Some extraordinary human beings wear the uniform of our country. But this spring, as Iraq tumbles toward all-out civil war, I wonder how much more can - and should - we ask of them?
"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," I remember Janis Joplin singing back in the early '70s. And if those words to "Me and Bobby McGee" are still true, then the soldiers of my son's unit - Company B, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Division of the 101st Airborne - are among the freest men on earth. Because just before sunrise one day recently in Yusafiyah, Iraq, they lost everything.
A fire sparked by faulty wiring roared through the old potato factory that was serving as their forward operating base 25 miles south of Baghdad. It's in the area known as "The Triangle of Death." But for several months in this current deployment of theirs, Roman and his comrades, some 120 of them, also called it home.
It was the place where, at the end of their day, they'd lay down their weapons, hang up their Kevlar, tug off their boots, and stretch out on their cots. It was where they'd relax, as much as anyone in that part of the world is able to these days, and reread letters from their wives or girlfriends, flip through back issues of Sports Illustrated, listen to MP3s of 50 Cent or Toby Keith, and munch on care-package cookies baked in kitchens they could only remember.
My husband and I learned about the fire weeks after it happened, not from our son, but from a newsletter the 101st Airborne routinely sends to its soldiers' families every few months. After I finished reading it, I e-mailed Roman and asked him about what I had just learned. He answered that someday he'd tell us those stories himself, but for now, he said, all that we needed to know was that he and his men were fine.
The smoke of Yusafiyah has long since cleared. And I'm sifting through piles of papers and folders here on my desk in a springtime attempt to bring order to my life, or at least to my home office. I pick up the newsletter, scan its headline: "Soldiers at Yusafiyah see it all go up in smoke." Renewal here at home is put on hold as I stop to read once again the story of the fire.
"It was shortly before dawn when 2nd Lt. David Halpern woke up and realized his forward operating base was burning down," it begins.
Some of the men were away on missions, but most were asleep. Awakened by shouts of "Fire" and the sight of flames as high as the ceiling, they got out as fast as they could, saving their lives, not their footlockers.
Huddled outside in whatever passes for pj's in a war zone, they heard the exploding pop and crackle of the ammunition stored in the building, and saw AT-4 rockets shoot through the burning roof.
"It was like a fireworks show," one of the soldiers was quoted as saying.
No one was injured in the fire, though this group has known more, much more, than its share of hardship. Since they arrived in November, six of them have been killed in action, 20 wounded. And even as this blaze turned to smoldering ash, insurgents lobbed six mortars at what was left of the compound.
"The fire could have been devastating for somebody else," their commander, Capt. John Goodwin, said. "But because we've been through so much, we were like 'OK, I guess we'll rebuild and move on.' "
An even stronger resiliency comes through in the wry words of 2nd Lt. Halpern: "It was almost comical. We were like, 'Gee, I wonder what I'm going to write in my journal today - oh, wait, my journal burned up.' "
This is my son's second tour of duty in Iraq. The first lasted 15 months. He isn't - and never has been - one to complain, but when his father asked him in a recent Internet conversation how things were going, Roman's nothing-if-not-honest reply said it all:
"It varies from week to week, Dad. It's never nice," he typed, and then, doing his 20-something best to still be reassuring, added, "... but sometimes it sucks less."
Next line, he changed the subject. Resiliency is not infinite.
I never believed this war was justified, though I was willing to be proven wrong. In fact, I hoped I would be. But as the conflict has worn on, it has become increasingly clear that our leaders rushed to judgment at the start, connected dots that weren't there, and undermined Iraq's fledgling freedom through egregious errors in postinvasion planning - or the lack of it. Our soldiers are paying the price for these mistakes, as are the good people of Iraq, not to mention America's taxpayers. And hope, this spring, is hard to come by.
Filing the Army newsletter in a folder marked "Roman in Iraq," I hear again the line from that song that accompanied another costly war nearly four decades ago: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." An apt description, I think, of the chaos that is today's Iraq. Even though I opposed this conflict from the beginning, but as someone who also loves her country and her soldier son, I take no satisfaction now, none, in the failures of this administration, nor in the thought that it's "Me and Bobby McGee," not George W. Bush, telling it like it is.
• Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written a series of articles for the Monitor about her son's military service.