The Marine Moms Tour of Duty
The Paris Island to prepare them for the long absences, constants worry and news reports of casualties. But they don't go through it alone. They are a band of mothers.
Why couldn’t he just go to college?
Around the table, the women take turns introducing themselves and describing their sons for the benefit of the newcomers. They churn out stories that are comfortably similar without being clichÃ©. They are infused with varying amounts of pride, frustration and longing. They add a few spoonfuls of laughter and mix them up with some tears, all recipes for how to be a better Marine mom. New contributions welcome.
The drill instructor of the group is Phyllis, the luncheon’s organizer and the rogue media person in a family of certified public accountants. The sales marketing manager for WEWS NewsChannel 5, Phyllis has an impressive Rolodex and a get-things-done demeanor (maybe the only work characteristic she shares with her CPA relatives). When she asks for something, she usually gets it. Need some publicity for a Marine cause? A donation for the troops? A frank opinion on anything for the record? Talk to Phyllis. She has a flair for cutting to the heart of things and drawing people with words. She makes sure no one sees her son, Stephen Day, or anyone else’s for that matter, as just a Marine.
At 17, Stephen was a gifted artist with an interest in graphic design, Phyllis says. He gravitated toward being nocturnal, kept his room a mess and would rather relax with a science fiction novel than toss around a football. He was a so-so student who, on standardized tests, always scored much higher than you’d expect from the grades he had earned at Solon High School.
Then one summer day, Stephen wrote his mother a letter and hid it in a pile of folded clothes on her dresser. As she was putting them away, the letter fell to the floor. Phyllis immediately feared the worst — that it was a suicide note.
I am obviously writing to you because I can’t talk to you. It’s not that I’m running away from home, I have not been kidnapped for ransom, nor was I abducted by aliens. ... Mom — I want to join the Marines.
Relief. Just barely. What happened to becoming a graphic designer? She read on, fighting back the urge to track down her son and talk him out of this plan immediately. Stephen said he thought the Marines would help him get into the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (Apparently, design school was out.) Because he wasn’t 18, he needed her approval, he explained in the note. Stephen intuited his mom’s two biggest concerns and tried to counter them in the letter.
Fear No. 1: He wouldn’t get a college degree.
Stephen’s response: “Basically, I’ll be going to college — with guns.”
Fear No. 2: He would “be shipped off and die in some rat-hole sand dune in Afghan.”
Stephen’s response: “That is 99% impossible.” He would get domestic assignments, he wrote, perhaps doing presidential security.
Phyllis figured some recruiter had given her son a sales pitch, and she was eager to set him straight. No way was she letting him join the Marines early, and his father agreed. They told him to wait until he finished college.
Stephen did what his parents wanted, for a while. He graduated from high school and went to the University of Toledo. But before he completed his freshman year, he told his parents he was dropping out to become a Marine. Phyllis trotted out every reason she could think of for him not to join, including, “Stephen, you’re not going to be with guys who want to discuss the last book you read.” It did no good. Now, at 20, he’s a linguist, specializing in Arabic.
“It’s like a calling for him,” says Phyllis. “He couldn’t ignore it.”
The mothers say they’d prefer college to the Marines. In addition to the obvious reason — most adult children are safer in college than in the military during wartime — there is a perception that young people join the military simply to earn extra money or because they have few other options. But these moms’ sons chose the Marines over college, or in Cheryl Boomhower’s son Michael’s case, chose the Marines in addition to college. (He’s a reservist.) “They aren’t just losers,” Phyllis says. “My feelings before were that they were loser boys without other options.”
To this day, Katherine doesn’t understand exactly why her son, Nick, left Kent State University, where he excelled as a business major, after his second year to join the Marines. (In an e-mail, Nick says he felt he needed a change from college and saw it as a chance for travel and hands-on learning.) Of her three boys, he was the youngest and the one she least expected to enlist. She babied him more than his brothers, this easy-going Cub Scout who loved to watch professional wrestling, not war movies. Even though he dropped a lot of hints before he signed up and attended “poolie” functions, where prospective recruits can learn more about the Marines, Katherine kept thinking, This will pass.
When it didn’t, Katherine, like Phyllis, sought out other moms online. It soothed them to share letters and news with other Marine moms while their sons were at boot camp — the grueling 13-week indoctrination during which a mom cannot even talk to her child. The moms recall that their Marines-in-training had to run everywhere and banish the pronoun “I” from their vocabularies. (They are allowed to refer to themselves only in the third person while in boot camp.) Boot camp ended with the crucible, a 54-hour “gut-check,” as 3/25 Major Jenny Potter calls it, filled with physical challenges, including food- and sleep-deprivation, that tested what the recruits had learned.
