116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Yesterday, a letter arrived.
The envelope was slightly wrinkled, with an out-of-state postmark and my name scrawled across the front in unmistakable handwriting — my firstborn and my only son, writing home from basic training.
I sat at our dining room table with my 19-year-old, and we opened the letter together. Inside, we were more than a little disappointed to find not a letter from my son, but a form letter from his commanding officer — “Please do not send your Soldier any tobacco, alcohol, food products …”
Maybe we are being a little dramatic. It’s only training, he’s fed and clothed and housed and earning his way through college. He is making his way in the world; the experiences and opportunities afforded him by his service may well be a benefit to him for the rest of his life.
A few weeks after 9/11, my family gathered in a small recreation room to celebrate my son’s first birthday. He was a blur of energy — a shock of black hair and a grin from ear to ear. He took his first step at that party, and we helped him blow out the single candle on a pumpkin shaped cake.
The next day, then-President George W. Bush with a furrowed brow and a solemn tone, announced the United States military engagement in Afghanistan. “Today…,” he remarked, “sacrifices are being made by members of our armed forces who now defend us so far from home, and by their proud and worried families.”
The 20 year war that followed claimed the lives of 2,448 members of the U.S. military, 3,846 U.S. contractors, 444 aid workers, 37 journalists and nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians.
I don't know how their mothers vote. ... I do know that one day, they said goodbye to their child, prayed that they had taught them all they needed to know, and waited for a letter, a note, any word from them out in that big world.
We watched clips of the military occupation on the evening news, the subsequent invasion of Iraq and the infamous Mission Accomplished speech, the return of refugees who had fled the Taliban prior to U.S. involvement, and gradually the stories became fewer and further between. We lived our lives, went to work, ate our meals, celebrated our milestones and raised our children. And in that time, 2,448 folded flags were delivered to families from sea to shining sea.
Between Oct. 7, 2001 and the withdrawal of troops last month, life changed dramatically in our household. The giggling energetic baby who arrived in this world a few months after my 16th birthday grew into a towering gangly bookworm who forced us to endure internet meme humor and terrible TV shows, and devoured a quantity of chili dogs that boggles the mind. He was a Boy Scout, a recreation league baseball player and a member of ALO (Accountability, Leadership, Opportunity) at Linn-Mar High School. I swear, it was only yesterday that he walked across the graduation stage and I was lucky enough to be a school board member and therefore able to hand him his diploma.
We saw him off on Aug. 9, just one day before word began to break in the press that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was likely to lead to a collapse within six months. It may seem nonsensical that the withdrawal of troops and the conclusion of a conflict would lead to worry, but the immediate Taliban takeover and the attack on the Kabul airport did me no favors.
With the GOP divided over whether we should have maintained a presence in Afghanistan (although united in criticism of our current commander in chief), the 2024 election holds a new kind of significance for me now. With my own child enlisted, those folded flags hold a new kind of significance for me now. It is difficult to imagine life without the war that has occupied our military for more than half of my life and nearly all of his.
For 20 years, our soldiers have fallen to the war in Afghanistan, some as young as my own son. Their families have remembered them in heartbreaking tributes: the sound of their laughter, their selflessness, their hopes and dreams.
I don't know how their mothers vote. I don’t know how they feel about mask mandates, baseball, women in STEM fields or music. I don’t know the details of precious moments with their children that fill their hearts with love and with sorrow.
I do know that one day, they said goodbye to their child, prayed that they had taught them all they needed to know, and waited for a letter, a note, any word from them out in that big world. In a time of tragedy, it becomes easier and all the more imperative to see beyond our differences and extend grace and kindness to each other. To listen and learn from each other, and to grow as people and as a community.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org