I was told writing about the experience of being a war mother would be cathartic and bring closure much like reporting a mission gently closes that door. I’m sitting in an island in the middle of a paper clutter. Newspaper clippings, e-mails, stampless letters from Kuwait with hastily ripped envelopes, notes from a phone interview with my son jotted on the back of a receipt. I’m balancing a very hefty bag of Herman’s Nut house sunflower seeds in my lap which I am popping parrot-like and simultaneously building a mountain of shells in a bowl at my feet.
My son Taggart joined the Marine Reserves as a beardless 17-year-old. In order to recruit a “few more good men” the Marines (as well as other U.S. military branches) put together a program that allowed Mormons to go to basic training, serve a two year L.D.S. mission, and then spend 6 years in the reserves. At the time, Tag’s reasons were mostly economic, but he also assured me it sounded “a lot like the Boy Scouts!” by golly. Serving in the military had been the duty of my father, brothers, uncles, and even great great grandfather, George Washington Taggart , in the Mormon Battalion. We entered the Marine world.
Interestingly enough my son’s Salt Lake City-based reservist unit had been rated the #1 reserve unit out of over 750. It was predominantly composed of young men who had served missions or were about to. The foreign language capabilities were staggering as well as the number of Eagle Scouts and the commitment to excellence and hard work. Apparently this was an exemplary unit. I proudly snapped the photos: “Taggart at Camp Pendleton”, “Taggart graduates from Boot Camp”, “Taggart looking stern in full uniform.”
That scrapbook well might have peaked out emotionally with “All of us at the Marine Family Picnic” but for September 11th. For us personally that day ended with yet another call inquiring about the safety of my husband whose office was in Manhattan. This time the call was from Taggart His chilling news was that he was on immediate alert. As with all Americans, our world pivoted on this day. That night as I routinely went to lock the front door, my hand paused helplessly in the air.
Four months later my son was ordered into full deployment and reported to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, CA. For Taggart that order necessitated pulling out of classes at Utah State, assigning power of attorney papers to a cousin, and storing belongings. For other platoon members that order meant declining already in-hand mission calls and unpacking bags; for others it meant kissing wives and children good-bye and staggering reductions in paychecks. His unit’s immediate assignment fell under Homeland Security.
For the next year Taggart’s letters home (which quickly evolved into email newsletters whose circulation grew into the hundreds) described grueling 25 mile nighttime forced marches, combat training, martial arts courses, and urban warfare training in desert MisterRogers type mock “neighborhoods”. One letter included an attached picture from the Camp Pendleton paper of Taggart blindfolded, holding his automatic weapon which he had broken down and reassembled in 2 minutes and 5 seconds AFTER doing 20 push-ups! A little friendly competition that had grown into an apparent media event. But as the political tenor changed in the U.S. and the talk of war escalated, so did the assignments in Camp Pendleton.
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Last Wednesday at 2200 (10:00 p.m. for the military illiterate), we stepped off on a raid that led us up and down some mountains (wimpy California mountain, not hefty Utah mountains) and 6 hours later Thursday morning, we attacked the training town. It took us about 3 hours to completely clear out the town of the enemy and consolidate our ‘casualties’. We were all pretty tired to say the least. Then, (as if we hadn’t done enough hiking), at 2000 we took off for a 12 mile hike with 100 lbs. of gear on our back.”
And following in the next newsletter:
Last week we played the part of aggressors for an active duty (full-time) marine battalion. They are getting ready to deploy on ship, and this was a graded evaluation for their MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) Commander to see in what areas they need more training. Without going into a whole lot of detail, we made them look like fools. We completely humiliated them the whole week. The tension between us since we have been here has been scary because active duty marines aren’t too fond of reservists. We just added fuel to the fire. We captured all of the Surveillance and Target Acquisition teams and sniper teams and took all of their intelligence. We listened in on all of their radio transmission and knew exactly where they were and where they were going for the whole week. We also sneaked into their Center of Command in the middle of the night and killed their Battalion and Regimental Commanders as well as hundreds of others. As we left their lines with more prisoners than we could handle, one of my guys yelled out, “I sell clothes in a department store for a living!” Another yelled out, “I fix toilets for a living and we still caught you!” This didn’t do much for the tension build-up between us. They outnumbered us by at least 50 to 1 too. It was a fun week for us. We got to run around in civilian clothes and play the part of Al Qaeda Taliban infidels.”
