A Family at War

Author: Tom McMahon '69

Not since he was a baby, when I would walk with him at night to lull him to sleep, did I hug my only son as long as I hugged him that Saturday night. It was March 8, 2003, and we were in the parking lot of a hotel, across the street from a fence that separated my civilian world from his military world, the world of Hunter Army Airfield, Savannah, Georgia.

Don’t try to be a hero, I think I said. That would have been consistent with my philosophy, ever since I had served in combat in Vietnam in 1968: No need to win any bronze stars, no need for any purple hearts. Every soldier who goes out into the madness of war and does his job is a hero. And then I said I love you, and I’m proud of you. He said he loved me, and then he got into his car and drove off to war.

My wife and daughter had said their goodbyes just moments before; they had hugged him just as long and as hard as I had before they retreated to our hotel suite to fight back tears and fears. I joined them in the living room. We were silent. There was nothing to say. We all agreed: the war in Afghanistan made sense; the war in Iraq did not. Yet Iraq was where the fourth member of our family was headed.

I went into one of the two bedrooms and closed the door and began to scribble page after page about why the war in Iraq was a reckless, no-end-in-sight war. My wife, Pat, went into the other bedroom and closed the door. She needed privacy to say her novena: 27 days of petition and 27 days of thanksgiving. I don’t know what day she was on, but she said it was working.

Our daughter, Shaine, who had seen a long relationship with a young man she had known since college days come to an end in summer 2001, had met a good young man a year later. They had talked on the phone several times during our stay in Savannah. The novena seemed to have sparked and sustained love. But now it would face a much tougher challenge, a challenge well beyond the control of any of us, the challenge of war.

Collin joined the Army in 1998, trained at Fort Knox in Kentucky and shipped out to Germany in early 1999. My advice to him before he joined the Army was “don’t sign up for the infantry.” He didn’t. Instead, he volunteered to be a scout in an infantry unit, which was an even more dangerous job. In February 2000, unbeknown to us at the time, he spent three weeks in Kosovo, helping the French in their sector of that troubled land. The gendarmes needed help bringing order to the town of Mitrovica, where Albanian Muslims and Christian Serbs were fighting. Muslim extremists in the Middle East seemed to have forgotten that the United States intervened in the war in Kosovo to protect the Albanian Muslims from the Christian Serbs.

I was up most of the night, listening for the roar of a giant Air Force plane that would take my son and his company to some secret location near or maybe in Iraq. Sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., I heard a plane streak overhead.

Feeling isolated

I woke around 8 a.m., after about three hours of sleep. It was 4:07 Sunday afternoon, Saddam’s time. Baghdad was eight hours ahead of East Coast time. I figured my son was out over the Atlantic, probably on his way to Ramstein Air Base, the giant U.S. airbase in Germany that served as a hub for the movement of military people and things into and out of the Middle East.

While getting ready for Mass, we watched the Sunday morning talk shows. Pundits and politicians, not a one of them with a son or daughter out over the Atlantic heading for the war in Iraq, talked endlessly and comfortably about the coming war. We felt aggrieved. Why was it that those who made policy and those who influenced the public to support the policy didn’t have loved ones affected by the policy?

And the three of us felt isolated. Not only did no one on TV have a son or daughter heading to Iraq, no one we knew had a loved one flying off to war. We were an island of three souls, terrified by the coming war, living in what seemed to us to be an ocean of indifference to the coming mayhem. Perhaps Sunday morning Mass might offer some strength, some solace.

Savannah’s main Catholic church, the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, is magnificent. The twin towers that sit atop the church in the city’s historic district can be seen for miles around. Every year, on the second Sunday before Saint Patrick’s Day, the city’s substantial Irish population holds its special Celtic cross Mass at the cathedral. This was the day.

As we neared the church, we saw a sea of kelly green. Hundreds of men and boys in green blazers, and women and little girls in bright green, beautifully embroidered dresses were gathering in front of the cathedral. Groups congregated around large banners: Sinn Fein Society, Clan Na Erin, the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, the Daughters of Ireland. In typical Irish fashion, the sexes were segregated.

During the Mass, the profoundly patriotic congregation, knowing America was on the brink of war, sang “God Bless America,” filling the cavernous church. I tried but failed to fight back tears. I didn’t look at my wife and daughter because I didn’t want them to see my tears.

And I didn’t want them to sense my fear. Just nine months earlier this church had been the site of a memorial service for three Army Rangers who had died in Operation Anaconda, the Pentagon’s name for the hunt for Al Qaeda—the true perpetrators of September 11th—in the frigid, towering mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Hindu Kush range of mountains had recently been proudly proclaimed “the top of the world” by Osama bin Laden. Clearly, the work U.S. forces had been sent to do in Afghanistan in October 2001 was not yet finished, but Iraq was where the Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion was now being sent.

In March 2002, with only six months left in his enlistment, our son decided to become an Army Ranger. The motto of this all-male group is “Rangers Lead the Way.” Our only son not only wanted to be a part of America’s response to the savage attacks of September 11th, he wanted to be one of those who led the response.

