At nine years old, my family moved back to Southern California, settling in San Clemente, which borders the Northwest side of Camp Pendleton. One of the largest Marine installations in the United States, Camp Pendleton covers several roles, from basic training to School of Infantry, amphibious training to artillery, and more. At any one time, the base has as many as one hundred thousand persons within its population.
Growing up in San Clemente, one quickly becomes accustomed to the natural relationship that the city has with the base. Aside from the security checkpoints, there is a near-seamless flow between personnel, their families, and San Clemente. Some of the strongest and most important relationships that my family has gained over the last twenty years has been with those stationed on Camp Pendleton. Whether through school, scouting, church, or various other interactions, these are friendships that will always last, no matter the time and space between us.
One San Clemente tradition that stands out from the rest is Thanksgiving. Each year, hundreds of families open their homes to young Marines, fresh out of basic training. Since 2001, my dad has driven down to the base on Thanksgiving morning to load his truck up with uniformed Marines and bring them home for dinner.
Once they have had a chance to change out of their uniforms and get comfortable, introductions are made, the husky has had a chance to sniff everyone, and then we have brunch. My mom smiles at the inevitable exclamation, “These are real eggs!” My dad identifies the one Dallas Cowboys fan, reminds them that we are a Philadelphia household, and then football is turned on. There is the traditional, midday nap in uncomfortable positions on chairs and couches, followed by dinner. Pie follows and then the Marines make the trip back to Camp Pendleton.
The first time my family hosted young Marines for Thanksgiving, we had two come over. Since then, we have hosted as many as eight Marines. Only a few weeks ago, we hosted six, with the one Cowboys fan distraught over their loss but otherwise in good spirits.
As we sat around the table, learning about each other, their stories and specialties, next assignments and hometowns, a thought crept into my mind. Only two things have changed over the last eighteen years: how old I have gotten and how young the Marines have remained.
At eleven years old, the first two Marines we hosted appeared to me as giants, towering over me with muscles bulging from completion of some of the toughest training in the world. One had a young family with him; my dad laid out our old Thomas the Tank Engine set with which their son could play. They had an air of confidence and good humor that made for a wonderful holiday.
A month before they came over, the United States had invaded Afghanistan in response to the terror attacks on September 11th. While I had not given it any thought at eleven years old, the reality set in this year as I looked at the six young men who were barely out of high school. For eighteen years, my family has hosted Marines for Thanksgiving and for those eighteen years, our country has been waging a war in Afghanistan. We are now sending men and women to fight an enemy in a war that began before either was born. An entire generation that has only known a country at war is now preparing to take part in it.
The Children’s Crusade
The two young men we first had over for the holiday were roughly the same age as the Marines we had over this year. The younger being eighteen and the older being in his early twenties. What went unsaid during dinner, in the wake of 9/11, was the understanding that both would most likely be deployed in the following months. Each inevitably did multiple tours in the Middle East, with deployments lasting upwards of a year.
With a war being conducted for so long and so far away, it is hard for the majority of Americans to reflect on such a conflict each day. The reminder comes when there are casualties reported or during an election year when a politician promises to end the war. But we cannot lose sight of the human element that makes war so difficult to bear.
Over the years, my brother and I exchanged correspondence with some of the Marines that had dinner with our family. They were kind enough to respond to our letters when they could, leaving out significant details and entertaining the questions of children who were not much younger than themselves.
I once watched my mother on the phone, in tears, with the mother of a Marine on Thanksgiving. After speaking with her son, she asked to speak with the host and thank them, bringing the reality of everyone’s circumstance crashing down. I have seen her go down the line, hugging each young man who was in our home, asking them to be safe and promising to pray for them, while choking back tears.
I am now at the age where I can no longer escape the reality of war and conflict. They are not just fought by humans, anonymous to the body politic; war will always be fought by children. Afghanistan will soon be fought by the children of those who were children when the war began. Even without casualties, our war in Afghanistan would be a tragedy.
Despite the crowded table at Thanksgiving this year, there was a noticeable gap in our gathering. A week prior to the holiday, my brother deployed to Afghanistan for the second time in less than a year. We have both missed Thanksgivings in the past, due to our respective careers. We have missed birthdays as a result of living apart for over a decade. But this will be the first time either of us has missed a family Christmas.
Sitting in a restaurant with him and his wife, a few days before he shipped out, I asked him a question. “If someone had told you, eighteen years ago, that you would be sent to fight in the same war, would you have believed them?” My brother smiled and shook his head. “No,” he said.
At eleven and thirteen years old, respectively, we watched the towers fall. We listened to the increase in artillery and small arms fire from Camp Pendleton as the Marines prepared to invade Afghanistan. We wrote our letters to friends and waited with families when they returned. Years later, we listened to the artillery again and watched planes and helicopters carry out maneuvers over our house in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. Distant childhood memories have come crashing back in the last month.
I am not sure what Christmas will be like without him, but I imagine that my family will do their best. We will contact him as best we can and wish him a Merry Christmas. We will exchange gifts and watch basketball. We will call relatives and share laughs. On our own, however, in the privacy of our rooms at the end of the day, breasts will be clutched, and tears will be shed.
I cannot speak for my parents, as I am not a parent, and will not pretend to know their minds. But as a younger brother, who was often mistaken for a slightly shorter twin, I can attest to what will be my emotions. Living on opposite sides of the country for over ten years leads to a kind of numbness to each other’s absence in our lives. But one’s absence brought on by war, particularly one that began before we entered high school, has brought on a kind of loneliness that I have never felt before. The kind that causes you to forget how to breathe or simply won’t let you.
Our Shared Duties
Do not misconstrue my general disdain for war, nor my vicious disdain for the War on Terror, for contempt of my brother’s career. My brother’s photo, in full dress, sits on my desk and I point it out to every visitor in my home. “That’s my brother,” I say. “The pride I feel for him and his accomplishments exceeds all human understanding of the concept.” Someone once asked me, not too long ago, if my love of family exceeded my love of country; would my loyalty to my family take precedent over my loyalty to the United States? Without hesitation, I said, “Yes, always.”
Over the years, as our paths have diverged, I have come to an understanding of our different, but shared duties as citizens. My brother has pledged himself, his very life, to an idea. An idea that is the United States and all that it encompasses. Not to a politician or to the state, but the fundamental premise woven into the tapestry of our founding documents. He is prepared to defend this idea at all costs.
My duty, and the duty of all civilians, is far simpler and much less dangerous. We are tasked with ensuring that we only send those who have chosen to serve into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary. We must ensure that our wars are justified, reasonable, winnable and constitutional, with defined objectives and clarified enemies. But such criteria render nearly all war impossible.
Afghanistan is none of those things and the recent advent of the Afghanistan Papers, confirming nearly twenty years of suspicion, has solidified our task. Our duty as civilians is to end the war and bring our troops home. I owe this to my brother, as we all do to all servicemembers.
On Christmas Eve, I will be at mass with my mother, while my dad acts as an usher while wearing a Christmas tie and my Phillies Santa hat. I will see friends from high school and middle school. I will see old teachers. I will enjoy the story of the Nativity. I will be thinking of my brother, as he soars over the mountains of Afghanistan in the moonlight. And I will be wondering if either he or I will find the star in the darkness that will lead him home.