A soldier's mom encounters a protective wall of silence

Roman's lack of communication seems to say, 'Mom, Dad, don't love me so much.'

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"That day in December." That's what I called it the other morning in an e-mail to a friend. She knew I was talking about the Thursday before Christmas when an Army captain from the 101st Airborne called to tell us that our son, Sgt. Roman Diaz, had been injured by an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol south of Baghdad. He'd been treated for his perforated eardrum and his "peppered face," the captain said, at the aid station in Mamuhdiyah and would be returning soon to his unit.

The newspaper elaborated on the incident a few days later, listing the names of two soldiers from Roman's platoon who died in that same explosion.

"So, what do you hear from Roman?" my friend had asked, as people often do these days - friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues all want to know how he is holding up. I appreciate their concern. But my answer is always the same. "Not much," I tell them, with a shake of my head and a helpless shrug. "Since that day in December, not much."

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That's not the way it was during Roman's previous deployment over there. Old-fashioned letter-writing has never been his thing, but the first time he was in Iraq, as a 20-year-old private with the 1st Armored Division near the start of the war, my husband and I "chatted" often with him online via instant messaging, sometimes for hours at a stretch.

It was then that Roman schooled me in the shorthand of this new form of real-time communication. "BRB" for "be right back." The letters "OIC" for "Oh, I see." That phrase became a favorite of ours, typed in response to questions about everything from the weather in Baghdad to, occasionally, the political climate - there and here. Our conversations, for the most part though, were chatty and light.

That's not to say Roman's initial 15 months as an infantryman in the Sunni Triangle were easy. No one's time in Iraq is easy - not by a long shot. But in light of "that day in December" and the region's escalating violence and instability, my son's first deployment now seems like a march in the park.

I've continued, as I did back then, to drop a card or a letter in the mail to him a couple times a week, along with an occasional care package. But the only communication we've had from his end in the months since Christmas has been a brief phone call with a bad connection, two short e-mails (one about his bank statement), and a recent late-night conversation with his dad on Instant Messenger. My husband initiated it when he noticed on his computer screen that Roman had signed in online.

"Is that you, Roman?" he typed, clicked, then waited for an answer.

Finally it came. "Hey! What's up, Pops!"

"How are you, Roman?"

"Eh, I'm alright. How are you?"

Their "hellos" behind them, a few lines later my husband asked, "Do you want or need anything from over here?"

"No, I'm good."

"How about some chicharrones or pickled pigs feet?" (Convinced, apparently, that the way to a soldier's heart is through an eclectic assortment of pork-based snack foods.)

"No, really, dad. I'm good."

"Need any extra armor?"

"No."

"Jackets?"

"No. It's going to warm up soon."

And so it went. A fatherly offer here, a quick "no" there. Interspersed with small bits of small talk about the Olympics, rumors of a recent troop visit by Jessica Simpson, and at the end, a sudden, "Dad, I gotta go."

The next morning my husband shared with me their conversation, and coupled with Roman's silence in recent months, the gist of it all seems to me to be, "Mom, Dad. For your sake and for mine right now, don't love me so much."

Truth is, I don't really understand what this reticence means, but I want to try. And the Web is as good a place as any to begin. On one site I read about the psychological aspects of combat. It describes "psychic numbing as a defense mechanism and an aid to survival for the soldier." Another notes, "If troops think too much about emotional issues in combat situations, it could undermine their effectiveness in battle."

I close my eyes and see my son's face. He doesn't return my gaze. Of course not. How can he, when he stares down death every day he's over there? I see him heading out on another mission, no glance backwards, at me, or anyone or anything he loves, or wants. There's nothing, nothing I can do, but whisper a prayer that he will come back.

Lt. Col. Jerry Powell, an Army chaplain for 18 years, veteran of Iraq, and cyber-friend of mine, explains something else. "Soldiers do not have the ability to describe the events because the activity is so visceral," he tells me in an e-mail. "They are able to share the experiences with one another only by looks, tears, hugs, and the inevitable Army grunt. To convey the same emotions and thoughts to parents is just not possible. The only alternative is silence.

"When I called home during my deployment," Lieutenant Colonel Powell continues, "the sound of my wife's voice on the other end caused such a lump in my throat I could not speak for a moment. I could only squeak out, 'Hi' and let her talk until I composed myself. I blamed the phone connection when she asked if I was there and could I hear her, when the real problem was I was wrecked by a simple, 'Hello.' "

And as for what we here at home can do, Powell offers this for now, "I think that sending funny cards is very healing. Comedy DVDs are a good idea as well. All the squad has seen all the war movies ever made. What they probably need is laughter late at night when the world goes quiet."

Later, still turning over in my mind the chaplain's words, I recall the instant messaging phrase Roman taught me back when conversation between us came easier and more often. "OIC," I hear myself sigh, scanning the sale bins at Blockbuster for "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

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

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