P.S. The same week that Jason Priestly got in a car accident, 3 U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan. How many of you knew that? Of course you didn’t. Our beloved movie star is on special news reports and all kinds of news alerts and breaking news all week, but the 3 soldiers that died were maybe mentioned for a few seconds and then America forgot about them. One channel actually called Jason Priestly a hero. Well, good for him. I hope he gets better soon. He would be hard to replace. When a U.S. Soldier dies, we just replace him with a new one.
The fiscal year is down the last few days of September so we don’t have much money to use for training. This is a bad thing for us. Whenever we don’t have any training, we go on long hikes. At 8 p.m. Sept. 10th our entire battalion (600 + strong) set off for another pointless middle-of-the-night hike. Ten hours and 22 miles later we stopped, dropped our packs and held a prayer ceremony on the beach about 300 meters off shore.Two religions were represented that morning. Ssgt. Ivers, my platoon sergeant, represent the Catholic religion and offered a prayer in front of the battalion and Capt. Shoenfield, my platoon commander, represented the L.D.S. religion and offered a prayer (I guess this is why my platoon is referred to as “The Saints”).If any of you haven’t caught on yet, our ceremony was held right when the planes struck the Twin Towers just one year ago which was the whole reason we were activated. Life is full of circles isn’t it? Our battalion commander got up and gave a great speech about freedom and talked about some of the options for us in the near future. We were given a few minutes to sit in meditation and reaffirm our loyalty to our God and our Country as the song “I’m Proud to be an American” played in the background. Tears streamed down every one of our dirty faces as we listened to the words of the song.The “tougher” Marines lowered their heads and tried to hide their tears. We grabbed some breakfast, loaded our packs back on and finished the last leg of the 25 miles. We arrived back at our barracks, popped some Vicodin and passed out until the next morning. Just in case you are wondering, 25 miles with 100 lbs of gear on your back is a VERY LONG HIKE. I guess when we go to combat we add another 100 lbs. of ammunition and do one about every other day. Not much else to write. We all calculate that we will know what is going to happen to us by the middle or end of October. They can’t keep us out of the information loop forever. We are all hoping for home, but aren’t getting our hopes up.
And then life pivoted again:
November 23, 2002The not-so-good news is that we have officially been detached from 4th Marine Division (The Reserves) and attached to 1st Marine Division (“tip of the spear”). Most of you are giving your computer the “deer in the headlight look” wondering why this isn’t good. Well, I’ll tell you. The commander of 1st Marine Division was also the commander of the forces in Afghanistan right after Sept. 11. Needless to say he impressed the heck out of all of the upper echelon people so much that they gave him another star on his collar and a whole division to command.Our training here has impressed him so much that WHEN the U.S. begins to liberate the people of Iraq, we will most definitely go with the 1st Marine Division. With this new responsibility comes jaw-dropping intelligence briefings about our intents and strategies when we go into Iraq and a higher respect from all the active duty units that we have demolished since we have been here. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Monday, we all got our first of four anthrax shots.
Four days following Christmas during a family train trip into New York City, the phone call came on Tag’s cell that they were to report back to Camp Pendleton on Jan. 8. Brief hopes of demobilization, returning to school, a girlfriend, and normalcy were dashed. The sliver of hope that the U.N. inspectors would work a miracle and conflict would be averted through diplomacy flickered out. We knew what that call represented not only for our son but for the entire country.
Within an hour we were standing at the site of the World Trade Center devastation. I wish I could wax eloquent about that-draw some profound conclusions or at least take a stab at making sense of my emotions that day. Destruction leaves one cold and wordless. That afternoon I added a new dimension to what I had thus felt as a violated American. For the first time I contemplated making a very personal contribution to that sacrificial table for the preservation of freedom and dignity. My stake now had a name, rank and attendant history which I knew intimately.
The next two months were an emotional test of wits. We clung to the cable news channels as the last light in the room before we slept and the earliest sound as we awoke. That became the pattern for the next five months. Meanwhile in California the marines geared up. The “Saints and Sinners” (Fox Co.) were born. For the first time two reserve units from different states were paired-two platoons from Salt Lake City and two from Las Vegas now all a part of the 2/23 Batallion whose history extends magnificently back to Iwo Jima. A combined company (4 platoons) of 180 policemen, casino workers, students, carpenters, salesmen. By this time 5 or 6 mission calls had once again been issued hopefully and then had to be declined.
