Could Any Friend Really Understand what It Feels Like for a Quaker Mom to have a Child who Is a Soldier?

Though I grew up and then served as pastor in a different denomination, I’ve been a lifelong pacifist, culminating in joining the Religious Society of Friends a few years ago. As my children grew up, I sought to share my values and spirituality with them, yet the words from Kahlil Gibran often went through my head: "Your children are not your children; they are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself."

On December 11, 2003, Army Pfc. Jeffrey Braun of Stafford, Connecticut, age 19, died in Baghdad. He was a friend of my daughter, Ari. They were teammates on the school’s wrestling team, a small, tight-knit group of teenagers in a school of 650, in a town of 12,000. Jeff was in the same graduating class as Ari’s close friend Matt and, like Matt, had left for the army shortly after graduation. Jeff was a friendly, good-natured music lover who planned to complete his service in the army, go to college, then fulfill his dream of building an orphanage in his native country of Honduras, from which he was adopted by his Stafford parents.

When news of Jeff’s death circulated, sorrow enveloped this small town as one would expect in the event of an untimely and tragic death, and students cried in the high school hallways. Another of Jeff’s friends, still a student, displayed his anguish by pinning a sign to his shirt that read, "Is the price of oil worth the life of a friend?"—soliciting solidarity from students but hostility from faculty and staff. When the funeral was held, it was the first time many of my daughter’s classmates had ever set foot in a church, and beforehand I overheard her on the phone with a friend who asked, "What do you do at a funeral?"

December 23, 2003, was Ari’s 18th birthday. The day after Christmas she headed to Fort Bragg with Matt’s parents and brother to see him before he was deployed to Kuwait. On January 1, 2004, she arrived home from North Carolina late in the evening and handed me a piece of paper—her wedding certificate. I stared at it in shock. For months she and Matt had secretly been planning to marry before his deployment. A few days later, she resumed her senior year of high school, and Matt left for Kuwait.

Ari’s marriage sent me into a deep depression. What about college? What about studying environmental science and becoming a park ranger? What about hiking in Nepal? What about being 1,000 miles away from your mother?

Matt returned to Fort Bragg from Kuwait four months later. After Ari’s high school graduation, she joined Matt in an off-base apartment near Fort Bragg. She took the two cats and her hamster. My constant companion for 18 years was gone.

Late in 2004, Matt was deployed again, this time for a year in Iraq. Ari was alone in North Carolina without a job, not in school, and eventually without transportation when both Matt’s car and the one she bought to replace it died. It was a tough year. She said she really didn’t fit in with the other military spouses, but resisted my suggestions about counseling. She finally signed up for some classes at a local college that was within walking distance of the apartment; then toward the end of 2005, Matt returned from Iraq.

Within two months, Ari called to tell me she’d posted an online journal entry. It said:

My Mom’s going to kill me . . . and I care what she thinks. . . . But I did it anyway. . . .

I joined the Army last week.

I’m off to basic in 2 weeks.

I’m an 88H (Cargo Specialist Load Master) for three years. In other words . . . I’m in charge of how Army stuff (tuff bins to helicopters) gets shipped and if someone else does it and screws it up I tell them to do it all over again.

I was going to go to school for this semester and then go to basic . . . but I figured out that if I go this month I have the following pros:

(1) I don’t have to suffer through the southern summer heat from May to September in basic if I leave now.

(2) When I get done with my training I can take condensed night classes and graduate two years early with my bachelor’s next April.

(3) The college (army) pays all of my tuition up to $67,000 which in the school I’m in now gets me my master’s.

(4) After the Army I can go to a civilian contract overseas for 175k a year.

(5) I get a paycheck all the time. That means no struggling to find a dead-end job and I’m still getting to do something I want to do a lot. Oh yeah . . . and it pays for my truck and rent too. And animals. . . . And food. . . .

(6) I don’t know what I’m doing haha. Yeah I do. I can’t wait for basic. I’m so excited to get my ass kicked.

Ari had called me after posting this message, to be sure I heard it from her prior to finding out about it from friends or reading it imyself. We went back and forth on the phone for hours—I sobbing and shouting, she shouting back. At that point, it wasn’t too late for her to change her mind, I argued. I persuaded a family friend to call Ari and try to talk her out of it, but to no avail. More sobbing and shouting ensued, continuing for weeks, until the day she left for basic training.

