Memorial Day gets personal

It’s Memorial Day, a day Americans set aside to honor and remember the thousands of men and women who’ve lost their lives in service of our country. As someone who served in the military, Memorial Day has long held special significance for me. But now it’s a particularly sad day: My cousin, who’s in his mid-30s, just lost his dear friend Dan (not his real name).

He and my cousin Jim grew up together, born only a few months apart. They lived on the same suburban street. They were like brothers as children and youths, and as adults maintained their closeness even as their chosen careers took them in opposite directions. My cousin is chief of staff for a Democratic California state legislator.

Dan was a Green Beret. He died in Afghanistan yesterday.

I understood why America sent combat troops to Afghanistan after the horrific terror attack on our country on September 11, 2001. The mission to destroy al Qaeda terrorist training camps in the wilds of Afghanistan and hunt down al Qaeda leader and Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was, even to a life-long peacenik like me, right and just.

My opinion is that keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the camps were obliterated and bin Laden escaped was, and still is, a terrible mistake. It’s hard for me to understood why, after nearly 10 years, we are still sending our soldiers there to fight and die. I know the Taliban are very bad people. But they are what the people of Afghanistan know and understand. Their culture and society is the polar opposite of our own and always has been. Wanting to bring democracy to them is a noble undertaking, but doing it at gunpoint defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? How do you force freedom? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Dan, obviously, believed much differently. This was his second assignment to Afghanistan, and he was excited about going back. He wasn’t allowed to tell his family and friends much about his upcoming mission, but said that he’d be working closely with Afghan tribal chieftains, wearing Afghan attire so as to mix in easily with the locals. He went through months and months of special training for the assignment, and recently emailed Jim a gleeful photo of himself sporting a new, thick beard. I’ve found an Associated Press article that talks about what the Special Forces, which includes the Green Berets, are doing as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It sounds very much like what Dan said he’d be doing, as cryptic as it was. You can read the article here.

Dan had been in country for only about three months when he died.

I wasn’t around much when Jim was growing up. In the Air Force when he was a toddler, I later lived and worked in Germany for six years. When I came back to the States I went to work as a journalist in another city. I saw him only during holidays. He went away to college, went to work, got married, had two baby boys. But Jim’s best friend Dan always figured large in my aunt’s stories about Jim over the years, and I saw her much more frequently. She and Dan’s mother became dear friends, too.

I finally met Dan at Jim’s wedding five years ago; he was Jim’s best man. I remember a tall, dark-haired, handsome, quiet young fellow with a natural, innate gentleness that seemed incongruous to me, given his profession. There was also a glint of mischief in his warm, brown eyes when he smiled. I immediately liked him, and I understood instantly why Jim loved him so.

I’m sad today, knowing that Dan is gone forever. My heart breaks for his poor mother, who I’ve also met and like very much, and for my aunt, who loved Dan, too. But most of all, my heart breaks for Jim. He’s devastated. A single child, he’s lost his brother.

As a kind of consolation, I remind myself that Dan’s career was serving his country—and he was doing the work he loved when he died. His hard work and dedication earned him the distinction of being a member of an elite, very select group of Special Forces soldiers, the legendary Green Berets. According to Wikipedia,

“The United States Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets because of their distinctive service headgear, are a special operations force. Army Special Forces are tasked with six primary missions: unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, hostage rescue, and counter-terrorism. The first two emphasize language, cultural, and training skills in working with foreign troops. Other duties include combat search and rescue (CSAR), security assistance, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, humanitarian demining, counter-proliferation, psychological operations, manhunts, and counter-drug operations …”

I’m guessing that like all human beings, Dan didn’t really believe in his own death. Sure, we all know that we’ll die someday, but it’s an intellectual concept, one that, until we do die, we can only understand second-hand.  At 35 years old death is still an abstract, it-won’t-happen-to-me concept—even to a realistic, combat-tested soldier like Dan. Yet he knew the risk he was taking. He knew he’d be in constant, deadly danger.  Dan went willingly into harm’s way in spite of the risk. He believed in his mission, which was to fight terrorism while helping the Afghan people understand and choose democracy over feudalism, and to encourage them, as a nation, to become a friend and ally of the United States. Such accomplishments can only bring benefits to America, including our increased, long-term security.

I don’t know if such an outcome in Afghanistan is possible. The Afghan people have lived under religious and secular oppression for literally thousands of years; it’s their history and an integral part of their culture. But Dan believed in the possibility. He worked to make it happen and in the process, lost his life.

I sincerely hope he was right. Dan was courageous and patriotic, tough but gentle, a beloved friend and loving son. He’s gone, but he lives in our memories. And he’ll always be a hero.

Thousands upon thousands of American soldiers have lost their lives while serving in wars and conflicts since the United States of America declared independence on July 4th, 1776. Since the conflict in Afghanistan started nearly a decade ago, 1,517 men and women have died while participating in Operation Enduring Freedom (numbers via iCasualties.org *) Fifty-four U.S. soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan just this month (and maybe more, as Dan’s name has not appeared on the iCasualties list of the fallen as of this writing).

In Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4,454 American soldiers have been killed to date, serving in Iraq. They, and those who died in Afghanistan, were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, moms and dads, cousins and nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and yes, dear and much loved friends.

Today is Memorial Day. Take a few minutes out to remember and honor the many American citizens who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for their country—and for us.

Mother’s Day. Cool …

It’s Mother’s Day.

I’m spending it with my mother and my aunt at my mother’s townhouse. Mr Wren is coming over later with a gift of fresh-laid eggs from our hens. We’ve no plans except to be willfully slothful.

Two days ago it was California-May hot outside: 91 degrees, dry as a bone without a breath of breeze, a scorched, hazy sky like thin, bluish milk overhead. The reality: There are six months-worth of days exactly like it or even hotter about to begin.

We’ve had no actual “spring.” The season shifted from California’s semi-wet, cool season to its dry oven-season almost overnight. No gentle transition here. And yet today, Mother’s Day, a cold front slipping down from the Pacific Northwest has obscured the sun with a high, thick layer of gray clouds. Rain makes empty threats, but the temperature is 25 degrees lower than yesterday.

I’m truly grateful for this brief reprieve from the oncoming, oppressive summer heat. The temperature may just touch 70 degrees by late afternoon. My mother, who’s been dreadfully sensitive to cold all her life, is tucked up under her electric blanket-throw on the sofa, the furnace blowing thick, warm air from the ceiling vents. It’s 73 degrees in her living room. She looks out the window at the cool gray, mid-fifties morning and shivers.

“It’s just like winter out there!” she exclaims, tugging the throw up around her neck.

I smile and say nothing. Winter in the Central Valley of California is like summer in Northern Germany. I have a warm coat, purchased last fall with a vague hope for temperatures low enough to need it, that I never wore once during the cool months. It’s still on the hook near the garage door where I hung it in late October, untouched. I imagine that there are small house spiders living in the sleeves, hoping for gnats to wander in to stick in their hidden webs just the same way I hoped for the cold.

To honor this final cool day, and Mother’s Day, I’ll make a pot of fresh, hot vegetable soup for our supper. We’ll have some crusty bread along with it, too. The soup will warm Mom’s tummy and please my vegetarian aunt. And if there’s any left over, we’ll eat it later this week, refreshingly cold, straight out of the refrigerator as we celebrate the rising outdoor heat and (me with resigned reluctance, Mom with real joy) the long, long California summer to come.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.

The girl with a curl

“Is there anything else you want to tell me?” Dr. McA asks. We’ve already been through the usual: How my RA—and the hip bursitis—are treating me; what, if anything, hurts; the medications I’m taking and how I’m tolerating them. I’ve ticked off most of the questions on my list.

One item, however, remains.

“I just want to point this out,” I say as I draw a line through it and look back at him. “The Arava has made my hair curly.”

There’s a short silence, and then Dr. McA explodes into delighted laughter. “Yes!” he shouts, and laughs some more. I laugh too. It’s impossible not to.

“I’ve had many of my patients tell me that,” he says, catching his breath. “They say, ‘Doctor, I don’t have to straighten my hair anymore!’ or, like you, their hair is curly where it used to be straight.” He chortles again, thoroughly enjoying himself, then sobers. “It really shows how serious the chemicals are in that medication, doesn’t it.”

“It sure does,” I agree.

“I’m sorry about your hair.”

“Oh, no!” I laugh. “I love it! I’ll never have to get another perm again!”

And so it went. Dr. McA reaffirmed that my “cocktail” of meds, Arava, plaquenil and sulfasalazine, are keeping my RA under control. The two prednisone tapers, bi-weekly visits to the physical therapist and daily stretching exercises have combined to lower my hip bursitis pain to a low, intermittent grumble. I have two more PT appointments left; I’m satisfied that two will be enough.

Since I last saw Dr. McA I’ve lost several more pounds. I’ve also grown two ganglion cysts, one in my left wrist and the other on the top of my left hand. Finally, I’ve been sleeping better. Thank you for the nortriptyline, doc.

Dr. McA, as usual, was in a jovial mood. He told me that since doing his residency in the early 80s, he’s seen the treatment of RA move ahead in leaps and bounds, one new, effective drug after another. “I was talking to a colleague the other day,” he said. “It occurred to me that I’ve been around to see nearly all the RA drugs we use today developed. I remember when plaquenil for RA was new and cutting-edge. I’ve seen so many people like you be able to bring their RA under control because of them. There’s so much more hope now than there was.” He smiled. “I guess curly hair isn’t such a hard price to pay, is it.”

“No, it’s really not,” I said.

Dr. McA told me to come back to see him in 90 days, unless there’s a big change in my condition. We shook hands and he whisked across the hall and into another exam room.

“Good morning, Mr.  Jones,” he said, pulling the door closed behind him.

“Doctor! Good morning!” The smile in his patient’s reply was clear as a bell. I hope his ailment is under control, too. We’re lucky, I thought as I walked out to my car for the long drive home, my appointment for August clutched in my hand. We’re both lucky we’ve got such a caring, pleasant person as our rheumatologist. Amazing how much difference it makes.