In the end, Stephen and Nick became Marines, while the women who did everything they could to dissuade them turned into diehard Marine moms. The transition is as striking as it is immediate for moms, Phyllis says, beginning at the boot-camp graduation where they often can’t find their own sons in the neat rows of uniformed young men in peak physical condition, all with the same buzzed-on-the-sides, slightly higher-on-top Marine haircuts.
Then he comes home and you notice more changes. Katherine’s son, Nick, was more mannerly and disciplined.
“You’d get a “yes” or a “no,” no more “yeah,” she says. Other moms say their sons started ironing their own clothes, even T-shirts.
And that, the moms say, is just the beginning.
Will he go to war?
The servers at The Olive Garden wisely seat the moms in their own corner, away from the rest of the diners. Multiple conversations engulf the table. The moms talk about whose sons just got engaged and whose just got promoted, whose service is up and who is re-enlisting. There is laughter, hugging, cheering. The happiest news, of course, is the return of the 3/25 Marines this month. In all, 48 of them were killed, 22 in a single week this summer. Their deaths, and the way Ohioans mourned them in huge numbers at memorial services, funerals and public assemblies, moved the entire nation.
Katherine, the warm-voiced wife of a retired firefighter, passes around a stack of pictures she took at one homecoming celebration. Though Nick wasn’t among them, Katherine worked her camera like a news photographer, snapping pictures of young men she didn’t know as they stepped off the buses and entered the Brook Park Recreation Center.
“Some were waving,” she tells the other moms, who eat up the extra details as eagerly as their pasta. “Some kept their heads down.”
Katherine hasn’t seen 22-year-old Nick since January 2005. He towers over her in photographs, where their closeness is evident in a family portrait taken in December 2004 — the only photo that includes both his dress blues and his smile. (His slightly downturned mouth suggests a frown in all his serious-faced Marine photographs.) Katherine cropped his face out of the family portrait and made copies for their relatives.
She tells the other moms that Nick is stationed in Okinawa with “the 3rd Marine Division, combat assault battalion headquarters and support motor transportation” platoon. The other moms applaud as she repeats it from memory, as quickly and effortlessly as a prayer.
Later, in her own home, where family pictures cover the walls and a Marine Build-A-Bear sits on the piano, Katherine explains why she went to the homecoming even though Nick wasn’t going to be there. When a Marine is killed, other moms feel his family’s grief. When a Marine comes home, the moms feel their joy.
Just talking about that day causes Katherine to well up, as she remembers that not every Marine had someone waiting for him in Brook Park. She was there for those guys, just as she’d want some other moms to greet her son if she couldn’t be there for some reason.
Katherine knows she’s been lucky. Nick has his own phone in his room. He calls and e-mails her a couple times a week. He checks out his new nephew on the Webcam she set up. He regales her with stories about the orphanage his battalion adopted in Okinawa and the trip to Iwo Jima he made with World War II veterans.
But “I still worry,” she says. “I’ll worry until he’s out of the Marines.”
Since Nick enlisted, she’s become much more educated on foreign affairs, reading the paper routinely and checking the TV news at least once a day. If Nick is called to go to Iraq, he will go willingly, he’s told her.
Katherine tries not to think about that, though it’s clear from her cracking voice that she can’t help it sometimes.
“If he goes, he goes,” she says. “I’ll just go to more support groups.”
What’s happened to him?
Around the table, the moms whose sons have just gotten back from Iraq talk more than the others. They are both comforted and looked upon with apprehension by the other moms. This could be me in a few years or months, their eyes say. Everyone wants to know how the 3/25 moms are doing, how their sons are doing.
“He came back two weeks ago, and he has yet to talk about it,” says Gail Foust, her strong voice quieting the din of silverware scraping plates. Her son, Matthew, is an active-duty sergeant who was attached to 3/25 during its latest tour.
As it turns out, none of the sons is talking gangbusters about Iraq.
So the moms pick up on nonverbal clues. When Michael doesn’t want to discuss something, his head drops and he gets quiet, Cheryl says. Several moms say their sons are jumpier. One laments that her son can’t get used to eating meals with the family again, not after seven months of scarfing down MREs. Some guys are short with their families and seem to love being with their Marine friends best. One continued to live in his parents’ home, even though he had his own place, because he didn’t want to leave them.
Before Matthew went to Iraq, he told his mother this about the Marines: “I can’t imagine doing anything else, Mom. I’ve never been happier doing anything else.”
