When my son returned recently from his second tour of duty in Iraq, I gave him two gifts. One of them – a bathrobe that used to belong to his grandfather, a D-Day veteran – he loved. This is the story of the other.
For the two weeks Roman was here in San Diego, home on leave, the small gift box sat untouched on his bedroom desk. Inside lay a pewter ID bracelet. I had the top side of it engraved with his initials; the other side with a favorite line from a William Stafford poem: I have woven a parachute out of everything broken; my scars are my shield.
The inscription seemed appropriate, given where Roman had been, and all that he'd lived through in 12 months as an infantryman with the 101st Airborne in the area known as the "triangle of death."
It was a way, I thought, of acknowledging the hardships of this deployment: the deaths of 10 of his comrades, the encounter with an improvised explosive device that earned him a Purple Heart, a deaf ear, and flecks of shrapnel embedded near his brown eyes. The line was also meant to affirm our human capacity to be as resilient as life can be hard.
Roman read the inscription for the first time on his first day back in the States, after arriving at Fort Campbell, Ky. With the opened box beside him, he turned the bracelet over in his hands. Took in those lines of poetry. Grew somber. Said nothing for several long seconds. Then tried it on and quickly pronounced it "too big."
"That's OK. I'll take it to a jeweler in San Diego and get a couple links taken off," I volunteered. "It'll be ready to wear when you come home on leave!" Roman shrugged. "Yeah, sure, if you want to," he said. Then he dropped the bracelet into the tissue-lined box, shut the lid, and handed it back.
The resized ID was waiting for him when he arrived home a few weeks later, after completing a series of mandatory debriefing meetings at Fort Campbell. Our neighbors had taped "Welcome Home" banners to their garage doors, just as they did two years ago, when Roman came back from Iraq the first time. But now, with the end of his four-year stint in the Army just a few months away, those banners signaled a final celebration. And the big party at our house later that same day included a parade of people from Roman's past: friends from as far back as first grade, neighbors, godparents, moms and dads from car pools years ago, the little kids next door with their crayon-drawn cards, his middle-school principal, the teenager who'd taken care of Roman's pet tortoise, SpongeBob, whenever my husband and I went out of town.
"You must be so glad he's back," they all said. And I was. Though I was pretty sure the tall young man standing in the family room thanking everyone for coming was not the same one who enlisted four years ago after high school. How could he be?
War inevitably transforms those in it, especially the ones who've faced combat. In the line of duty, they have seen and done and felt things the rest of us cannot know. Adjusting to peace can take some time. That's to be expected.
Roman was much more willing to talk about his new 10-megapixel digital camera or the rock concert he'd been to the night before, than to say anything about the war. And I was careful not to ask. But then there were moments when a certain sadness would move across his face like a sudden summer storm. One afternoon, while walking around a local lake, he pointed out the reedy shoreline's similarity to the terrain he and his men patrolled near the Euphrates.
"You know, it's just a matter of luck, that I'm here at all, that I'm even alive," he continued. Then he opened up a bit about the men his platoon had lost. I shared with him how, when he was deployed, I held my breath every time I drove onto our street, praying I wouldn't find an official-looking car waiting in front of the house. In the not-so-easy give-and-take of that conversation, the times when we both grew silent said more than words ever could.
In his excellent book, "Home from the War," Robert Jay Lifton writes of the essential struggle soldiers go through to redefine who they are, when the battlefield's finally behind them. And an important part of that process lies in confronting that experience – claiming it, owning it, painful and complicated as it might be.
On the day before he was due to fly back to Fort Campbell, Roman shuffled into my home office, fumbling with something near the base of his upturned hand.
"Hey, Mom, can you help me with this?" he asked casually.
I looked up from my computer screen, met his questioning eyes, then turned to help him fasten the tricky clasp of the ID bracelet that had been sitting in its box all this time.
"There you go," I said, as lightly as if I'd just put a Scooby-Doo band-aid on a skinned knee. But there was more going on here, and I think we both knew it. With the soft click of that clasp, I felt that even though early the next day he'd once again be leaving San Diego, my son was, in truth, on his way home.
• Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written a series of articles for the Monitor about her son's military service.