During Mass, I prayed for the safety of our son and all of our troops, now stationed in more than 40 countries around the world. I prayed especially for our troops heading into Iraq, knowing full well that some of our nation’s sons and daughters would die and many others would be wounded. I prayed that the three of us would have the strength to accept what came our way. I looked at my watch: noon in Savannah, 6 p.m. in Germany, 8 p.m. in Baghdad. Sergeant Collin McMahon was probably now leaving Ramstein Air Base on his way into the war zone.

We came out of the church feeling comforted, strengthened. Our strength came from these people, from this church, from this pro-America, pro-military community. We wanted to stay in Savannah; we wanted to stay near Hunter Army Airfield; we wanted to stay near the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist; we wanted to stay near the Hibernians and Sons of Saint Patrick and Daughters of Ireland. But we each had jobs back home, and we knew the best thing for us was to maintain our routines as much as possible, just keep life going as normally as possible as we awaited war. The next day, we flew back to Washington.

Joy, fear

In the next few days, U.N. weapons inspectors ended their search for weapons of mass destruction, packed up their belongings and left Iraq. By phone and e-mail, my wife and I kept in close touch with our daughter, who lived in Arlington, Virginia. Shaine, half of our treasure, confided in my wife that this young man, Curt, was the one. We were pulled in opposite directions, one of joy, one of fear.

On Saturday night, March 15, friends of ours in Reston, Virginia, our home town, had a Saint Patrick’s Day party. The six couples, friends whose children had grown up with our children in Reston’s schools and on its soccer fields, were trying to get us out of the house and get our minds off the coming war. In the end, we couldn’t bring ourselves to attend. We were violating our maintain-your-routine rule. But partying and war just didn’t mix. And besides, conversations at these parties inevitably turned to our children’s successes and setbacks. Our friends’ children were buying condominiums, getting engaged, attending graduate school. Our son was headed to war.

On Saint Patrick’s Day evening, President Bush addressed the nation, the world and in particular, Saddam Hussein: You have 72 hours to give up your weapons of mass destruction and relinquish control of the Iraqi government. Saddam, of course, did not comply. Shock and awe began one day early, on the evening of March 19, 2003, because the CIA had a tip that Saddam was in a particular apartment building in Baghdad. The war had begun.

A terrible event

I was glad to have a business trip the next day. It would help to keep me occupied. I took the same flight I had taken on September 11, 2001, a Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore-Washington Airport to Albany, New York. The flight took us right over New York City. Shortly after the 9:15 a.m. takeoff on the day of the barbaric attacks, the pilot informed us we were being rerouted around the city because of “an accident in New York City.”

It seemed odd to me, but I didn’t know what to make of it, so I opened the sport’s section of the Washington Post to see just how far behind the Yankees our beloved Orioles were. They were way back.

We arrived in Albany about 10:30 a.m. Only when I entered the terminal did I begin to realize that something terrible had happened. Scores of people were huddled around TV monitors. I quickly learned what seemed almost incomprehensible: The “accident in New York City” was an attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center with commercial airliners. I spent some time in the chapel of the Albany airport. I tried to call home, to call my office, to call an attorney I was to meet in Albany. All the lines were busy.

I waited in the Hertz line, wanting to comfort a woman sobbing on a nearby bench, but I was afraid to lose my place in line. I might lose my rental car, which might be my only way back to my car at the Baltimore-Washington Airport.

I heard one man say excitedly that a plane had gone down near Pittsburgh. When I got to the head of the line, the Hertz lady told me the twin towers had collapsed. I knew right then that our son, who at the time had one year left in his four-year enlistment, would be involved in our nation’s response; I knew America would never be the same, and neither would our family.

Our daughter, who at the time worked in an office on K Street in Washington, D.C., just two blocks from the White House, would later describe a scene of panic and chaos after the third plane had hit the Pentagon. Rumors were rampant that there might be planes headed toward the Capitol. The metro was closed. No taxis were available. People, tears of grief and fear streaming down their faces, were running down the streets of Washington, across the bridges over the Potomac into Virginia. Hundreds of discarded high heels littered the way.

At Centreville High School in suburban Virginia, where my wife worked as a guidance counselor, some of the students had parents working in the Pentagon. One boy would learn that his mother, a civilian working in the wing that had been hit, was killed instantly. September 11th touched each of us in a different way.

The silence

The days that followed the beginning of the war in Iraq were the most frightening of all for my family. Our son had been gone almost two weeks. We didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. As an Army Ranger, he was part of Special Operations. No communications were permitted.

Yet CNN covered the war 24/7. The distinctive music it used to begin each broadcast segment terrified me. Still, I wanted to know everything that was going on, from the progress the Army’s Third Infantry Division was making in its move north from Kuwait toward Baghdad, to the Marines moving north along the Tigris through Kut. I listened intently for any mention of Special Operations. My beloved wife of 33 years was upstairs, saying her novena.

