SAN DIEGO — I don't need to read between the lines here on my computer screen in the MSN Messenger dialogue box. The meaning of my son's Instant Message is clear. He's worried. Worried he might not pass the test that would mean his promotion from specialist to sergeant.
It was only three years ago, after high school, that Roman signed on for a four-year stint in the Army. Not long after boot camp, he was sent to Iraq with the 1st Armored Division. At the beginning of that deployment, I'd addressed letters and packages to "Pvt. Diaz." By the end of his 15 months there, that title had changed to "Spc."
"Just do your best," I tap out on my keyboard. "And you'll do fine." A motherly mantra as familiar to him as "eat your vegetables" and "pick up your socks."
But he doesn't see it as that simple. And he tells me why. He'd been given a practice test this morning, and he blew it, he says, big time. With the real test less than 24 hours away, he seriously doubts he'll be earning an extra stripe anytime soon.
A bright kid who always coasted to good grades, Roman has never been fond of memorizing facts for multiple choice tests. And this is that kind of quiz. Specifics. Technical details. Map reading. Procedure following.
"If I don't pass tomorrow," he types, "I won't be able to try for sergeant again for another six months."
But to his way of thinking, that isn't the worst of it. If he doesn't make sergeant, he won't be allowed to continue leading the group he's actually been in charge of training for the past couple of months. His previous boots-on-the-ground experience in places like Baghdad and al-Kut had been, I think, a factor in his being given those responsibilities shortly after he was assigned to the 101st Airborne in Ft. Campbell, Ky., earlier this year. None of the other men in this new squad of his had ever been to war. But that's where the 101st will be heading a few weeks from now. Roman, too, along with the men he's nicknamed his "Jedi."
Unlike them, he knows what lies ahead. Knows from experience that being well trained can mean the difference between life and death. Physical fitness, for instance, matters greatly when you've got a 70-pound pack on your back, a 6-foot wall between you and cover, and insurgent bullets churning up the dust at your feet.
With that knowledge, Roman had taken it upon himself to be an after-hours running coach for one of the soldiers in his group, a hefty guy, whose extra pounds had been slowing him down in their daily physical training. I pictured my lanky son showing that young man how to pace himself, how to breathe, and — true to form — lobbing just enough good-natured insults to keep the guy moving and motivated.
"You know, it's kinda weird. But with some of these guys, I almost feel like their dad," he told me the last time he was home on leave. And if it felt strange for him to say that, it felt even stranger for me to hear it.
Whenever he speaks of his soldiers, I hear something else in his voice as well. A certain pride. A growing confidence. A gritty love. The lay-down-your-life kind. It makes me proud.
It scares me, too.
As a parent, what I care most about is him. Not politics. Not history. Not some so-called noble cause. I would agree, in principle, that there are things in this world worth fighting and dying for. But whether or not Iraq is one of them is certainly debatable. What really matters to this mother, and to others whose sons and daughters are over there right now, is that our kids return home — safe, sound, whole. The feeling is as powerful as it is instinctual. Ideology pales in comparison. Democracy in the Middle East? Or, dancing someday at your child's wedding? In my heart, it's no contest.
So when Roman types that he might not make sergeant, a selfish hope stirs. His four years in the Army will be up several months before his division is scheduled to return to the States. But he has already told me that if he is a squad leader, he'll stay with his guys until they can all come home together. My thinking is, if he's not their leader, their sergeant, their "dad," if he's just another "grunt," it might actually be possible for him to leave the war zone sooner.
On the one hand, I want him to succeed, to do his best. Of course I do. On the other hand, I also know that his becoming a sergeant now will probably mean more months in harm's way. More bullets to dodge. More waiting roadside bombs to wonder about.
Later the next day he says, again via instant messaging, "Hey, Mom. I passed!"
I stare at his words and gulp. "Way to go, Sarge!!!" I finally type, adding one exclamation point, then another, and another, hoping those keystrokes convey the elation that — forgive me — I cannot feel.
Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written several articles for the Monitor about her son's military service.