Speaking honestly, I haven’t been able to sleep much and anxiety mixed with fear and nervousness engulfs us constantly, but I’m sure that is normal. It’s all up in the air right now so it could change in a heartbeat, but we have been doing constant NBC training (nuclear, biological, and chemical) and the desert camoflauge uniforms are being issued. Not to mention that the Anthrax shots continue. I hope they stop soon because I don’t have many more limbs left that don’t have a painful little bump on them. I wish I could tell you more, but either I don’t know or I’m not supposed to know. God bless America!
Then this letter came just prior to dramatic peace marches in New York and Washington. I declined invitations by friends to participate.
Sprits are slowly rising in my unit as our anger and frustrations turn away from the Marine Corps and towards this man who has his mind set on destroying peace. The rest of America may think that we shouldn’t go in or that we should be more diplomatic about it. Well, Saddam has destroyed my peace. And he has destroyed the peace of hundreds of others who have been pulled completely out of their comfort zone for the last year and counting. I have to lie in bed in a sleeping bag amidst paint chips that have fallen from the ceiling, and listen to my friend and brother the next rack down explain to his wife why he can’t be there for what could be another year. Or to tell her to sell the car because his earnings went from $65k last year to $17k this year.How about my other friend two racks down who had to tell his wife that he can’t be there for the birth of his second child, and his first child can hardly remember him because he has been away from him longer than he has been with him?I heard another conversation just last night lying in bed, between a father and his three-year-old son. It went something like this: “Do you want daddy to come home? I know I’ve been gone a long time, but I’ll be home soon. I just wanted to wish you happy birthday and tell you that I love you.”Tell me that doesn’t sink deep into your soul and cry out in pain and revenge towards this “man of terror” who gases his own people with a nerve agent so strong and potent that it snaps their backs instantly. Yes, my peace has been destroyed. OUR peace has been destroyed. It may not affect everybody directly, but it indirectly affects everyone who chooses to call themselves “Americans” and who lives under the Constitution that our loving Heavenly Father provided for us. It has definitely affected my life. I apologize for sparking your emotions, but it’s in these times when our emotions are sensitive, that we make small changes in our lives to better ourselves.
Inevitably the waiting ended and the planes of marines from Camp Pendleton flew to the deserts of Kuwait. The most marked change was the silence. No more “Hi Mom”s on the other end of the phone that had been coming daily recently. No communication now for weeks. A grisly will came from Camp Pendleton naming Taggart’s beneficiaries. I donned my Marine Mom pin I’d picked up at Boot Camp Graduation and began my prayer vigil. Once an hour every waking hour until his return. It was at this point that my imagination came alive. One report about biological or chemical warfare would send me reeling. I became a master of the “What if.” worst case scenario. The horrors of war and especially this one with all of the unknowns of the “new enemy” terrorized me.
The first letter arrived and we tore it open.
Mar. 3, Kuwait desert– This is a letter of desperation. I am literally getting sick of eating MRE’s (meals ready to eat) 3 times a day. I haven’t eaten in 3 days. I’m doing OK but I don’t know how long I can hold out. I need you to send me some food. I need some packages and quick. Send sunflower seeds. David’s. And like 10 bags-Bar-b-q, Ranch and all kinds. I was talking with an Army guy and he was complaining because of the chow hall that they eat in everyday with the soda machines, and the fact that they only have two phones for their platoon. I will never see a phone here. He can go to KFC or Subway if he gets sick of the chow hall. We will never be close enough to even smell them. They get showers everyday too. The disparity between us is unreal. It does, however, explain why the Marines are so much more effective and are always called in first. Love, Tag keyword: sunflower seeds!!!!!
At this point I was more prepared in my imagination for anything BUT hunger! I sobbed and sobbed. I shook a fist at an invisible Uncle Sam who wasn’t even feeding my kid!!! As time went on we learned of desert fleas, unsanitary conditions, human wastes being burned but leaving airborne bacteria that made everyone deathly ill. We reacted to these reports with bombardments of sunflower seeds, Wet-Wipes, flea collars and Pepto Bismol!