On January 19, 2006, I sent an e-mail to Ari:

Dear Ari:
Let me begin by saying I intellectually understand the reasoning behind your decision. You need a physical challenge, you need a job, you need money, you need to pay for school. There’s no easy answer to all those needs you have, so the military, which offers to meet those needs, is an attractive option. You’re not the first person to make that choice for those same reasons.

You know my concerns, of course. The war is illegitimate, and it’s a war, which by definition is dangerous. . . . No one in Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. . . . The claim that we’re "fighting for freedom" is probably the biggest lie, because while we’re waging this war, the administration is doing everything it can to take away our constitutional freedoms. . . .

For three years’ employment and all that is promised to you, you offer your life, your person. It’s a gamble. It’s a gamble that you’re willing to take with your life—it’s a gamble that you’re willing to take with the life of my daughter, the daughter I raised to respect people, to respect life, to believe that killing another human being is wrong. By definition, the job description of the armed forces is kill or be killed. Can you really see yourself killing another person? You may not ever be in that situation but you have signed up to be. . . .

I wish I had a solution for you. I wish I could give you a job that wouldn’t make you insane, I wish I could pay for school. . . . All I can say is that there are student loans and financial aid available. . . . It’s not too late to change your mind. . . .

I love you. I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to sell your soul, and I don’t want you to end up dead.

Within days of sending that e-mail, I walked out into the driveway to my car in the morning to go to work. I’d left my briefcase on the back seat the night before, but when I opened the car door, the briefcase was gone. The contents of the briefcase were few—but it contained my file of counter-recruitment materials, accumulated over the past 26 years and newly amended in anticipation of my monthly meeting’s plans for a peace center and counter-recruitment work.

The investigating police officer and I speculated that, since drug dealers lived a few blocks away and there’d been a rash of break-ins, this was part of an unsolved crime spree. My partner offered a conspiracy theory. After all, he’d noted, I’d been having all these phone conversations and e-mail exchanges with Ari wherein I’d badmouthed the government, the President, the military. He reminded me about my early association with Clergy and Laity Concerned and with the Sanctuary movement, and about my more recent work in radio, announcing peace vigils and marches, and often interviewing people working for peace in various capacities. Perhaps there was more to it than someone looking for valuables to sell for a fix.

Whether petty theft or grand conspiracy, the crime remains unsolved, and it only serves as a bitter reminder of my daughter’s choice. After all—I fumed—what good did that file do when I couldn’t even keep my own daughter out of the army? Suddenly I felt that having anything to do with the meeting’s counter-recruitment efforts was like pouring salt on an open wound.

In April, I attended Ari’s graduation from boot camp. I wondered if that was a first in this war—a Quaker attending a boot camp graduation. I traveled with Ari’s aunt Amy, and when we arrived we were ushered into a gymnasium and "prepared for meeting our soldiers" with the viewing of a video. It was designed to provoke emotion. I was immediately sure that what Amy and I were feeling was not what the Army intended. The soundtrack for images of fighting soldiers was the song "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence:

[Wake me up] Wake me up inside
[I can’t wake up] Wake me up inside
[Save me] Call my name and save me from the dark
[Wake me up] Bid my blood to run
[I can’t wake up] Before I come undone
[Save me] Save me from the nothing I’ve become

It was as blasphemous as the army’s "Be All You Can Be" motto of the 1980s. I walked out.

I was stunned when my daughter, trying to break the tension she knew I felt at being there, showed me the shirt she’d bought me. "It was so funny, I had to get it," she said. The shirt depicts the army seal with a pair of boots and the words, "My daughter wears combat boots in the U.S. Army." I’m not sure I’ve yet recovered from the shock that she would think the shirt was a way to add humor to the irony of the situation.

There were 800 young people graduating that day in April. Ari told me that in the early days of basic training, they were asked why they’d enlisted. About 90 percent, she told me, were there for economic reasons. She added that more than half were actually opposed to the current administration and thought the reasons given for the war were lies.

Eight hundred young adults. They were the same age as the Olympians I’d watched on TV while Ari was in basic training. They were the same age as friends’ children who were graduating from high school or college. This graduation was one of about a half dozen happening that month. I thought we were in the midst of a recruiting shortage! During the ceremony the commanding officer thanked us for "the sacrifices (we) make as family members supporting (our) soldiers . . . to help battle the global war on terror, to join in the fight to help protect democracy and freedom." I felt physically ill and wanted to scream at all of the families and soldiers, "Do you people actually believe this?" But my son-in-law was in his dress uniform sitting next to me, and I couldn’t do it. I felt beaten down, tears of grief and shame trickling down my face (and Amy’s) while the other families watched, seemingly with pride.

