Two years ago, I was working at a Starbucks thirty minutes from a large military base. Young boys and girls, younger than my early-twenties emo-barista self, would come inside the cafe in camo and get gigantic drinks and make relieved small talk with us. We would flirt with the boys and get their numbers and watch as they were deployed, one by one.
As time went on, I began to meet their parents, who would often get pounds of coffee to ship overseas. “This is for my son” they would say. “This is for my baby girl, she’s in Iraq.”
We moved to our own cafe, and our regulars came with us. One couple in their late forties were frequent morning readers of the news. The lady, Margret, was warm and friendly – but tough. It was weeks of thirty-second interactions over syrup and steamed milk before I discovered that she had three children in Iraq.
I want you to notice that word. Children. I only know them as her children – to me, it seems impossible that they could be soldiers.
Her babies were in their late teens, with one in his early twenties. Her two youngest daughters and her only son. Every day that I saw her after that, I looked with different eyes. Her fatigue and her tough friendliness – how would I be, I wondered, if my babies were far away at war?
One of her daughters has returned. She has never mentioned the other one. Or her son. She talks of the one that is back – as if to say, “I still have one. She is home”.
Two months ago, the company I work for did a drive to gather items for care packages for the soldiers. We donated energy bars, DVDs, feminine items, deodorant, playing cards and coffee. We donated small things that might be comforting or useful in the desert. They were sent to a battalion that was familiar to many of the staff here, being local, and two weeks ago the cards began arriving.
“We want to thank you so much for the care package you sent. We are ready to come home.”
“We are stationed out in the desert. It is like M.A.S.H all over again, but we are glad because we have electricity. They tell us we will be home by Thanksgiving.”
“Thank you so much – we will enjoy the DVDs as soon as we get back to our base – right now we are stationed outside of Baghdad, and are living in tents.”
It is not so much the words, though they are all primarily words about home and thanks. It is the handwriting, uniformly uneven and cramped – the handwriting of every teenaged boy I ever exchanged notes with in between classes.
I picture their faces, dotted with stubble, the last of the softness of childhood disappearing in the desert sun. Most days I don’t think about the war at all. Today, it seems to be all I can think about.