An email chain letter went from sea to shining sea in a matter of minutes and the pledges of support came rolling in. Packages by the dozens (over 80 all told) were sent. Total strangers handed package senders money in the post office lines to help cover expenses. One postal clerk started to cry when I handed her my packages to send. She grabbed me and hugged me across the window. One nursery school “adopted” Taggart and sent 13 packages! The children in my school sent art, letters, knock-knock jokes and food. I printed off Dave Barry’s column and optimistically sent it each day. In a huge act of faith not even knowing anything would arrive (conflicting reports made us doubt even the mail system) we filled the unknown with umbilical extensions from home.
Then the march began to Baghdad and the shells started to fly. With my nose six inches from the screen I scanned the faces of the troops. They ALL looked like Taggart! In my public life I was functioning, giving sketchy updates to hundreds of well-wishers with questions, smiling and meeting the demands of each day. In my private life I quivered. During the rare moments when I actually succumbed to the emotions, I fell to my knees and literally left a pool of tears welling up from someplace deep and private. We prayed. We fasted. We prayed. We voiced words of faith. We prayed. In our complete helplessness we prayed to the only source we had. In return we were given the hope that allowed us to function and even take comfort.
Some time during this experience we became aware that FOX cable had an imbedded reporter with the 2/23 and we could catch visuals as well as daily updates. We pieced together the headlines and news updates and came up with a fairly logical path for Taggart and Fox Co. He had forewarned us to watch the headlines to know where he was. But we didn’t KNOW anything. Nothing at all. And that not-knowing tempered our line of faith into the finest steel. We put the matter completely into God’s hands, and once it was placed there, the fact that we had no facts, no letters, no information gave us all the more comfort. I would never have guessed that. The less knowledge we had, the more faith we extended. The more faith we extended, the more sure knowledge and comfort from the Holy Ghost we received back.
The collective faith and meditative energy and prayers were overwhelming. At church we prayed for “a miracle of Biblical proportions”. Amidst the dissent, Americans prayed for the safety of the troops. Our temples were filled with the prayers of the faithful. From some secret unknown “bank account” of my soul I started drawing out strength that I had not known existed. It felt as if some unknown philanthropic benefactor had methodically made vast deposits and the interest had grown and compounded! I became 99% a woman of faith with perhaps only 1% a woman of doubt and groveling hopelessness!
The clouds broke with a phone call from the U.N. building in Baghdad mid April. I got 55 seconds of the most-welcome voice.
Now it is fall and Fox Co. has returned. Taggart was married in August. I’m sure mission calls are being re-extended. Fathers are coaching Little League again, and wives are slowly releasing the reins they have held on the family finances. Military leaders are processing the weeks and weeks of debriefing information they received from interviewing “The Saints and Sinners” after they returned to Kuwait from Baghdad.. The “Rest of the Story” about what happened in Iraq will need to be told through firsthand accounts. History will bear out that the 2/23 were heroes. Paperwork is being processed to award the medals and honors that come from combat in a war. These platoons have been nominated for a prestigious Presidential Citation Award. I’ve asked questions and received more information than I expected. Like scout camp, the REAL story takes a while to unfold and most mothers don’t have a stomach for it!
At a recent family gathering, Taggart dragged a ragged dusty canvas bag over to the picnic tables and began taking out his war mementos. Each one carried with it the mystery of a faraway land and time. One helmet was signed with signatures and nicknames of his war brothers. I thought of my father’s war brothers who wrote at the time of his death.
I recently read about soldiers taking hair from loved ones into battle, assorted good luck charms. During WWII soldiers carried lucky bullets. Back home, faithful factory workers carved foreign names into bullets in hopes that they would “find their marks” and their soldiers could return.
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Our good luck charm was a green cloth frog wearing a knitted sweater, arms folded and hanging upside down by his feet from a kitchen shelf. Taggart had jokingly folded the frog’s arms and suspended him at Christmastime. We named him Seth and left him suspended. Upside down Seth looked completely calm if not a bit defiant with his long arms folded across his chest. When we moved to our new house in Omaha we hung Seth head first again from the main entry light. The UPS man asked about him one day. He’ll come down soon.
2003 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.