I didn’t lose it again until I saw the boots. In August, New England Yearly Meeting hosted part of the Eyes Wide Open traveling exhibit of army boots representing each U.S. soldier killed in the war. I didn’t want to see the boots. Friends were encouraged to sign out a pair of boots and carry them around Sessions for the day (or week)—maybe the boots of a soldier from their home state. Inwardly, I grumbled. Could any Friend really understand what it feels like for a Quaker mom to have a child who is a soldier?

Midweek, my 12-year-old son and I discussed the boots. We decided that we needed the ones with Jeff’s name. My son would carry them in the morning, and I in the afternoon. At lunchtime I shared Jeff’s story and the continued angst about my daughter the soldier with my friend Susan.

In the afternoon I proceeded to my worship-sharing group, boots slung over my shoulder. Two other Friends came in with boots as well. One Friend asked about the boots I was carrying. After telling Jeff’s story, and the story of my daughter—how unreal it seemed to me, how paradoxical that I could have a daughter who is in the military—the other stories came. One Friend from another state, several hundred miles away, revealed that 50 years earlier, he had attended the same high school as Jeff, Ari, and Matt, and was the first conscientious objector ever to go before the town’s draft board, where he was not warmly received. Another Friend shared the story of his father’s military service in World War I, and how his responsibility for the death of a young German soldier "seemed to take away part of his humanity." Being responsible for the death of another human being changes you forever, he added.

It was then that the floodgate that had kept my tears at bay opened. I ran from the room, not wanting to sob in a room full of people I barely knew. Later one Friend shared that after my abrupt departure, another had commented, "Allyson must be really scared right now." Indeed, the fear caused the tears. The Friend’s story of his father’s World War I experience brought my unnamed fear to the surface. Certainly, I am afraid for my daughter’s life and physical well-being. But another fear, just as deep, is for the well-being of her soul. Would this experience change the person I love who lives so passionately? Would it change the girl on the wrestling team, the girl who has always championed the disenfranchised, who got beat up in seventh grade for defending gay rights? Would it take away her spark of life? Will the existential loudness declaring her vibrant existence be quieted? Will who she is be irrevocably changed to her detriment and to the detriment of the world she hopes to help through her future work?

A few years ago Ari and I took a trip back to the Bay Area where she was born to re-introduce her to her roots. She was excited by the multicultural community (our town was pretty homogenous), and troubled by the number of homeless people she saw. She handed out dollars constantly until the day we were in the San Francisco BART station and she saw a weathered man holding a sign, "Homeless Veteran, please help." Ari reached into her bag and discovered she was out of money. Digging a bit deeper, she pulled out a bag of peanuts from our flight. "I don’t have any money, but I have some peanuts," she said to the man, apologetically.

"Oh, thank you dear," replied the man. "But I don’t have any teeth."

Ari was shocked. "Support the Troops," we’re told, while the administration cuts veterans’ benefits.

Long before Ari was born, Phil Ochs sang the fear for my daughter I carry with me today—the fear that the essence of who she is as a human being, a child of God, will be lost, gone from our lives. Adapting his words, I am thinking:

There’s no place in this world where she’ll belong if she’s gone
And she won’t know the right from the wrong if she’s gone . . .
All her days won’t be dances of delight if she’s gone . . .
And she won’t be laughing at the lies if she’s gone
And she can’t question who or why if she’s gone . . .

In Friends’ counter-recruitment work, in Friends’ concerns for military families, I offer that what we need is pastoral care, not political rhetoric or ideological convincement. We’re grieving the loss of the innocence of our children, and we’re afraid.

Allyson Platt

Allyson Platt, a member of Storrs (Conn.) Meeting, is the director of Relational Spirituality at Youth Opportunities Upheld, Inc., and executive director of the Worcester County Ecumenical Council, both based in Worcester, Mass. Prior to becoming a Friend, she served for nearly 20 years in parish ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ, while also occasionally working as a newspaper reporter and community radio DJ and producer. In addition to her work, she is a first-year student in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Antioch University, New England, in Keene, N.H., anticipating a vocational focus with at-risk adolescents.