One evening, we saw footage of a big nighttime firefight between U.S. Special Operations units and Iraqis defending a scud missile site in the western Iraqi desert. The Iraqis could launch missiles from this site and hit Israel. I was convinced our son was a part of this engagement.

On Monday, March 24, the headline in the Washington Post read: “Clashes at Key River Crossing Bring Heaviest Day of American Casualties.” Sixteen Americans were killed and five captured in two separate encounters with Iraqi forces in the town of Nasiriya, about 200 miles south of Baghdad. Iraqi television, the Post reported, broadcast graphic images from a morgue showing the uniformed bodies of seven Americans who were members of an Army supply maintenance company that had taken a wrong turn in the town. Some U.S. soldiers were missing in action in the bloodiest day of the war. The front page of that same day’s Post reported that Nicole Kidman had won the Oscar the night before as best actress for her role in The Hours.

My wife and I continued to watch TV nightly, following the movement of U.S. units north toward Baghdad. Beginning March 25, the movement was delayed several days by one of the fiercest sandstorms that had occurred in Iraq in years. It was about this time that I was so worried and upset and sleepless that I thought about seeing a professional counselor. But what would he say? How could he help me? What counselor had experience helping the father of a soldier at war? I decided against it.

We were not without therapy. It wasn’t professional, but it was probably more effective. We would come home from work and find flowers on our doorstep or a card in the mail box: “Can’t stop thinking about you, and praying for Collin’s safe return. Love, Evelyn.” Or messages on voice mail: “Pat, it’s Ellen. Call me.” Sometimes a friend of Pat’s would stop by with a prepared meal. I loved the spaghetti and meatballs. So it went, but still not the best therapy of all, a call or e-mail from our son.

On Tuesday evening, April 1, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, U.S. Central Command’s chief spokesman, announced on TV that Army Private Jessica Lynch, a member of the supply unit that had been ambushed on March 23, had been rescued from a hospital in Nasiriya. The next day, the Washington Post reported that CIA operatives, Navy Seals and Army Rangers, all members of a special operations unit, had carried out the rescue.

My wife asked if I thought Collin might have been involved in the rescue. No way, I said. I’m sure he’s in the western Iraqi dessert, hundreds of miles from Nasiriya.

Days of terror went by. Each of us tried to maintain our routines. All in all, we did pretty well. On April 9, soldiers from the Third Infantry Division entered Baghdad and tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein. I was glad, and proud of the division. Saddam was a bad man, but I couldn’t figure out what he had to do with September 11th. It had now been a month and a day since we had seen or heard from our son.

In mid-April, almost a month into the war, the Washington Post reported that 102 Americans had been killed, seven were listed as Prisoners of War and eight were classified as Missing in Action. Apparently, no one had been wounded. The Pentagon reported that soldiers were wounded only if there was a death in the same action. So if seven Marines were wounded in an action but there were no Marine fatalities, the action was not reported to the American people.

On April 28, I was in a dealership leasing a new car when my secretary walked into the showroom. When I saw her, my heart dropped. There was no reason for her to come looking for me, except the worst. But she yelled out that our son had called my office about 30 minutes before. He was fine, his spirits were high; he was out of Iraq and headed home. It was one of the most joyous moments of my life.

The next day, April 29, was my 58th birthday. And what a birthday present I received! Collin called from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. He was safely home.

And he would be coming to Reston on Friday, May 2. Immediately we started inviting our friends to a party. We went out Saturday afternoon to buy the food and drinks, and when we returned there were yellow ribbons and balloons tied to trees and lampposts everywhere.

The weather on Sunday was near perfect. A gentle breeze ruffled the banner that stretched the width of our deck, prepared by the students at Centreville High School: Welcome Home Collin!!! You’re The Best!! It was signed by dozens of students. But the best of all was Collin’s toast to his fiancée, Lana. My wife and daughter and I loved this girl, whom Collin had met while working as a waiter in Reston four years earlier. He had bought the ring just days before, having decided Lana was the one.

Shaine and Curt would get engaged four days later.

During Collin’s four-day visit, he informed us that he and his fellow Army Rangers had participated in the rescue of Private Lynch. Later, he and other Rangers, in the dead of night in an abandoned soccer field near the hospital, had the gruesome task of digging up, with their hands—they had not brought entrenching tools—the bodies of eight American soldiers who had been killed in the same action in which Lynch had been wounded. In the days after April 1, the American people would see the videotape of the rescue of Lynch over and over. They would never see the disinterment of her eight colleagues.

I don’t know how many times I hugged our son during his visit. But every time I hugged him, I told him how proud I was of him and all the Army Rangers, and all the men and women serving in our armed forces. They would continue to go out into the madness of war and do their jobs. They are all heroes.

Today, Staff Sergeant McMahon is still on active duty, serving his country where required as a proud Army Ranger. He and his wife, Lana, like so many other military families, bear the burden of long separations that are the inevitable result of the continuing war on terrorism and the government’s doctrine of preemptive war.

Tom McMahon is an attorney.