By KATE BRAESTRUP
My son Zachary was a gangly high-school junior when he casually informed me, in the fall of 2003, that he’d been speaking with military recruiters. “An Army guy, a Navy guy and a marine are coming over,” Zach said. “A parent has to be present because I’m not 18 yet.”
“I’ll be present,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
I wore my best vegan-dyed PEACE T-shirt. I was wary but not too worried. Zach was barely 17, graduation seemed far off still and the notion that he would volunteer was laughable. He didn’t like killing anything, even insects. The sight of blood made him gag. His favorite hobby was napping.
Army Guy turned up with a salesman’s enthusiasm. “How are you, ma’am?” he said to me, and answered himself in the next breath. “Great! Let’s just sit you down here. … ” Soon the couch was covered with glossy brochures detailing the great accommodations at military bases in Italy and Germany, the great medical facilities, the great on-base T.G.I. Friday’s. Zach looked over my shoulder as I examined dreamy photos of Hawaiian bird life and Munich’s museums and beer festivals. “Great opportunities if he likes culture. … ”
“What about the war?” I said.
“The Iraq thing?” I recall him saying. “That’ll be over in no time. Let’s take a look at some of the great educational benefits.”
Navy Guy had tender brown eyes and was endearingly soft around the middle of his white sailor suit. He confided to me, sotto voce, that the Navy had a really low casualty rate. “All the mothers ask,” he said, with a sad smile. He stayed for lunch, confiding in me about his girl troubles while Zach leafed through a pamphlet showing happy sailors on the deck of a destroyer. “Maybe I don’t want to be in the military after all,” Zach said later. “It seems kind of goofy.”
Then came the marine. He was fit and spit-shined. “My name is Sangster, ma’am. Rhymes with gangster.” As I remember it, that was pretty much all he said to me; his pitch was aimed at Zach. “The Marine Corps will make you puke, make you cry, and when that’s over, you’ll be sent to the most miserable, dangerous, godforsaken place on the planet. So let me ask you: Why should I let you join my corps?”
I opened my mouth to answer (“Goodbye!”) but was quelled by a sharp look from Zach. “Well … um, sir,” he said. “I think I’m reasonably smart. But I don’t work very hard. I want you to teach me to work.”
Sangster looked at him for a long moment. “We can do that,” he said.
What could happen to my son’s body in Afghanistan or Iraq did not bear thinking about. Also unbearable was the thought of what he might have to see. My late father served in the Marine Corps in the Korean War and later became a combat correspondent. My first husband, Zach’s father, a state trooper, was killed in the line of duty when Zach was 9.
“Has it occurred to you that you might be looking for some version of what you lost when you lost your dad?” I pointed out, in my attempt to talk Zach out of joining.
“Of course,” he said calmly. Oh.
My second husband, Simon, is a peace-loving man. “I can’t say I trust Sergeant Sangster, or his corps,” Simon admitted. “But I do trust Zach.”
Zach graduated from Parris Island skinnier but still recognizably himself. After advanced combat training, he was sent off to Fort Meade to learn to be a correspondent for military publications. He lived with other newly minted marines in a barracks presided over by a man who swiftly became the main character in our boy’s stories. We pictured him as Louis Gossett Jr. teaching his charges to run faster and fight harder. He inspected their uniforms and gave out punishments, but he also took Zach’s temperature when he was ill and made sure Zach flossed his teeth and called his mom. This Sergeant Purcell even encouraged Zach to resume his interest in poetry. One day, Zach told us he ran 12 miles in record time. “I was on my knees, throwing up, and Sergeant Purcell was hollering, ‘That’s what I call a quality effort, Devil Dog!’ ” The pride in Zach’s voice brought tears to my eyes.
Sergeant Purcell later went to Iraq and was wounded. (Zach says he’s O.K.) My son was sent to Okinawa, where he fell in love with a blue-eyed lance corporal named Erin. They married, and in 2007 they were sent to San Diego, which did ease my mind somewhat. But this year Zach re-enlisted. Regardless of who becomes his commander in chief, I still cannot trust the world with my son — there are too many places where horrors lurk — but I do trust my son.