Second grade soldier

My son learned to roller skate less than 48 hours ago. He’d be ashamed to admit it, but there were tears at first, but then lots of skating. Twenty-four hours earlier, I took him on his very first father-son bike ride. We rode eight miles, the farthest he’d ever ridden at one time. I took him for ice cream. His had M&Ms in it.

Two weeks ago, my eight-year-old son started second grade. He tested into fifth grade reading. He found $2 on the hallway floor, turned it in to the school office, and held the door for a lady on his way out. Tonight is his class Open House. There’s a slideshow.

My son sleeps in a twin bed. It’s piled with stuffed animals. It’s a wonder he can sleep there. Each animal has a name. One is called Baby. One is called Brandon. There are at least 20 more. I don’t know all their names, but my son does. He is somewhere in the too-small-space between a baby and a man, and science still hasn’t found a way to slow down time such that I can love my boy like this forever.

This morning, I read my Twitter feed and nodded at each one of the 9/11 remembrances. I nodded and nodded until I reached this one from an Afghanistan war veteran named Richard Allen Smith (aka rockrichard), retweeted by my friend Grange95.

I read the words again to make sure I hadn’t seen them wrong.

“There are troops fighting in Afghanistan right now that were in second grade on 9/11/01.”

Even after a re-reading, I did the math in my head, sure that someone had carried the wrong number in the subtraction. I, like you, remember 9/11/01 because it was yesterday. I didn’t shower or shave for 48 hours. I worked at the TV station until there was no more work to do, and then I drove around in my car talking to my friend Marty halfway across the country. We’d known each other for a decade at that point, but we still didn’t know what to say that night. I remember 9/11/01, because no real time has passed since.

But it is true. Those second graders of 9/11/01 are 18 or 19 years old today, and some of them are in a mountainous hell right now fighting a near-invisible enemy. Some of those soldiers in desert camo fatigues woke up on the morning of 9/11/01 in a bed full of stuffed animals, wet down the cowlick in their hair, and went to second grade. That night, the PTA meetings were all canceled. Those kids’ parents probably never thought their nation’s tragedy would result in their little boys and girls serving as ground troops in a decade-old war.

I remember second grade. I was in love with Emily Kinney, but I asked my teacher Mrs. Bennett to marry me. Love was a weird thing in the early 80s. Our classroom was the second one on the left, just a couple of doors down the Hilldale Elementary hallway from Mrs. Haseltine’s first grade class, and smack dab in the middle of Vietnam and the first Gulf War. I didn’t event think about the hell of combat until I was a senior in high school ten years later.

I don’t pretend to understand war, how it starts or ends, or what purpose our country hopes to further achieve in Afghanistan. I’ve known too many good soldiers and their families to ever speak ill of their mission. What’s more, this is a day to remember a country once brought together in tragedy and aimed at a common good. This is a day to remember the innocent victims and valiant heroes who died at the hands of radicals eleven years ago. No one has forgotten them, and no one of our generation will.

But right now I hear my son coming home from second grade, his voice still immature, coming up the stairs to tell me how his test went. His teeth are new, crooked, and probably bound for braces. His hair is getting shaggy and will probably need a cut soon. He has a Pokemon book in his hand. He’s never known the America that I knew before 9/11. He’s never known a life without war. And in the time that has elapsed since 9/11–a day we can all still feel aching in our gut–my little boy, the child that turned his boy-father into a man, could be carrying a gun across a desert as a soldier in the American military.

Sometimes I think we forget what war means to our soldiers, to our country, and to our way of life. I think it’s only today that I’ve fully appreciated what war means, because I can see how close my son is to that pure hell. It took just a few words from a veteran for me to realize that the people fighting and dying today were my son’s age when this new American wartime began…just yesterday.

My son, and the only battle I hope he ever knows