Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
My teen-aged niece and I were standing in line at the checkout in J.C. Penny’s yesterday when we noticed the young soldier striding toward a nearby exit. He looked like any raw-boned, young GI, clad in desert camo, ACU cap, dog tags no doubt tucked beneath his khaki T-shirt. One of many such soldiers one encounters these days in stores, restaurants, and airports Anywhere USA as the wars overseas drag on.
But what made this particular soldier stand out, dodging and weaving through the throng of holiday shoppers, was the home-made sign he grasped askew in his left hand that read, “I Love You Mom” while he checked messages on an iPhone in his other hand.
My niece and I looked at each other, eyes misting.
“Ohhhhhhhh…” we said, in that half-moan way emotions emerge…
“Sweeeeeet,” she said.
“And I will bet there’s a good story behind THAT little sign,” I said.
As we waited our turn at the checkout, I could only imagine…
Maybe he was headed for a reunion after an overseas tour of duty—or leaving for one—and meeting his mother at the airport or somewhere else?
I was working out other imaginary logistics when our turn came up. My niece made her purchase and we headed for the exit, the soldier’s “story” still tugging at my heart, and, lo and behold, he was standing just outside the door. I couldn’t resist.
I drew near him—he was still busy with his phone—and, after thanking him for his service, said, “Say, your sign caught our eye. Does your mom live around here?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, she does. It’s just a Christmas tradition for her. Every year I get a picture taken with Santa and I hold up a sign like this.”
(“Ohhhhhhhhhh,” My niece and I repeated, in unison.)
He looked slightly sheepish but was still smiling.
“And she cries, right?” I asked…trying to keep it light.
“Yeah,” he said. “But, I’m like, Mom, I do this every year! What’s the big deal!”
“Well she’s a girl,” I said…”Of COURSE she cries!”
I couldn’t quite say, “She’s a mother, son, and you’re a young soldier in a world very hard on young soldiers just now. And on their mothers.” So I didn’t.
He chuckled again; we wished him (and his mother) a Merry Christmas and went on our way. He went back to his phone…
~ ~ ~
Every term in my writing classes I encounter one or more young soldiers, recent veterans, many fresh from the dust and danger of Middle Eastern deserts and now taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to learn a trade and move on in life. Some sit in the same classrooms with other young men on student visas who perhaps were on the other side “over there.” I pray for them all and help them write their stories and essays.
Like other writing instructors with vets in the class, I occasionally read depictions of front line life. Memorable essays for me include a stunning description of one of those sand storms that you can see from outer space that occurred while one student was stationed in Kuwait. With his permission I’ve linked it, below.*
Another story detailed a young soldier’s experience sitting in the middle of two buddies in their Humvee during an IED attack on a road in Iraq. His buddies didn’t make it; he, barely. He told me it helps to be able to write about it. He was still on medication for post traumatic stress.
Another student just this last term had a particularly hard time processing psychological trauma he sustained through his multiple deployments to the war zones and other duty stations and with the “Dear John” letter he received in the middle of it all.
He struggled with putting it together in essay form. I suggested he might choose another topic. He told me that he really needed to finally write it all out. I extended his due date. He wrote his Hemingwayesque-styled story with clear nouns, strong verbs, and few adjectives, although he wouldn’t know it was that style.
What he did know was that he needed, for some reason, just then, to put his story down on paper. He crafted a powerful, “coming of age in a time of war” piece, detailing experiences from which he will likely continue to recover for some time. The topic for his collection of anecdotes was “resiliency”.
~ ~ ~
As my niece and I got on with our shopping trip yesterday I thought of those soldiers and I prayed for the “Christmas soldier,” as I now call the young man we encountered at the mall.
I prayed that he would someday be able to come back and get on with his life, too.
I prayed he will NOT be one of those who will have to process trauma, although there are many people including writing teachers who might be able to help, if such is the case.
But mostly I prayed that he will be able to keep the tradition alive for many, many Christmases to come. You know, the tradition of giving his mom a picture of him with Santa.
You know, the one where he holds up the sign.