
The man, all business, introduced himself - Captain Candrian, 101st Airborne - then went on to say that our son had "sustained injuries caused by an IED."
I sat down. Slowly.
"That's an 'improvised explosive device,' Ma'am."
No need for that extra bit of information. These days those three letters are as familiar as PTA used to be.
Above the thumping of my heart I heard Captain Candrian relate details of what he called "the incident." I switched the phone to my left hand, reached for the yellow legal pad I always keep handy, fumbled for a pen, and wrote down these words: Perforated eardrum. Peppered face. Treated at the aid station at Mamuhdiyah.
"Could you spell that, please?" I heard myself say. In everyday circumstances, I can be as ditzy as anyone. Ask my husband how many times he's heard, "Seen my glasses anywhere?" But in this situation, my mind was surprisingly focused, almost as if spelling the aid station's name correctly could somehow make right the rest of the story Captain Candrian was telling me.
"Does this mean Roman will get to come home?" I asked, hoping.
"No, Ma'am. His injuries are listed here as 'not serious.'"
I wrote down "NOT SERIOUSLY INJURED" in big block letters. I underlined those words three times and drew a box around them.
"Your son should be back with his unit soon. But you might not hear from him for a few days, because of the, uh, news blackout over there."
He rushed through the last part of that sentence.
"News blackout? What do you mean?"
The captain explained - reluctantly - that when soldiers from a unit have been killed, no one from that group is allowed to phone or e-mail until the next of kin have been notified.
"Oh," I murmured as that sunk in. "Some soldiers died in the attack?"
"Do you know their names?"
"Yes, Ma'am. But I can't tell you that."
Roman had been promoted to sergeant - and squad leader - just before his second deployment began. When he was home on his last leave, I'd heard him talk with an almost paternal affection about the guys in his group. While stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., in the months before being deployed, he'd shared dinner at the homes of some of them, played cards with their parents, met their wives, high-fived their kids.
"It's up to me now to make sure they all come home," Roman had said of the eight men he'd been assigned to lead.
We eventually learned from the newspaper that the attack claimed two soldiers: Spc. William Lopez-Feliciano from Roman's squad, and platoon leader, 1st Lt. Benjamin T. Britt.
The news blackout from within the unit ended on Christmas Eve with this e-mail from our son.
"Just wanted to send you guys a quick note and wish you Merry Christmas," he wrote. "I love you both so much and rarely get a chance to tell you these days.... I really wish I could be back there to celebrate with you. If I concentrate real hard I can almost taste the shrimp you cook every year, Mom, even though it isn't my favorite."
I smiled at the wise-guy honesty of that last statement. It was so Roman.
He signed off with "Sgt. Diaz" and added this: "P.S. If you guys make it to church, say a prayer for the men of Bravo Company. It's been a rough deployment so far. Any prayers are appreciated."
That was it. No mention of "the incident." Not a word about his injuries. And a telling silence on the subject of the fallen.
He doesn't know we know, I realized.
We've since talked with him on the phone. "I can't believe they did that!" he said when he heard - with his good ear - that the Army had called us. As far as he's concerned right now, the less said, the better. It's a matter of protection, I think. Ours certainly. And maybe his own, too.
My son has learned much about life the hard way lately. But it seems to me there's something he doesn't as yet completely comprehend or perhaps has come to understand far too well. It is this: When he and his men are out on a mission, they are not alone. Whether we agree with this war or not, those of us who love them are out there, too, moms and dads, kids and cousins, sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends.
Every time an insurgent bomb blows apart a Humvee or a squad on foot patrol, the shock waves from the blast reverberate in small towns like Wheeler, Texas, and big cities like San Diego. A young private takes a bullet; back at home his father's heart bleeds. A soldier loses a leg; his wife struggles in the days that follow to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other. A sergeant's eardrum is perforated; his mother hears the explosion in her dreams, time and time again. Truth is, the casualties of war go far beyond the numbers from the Pentagon. Love gives us no choice.
In a later e-mail Roman wrote, "I'm fine, functioning, and back at work with my men. Right where I belong."
We are there too, Sgt. Diaz. We are there, too.
• Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written a series of articles for the Monitor about her son's military service.