That sealed it for her. Her son was happy, so she was happy for him. She packed away her college dreams for the smart kid who loved nature and golf, and accepted her new role as a Marine mom. When Matthew spent 13 long weeks at boot camp, she found calm chatting with other Marine moms online, then with the moms’ group. After boot camp, when Matthew went to Japan for 15 months, “I can’t tell you how many tears I cried,” she says. But when the war in Iraq began, Japan was fine with her. Although she didn’t know much about what he was doing there — he simply wasn’t allowed to say — there was no war in Japan. She knew he was safe.
Things got even better when he returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he stayed for a year and a half. But then his skills as a water purification specialist were needed in Iraq. The Marines attached him to 3/25 and sent him to the desert.
Gail got through the seven months he was gone by not letting the constant danger that Matthew was in consume her. She didn’t check the news compulsively. She kept him fresh in her mind by talking about him at Nordonia High School, where she teaches. (Matthew also graduated from there.) And she kept talking with and e-mailing other Marine moms.
“I just believed from the day he left that he would be fine,” she says. It was nothing, the math teacher says, more scientific than faith.
Even when the news reported that 22 Ohio Marines had been killed in a single week this summer, she believed that he wasn’t among them. As is standard practice, the military shut down communication and military families had to wait until the names were made public. They would only find out before then if the worst had happened. No news came to the Fousts, thankfully.
But Gail soon learned that one of the moms she’d met at a family event had lost her son, Lance Cpl. Edward “Augie” Schroeder.
“When I found out he died, I screamed,” she says.
Since 23-year-old Matthew has come home, he’s talked more to others about his experiences in Iraq than to her. She knows he had a pet gecko that lived in his room. She knows that Haditha Dam holds dozens of his golf balls. She knows he did a lot of writing and then burned it. She knows the one question that got to him while he was talking to Nordonia High students about his experiences: “What was it like?” But she doesn’t know what he did over there or how it affected him. Not yet.
Other moms around the table nod their heads. Some say they think their sons want to protect them from the truth, that what they saw or did over there must have been so wrenching that they don’t want to burden their mothers with it.
“I said to him ‘Nothing can be worse than what I imagined happened,’ ” Gail says. But she doesn’t pressure him to talk. She just waits.
What can I do?
Cheryl Boomhower, a newcomer to the Marine moms’ lunch, wants to speak last. She claims to be “gathering her nerves.” But when she finally speaks, Cheryl doesn’t sound the least bit nervous. She is a thin, regal-looking mother of five whose keen brown eyes emanate the same intensity as her son’s in the pictures she passes around. The other moms don’t know this, but she has 48 flags in her front yard in Ravenna, one for each fallen 3/25 Marine.
A Marine recruiter cold-called her house in 1997. Michael, then a high school senior, picked up the phone upstairs. After he hung up, he came downstairs and, on the way out the door, casually mentioned that he was off to meet with a Marine recruiter. Cheryl jumped off the couch and ran to the door yelling, “Don’t sign anything!”
That evening, Michael returned while she was making meatballs.
“I’m home,” he said.
“You didn’t sign anything, did you, Mike?” she yelled from the kitchen.
“Mom, he’s here.”
Cheryl rounded the corner of the kitchen into the family room and saw a Marine sergeant in dress blues. He stepped forward to shake her hand until he saw it covered in raw meatball.
The sergeant agreed to come back the next evening to talk with Cheryl and her husband, Andy. After hearing his pitch, Cheryl asked Michael to think and pray about it for three days. He did. And exactly three days later, he joined the Marine reserves on the delayed entry program.
After Michael finished boot camp, Cheryl got used to him going away once a month and coming home with entertaining stories from “warrior nights.” Her favorite was the one about how the guys cammied up their faces and ate their meat and potatoes with their KA-BARs, knives that attach to their rifles. While in the reserves, he graduated with a theater degree from Kent State University. And aside from the few months he spent on a human relations mission in South America, he hadn’t been deployed anywhere outside the country until he went to Iraq with 3/25 early last year.
Rather than worry in silence, Cheryl wanted to do something to help her son and his “brothers.” She recalled a story he had told her about one of his friends, the deployed father of a toddler who would tear up every time he talked about his daughter.
Cheryl sent him a St. Joseph medal with an engraving on the back: “Protect and Guide the Father of Sydney,” his daughter’s name.
Soon she was getting requests from more 3/25 Marines with children. She worked with the Marine chaplain, eventually sending 53 medals to Iraq with 94 children’s names engraved on them. The men wore them on black cords under their uniforms. (To request a medal for a 3/25 father, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
When one medal recipient was killed, Navy corpsman Jeffrey Wiener, Cheryl started a mission in his name. Since he was the Marines’ version of a medic, she has structured the mission around helping the wounded, specifically getting backpacks with clothes and other essentials sent to the field hospitals in Iraq. She says she came up with the idea when she heard that some of the wounded were transferred to a hospital in Germany with nothing but the hospital gowns they were wearing.
