"A Family Affair"

Personal narrative 
by Nanette Sagastume

"I wasn't prepared for how it would be," Nanette Sagastume wrote about watching her twenty-year-old son, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Sagastume, embark for Iraq in March 2004. "I didn't realize that, despite my son being grown, my feelings would still be as fierce when his well-being was threatened as when he was an infant." Daniel was deploying to Fallujah for seven months with the 1st Marine Division, Second Battalion, First Regiment, Fox Company, Third Platoon. Nanette went on to relate the countless and sometimes conflicting thoughts and emotions she experienced after sending Daniel off to a war zone that had already claimed the sons and daughters of thousands of other parents. -- Andrew Carroll

The gloomy winter evening matched my mood when we took Daniel to the airport at the end of his pre-deployment leave. Every maternal instinct was to protect my son. Yet I had to release my clutch on him and say good-bye. My only thought was that my last glimpse of him walking toward his departure gate might be the final time I would see him for the rest of my life. The child I had carried in my womb for nine months I would now carry in my heart for the next seven. My heart sagged with the heaviness of pessimism and desolation, and I was inconsolable for a long time.

After Daniel left, fear was my constant companion. It hummed just below the surface of my waking and sleeping hours. Its presence was sometimes so stealthy that I was deluded into thinking I projected total serenity as I went through the motions of my life. But it was always there, burbling below the surface. It even permeated my sleep. When I rolled over at night, I inevitably awakened, glanced at the clock, and calculated what time it was in Iraq. Knowing that my nighttime was his daytime, and that my son could be on patrol and in danger, I could fall asleep only after I'd said a prayer for him and sent him love and a kiss across the miles.

Modern communications both relieved and aggravated my anxiety. On the one hand, I could receive e-mails from or even speak to my son every few days. The relief of hearing his voice would purchase about twenty-four hours of reassurance. But on one occasion my peace of mind was destroyed when my son called on a satellite phone while he was at his base. In the middle of our conversation a mortar attack suddenly began, and I could hear the loud thuds in the background. Equally distressing was to have my son phone home moments before he was to head out on patrol for a few days. Knowing that he was in danger, I tensely pictured what he was doing and how he was feeling during that time. Was he afraid? Was he tired or hungry? Was he discouraged? Was he injured? All of these circumstances were all the more upsetting because they unfolded in real time. It had the effect of making me feel I too was there, but unable to help him.

Some of the most painful things I had to deal with were the unthinking comments of strangers, friends, and even family. People would ask perfunctorily how my son was, and then launch into a diatribe against the President, the military, our policy, and the validity of the war. These people wanted to engage me in debate about the war or to tell me why my son shouldn't be there. This occurred frequently. At a time when my son could die in Iraq, I couldn't bear to hear why he shouldn't be there. Or that the cause might not be worth his life. Or be told that he lacked good judgment to be in the military in the first place.

Regardless of political leanings, such quarrelsome comments further battered my bruised heart. I wanted only to be comforted and to have someone ask simply how my son was. With a child in harm's way, I found politics could not be a casual intellectual exercise. It had become very personal. I was surprised and horrified to realize how quickly I was willing to discard decades-old friendships and family relationships after these gratuitous comments. Indeed, I am not sure my relationships will ever be the same with some of these people.

One of the greatest challenges during my son's deployment was spiritual. For seven months I whipsawed from trying to be open to whatever should be in God's plan to catapulting into panic that God might ask what I didn't want. I would then begin to flail, beseeching God that my son not be killed. I wish I could say that I eventually conquered my hysteria and was calmly reconciled to God's will. But the best I can say is that by the end of the deployment, I had made some progress in coming to terms with the possibility of my son's death. I drew comfort remembering that even Jesus begged for the cup to pass. But, unlike Jesus, the best I could do was to want to want God's will. This was a daily struggle.

As a way of coping with my anxiety, I tried to focus on a positive: pride. I was proud of the goodness and generosity of Americans and the beauty of our country's landscape. And I was proud of my son for serving his country. I was proud he was a Marine, as his dad had been. Proud that he was willing to challenge his own personal fear and do a job that was so dangerous and difficult. I telegraphed my feelings by wearing a variety of "My Son is a U.S. Marine" t- shirts. My automobile had so many Marine and American flag bumper stickers on it that it looked like a military recruiter's van.

I was also blessed to come in contact with other military families who shared the same concerns and fears, and with whom I could share my pride in my son's service. I joined a hometown support group, and a dozen of us had sons in Iraq at the same time. My son was in exactly the same battalion, regiment, company, and platoon as my husband when he was a Marine in Vietnam almost forty years ago. My husband and the other Vietnam veterans from this battalion have had annual reunions for years. Of course, these men were keenly interested in Daniel and how my husband and I were doing. They so graciously offered us a steady stream of encouragement. They wrote letters to the injured and sent frequent care packages to their "little brothers" in Iraq. The support of those who had "been there" and come out the other side was invaluable.

I also had the good fortune of having established e-mail contact with about forty people from all corners of the country whose sons, brothers, and boyfriends were serving in Daniel's battalion and regiment. Over the months, we shared newsy tidbits from our Marines about the temperature in Iraq, the availability of the phones or computers there, life in the desert, etc. We e-mailed one another to keep each other's spirits up, we prayed together, and we comforted each other when the situation there became precarious.

One early morning just a weeks before our Marines' tour was due to end, news came that a suicide bomber had crashed into a convoy vehicle, killing seven Marines and wounding five others. Our e-mail family held its collective breath. Despite the fact that the news bulletin only stated cryptically that this occurred in Al Anbar Province (where several battalions of Marines were deployed), somehow we KNEW that this had happened to our Marines. Cautiously we sent out e-mails, tentatively asking how everyone was doing and reassuring and comforting each other--holding hands in cyberspace, if you will. I prayed it wasn't my son who was seriously wounded or killed. But if not my son, it meant that it was someone else's. I felt ashamed that my relief would only mean another mother's worst nightmare had begun.

As it turned out, only one of the injured Marines had family in our e-mail group, but none of those killed did. My son called twenty-four hours after the bombing to let us know that he was okay. It indeed had been his platoon that had been hit and was now decimated. My son had almost ridden in the ill-fated vehicle, switching only at the last minute to the truck which followed behind it. My heart twisted in grief as he told in graphic detail of that excruciatingly gory scene. It broke my heart to hear him speak of such things happening to his friends, and to know he had seen things no one should ever have to see. It hurt to know I was so far away and helpless to reach out to him.

The loss of these young men was like a blow to the solar plexus. It felt--no, it stillfeels--very personal. Despite the fact that, gratefully, my son returned home, I find my heart remains heavy with grief. I will never be the same. He will never be the same either, having forever lost his best friends and his innocence. I still mourn the loss of the young men killed in his platoon, and not a day goes by that I don't think of those young men cut down before they had lived life fully. I wear a bracelet that honors their memory. It doesn't matter that they are not my children. They are all my boys, and they will be forever etched in my heart.