The urge to “do something” is another Marine mom experience, say the moms around the Olive Garden table. In addition to sending care packages to Iraq with everything from Starbucks coffee to squirt guns, the moms have worked behind the scenes to help too. For instance, Phyllis succeeded in getting US Airways to fly Beans the dog for free from North Carolina to Cleveland, where Cpl. Jeffrey Boskovitch’s mother wanted to care for it after her son’s death. After Phyllis heard from another mom that 3/25 guys had to crowd around small DVD players to watch movies, she got an LCD projector donated, courtesy of Westfield Insurance.
Major Potter has heard of other Marine mom efforts too, including those of Marla Derga, an artist and the stepmother of Cpl. Dustin A. Derga, who was killed in August with other members of 3/25’s Lima Company. Derga helped ship school supplies from members of her church to Iraq, where they will be distributed to Iraqi children. She wants to start a sponsorship program where American schools do the same. She’s also donating the proceeds of some artwork to maintaining the memorial garden at Lima Company’s Columbus headquarters (www.sharperart.org).
Helping others seems to help the moms too. One reason they wear clothing that identifies them as Marine moms is so that other Marine moms will be able to spot them, says Katherine. The chance to socialize with other Marine families over potluck dinners was important to Cheryl, who attended 3/25’s “family days,” where family members were updated on their sons’ activities in Iraq. She also checked for news on the conflict repeatedly, visiting the DOD Web site for casualty reports and
Googling “Haditha.” She knew Michael, a vehicle commander for a mobile assault platoon, was based at the dam there and heard that the base was mortared daily. Keeping up on the news could be depressing, but it did help her relate to Michael in her letters. (Michael preferred to write because phone calls tended to distract him. His mother preferred letters too, because when he did call, she found it so hard to hang up the phone.)
After 14 Marines were killed on a single day in August, he didn’t write for three weeks. When he finally called to tell them he was OK, she told him she’d go to as many memorial services as she could on his behalf.
Most of the moms have been to at least one funeral. This is the real test of Marine-mom muster: to grieve for someone you know next to nothing about, just because he wears a Marine uniform. Cheryl went to three. She went because Michael would have gone. She went because her heart was breaking. And she went because she knew, if it had been Michael who was killed, those families would be there for her.
What do their sons think?
After the plates are cleared and the checks are collected, the moms give their farewell hugs and leave this zone of unconditional support for home. It’s back to checking e-mail and awaiting phone calls, to crossing off days on their mental calendars and waiting for the next leave or the next tour. It’s back to hope and dread, anticipation and fear, and all of those other contradictory emotions that seem to take root in a Marine mom’s psyche as soon as her kid leaves for Parris Island. Since so many Ohio Marines were killed last summer, there have been many public showings of support: a memorial service, a dedication ceremony, multiple homecoming celebrations. But like meatloaf, voice mail messages and hugs, none is quite like mom’s.
A few weeks after the lunch, Sgt. Michael Boomhower, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, his Marine haircut well on its way to growing out, sits at his mother’s kitchen table wearing around his neck a St. Joseph medal. It reads “Protect and Guide the Son of Andy and Cheryl.”
What does he think of all the support she’s given?
Without all her letters, her care packages, her missions, “I could have done it, but I couldn’t have done it as well,” Michael says. “It’s just priceless to have that.”
An answer anyone, especially a Marine mom, would love.
Sometime between the breadsticks and the minestrone, the first pictures of Marines start flying across the table at the Olive Garden. There’s Nick with three little Japanese boys sitting on his lap. There’s Stephen showing off the Arabic lettering on his sweatshirt. There’s Michael smiling in his desert cammies.
Nick works with military vehicles in Okinawa. Stephen attends language school in California. Michael just returned from Iraq with the Brook Park-based 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment.
In other words, they’re all fine. But their mothers and seven other military moms have still gathered here to talk about them on this October day. For more than two years, these mothers have seen each other through boot camp, through first and second tours of duty, through long stretches of not hearing their sons’ voices, through the funerals of their sons’ “brothers.” For these women, the restaurant’s slogan, “When you’re here, you’re family,” simply states the obvious.
If the moms suddenly fell into formation, their clothing would be a red, white and blue collage accented with loops of yellow ribbon. Marine-emblem charms as shiny as medals dangle from their necks and earlobes, announcing “I am a Marine mom,” while their T-shirts and sweatshirts proclaim “The few, the proud.” At the table, Katherine Cipriano, Nick’s mom, passes out chocolate candies she made in the mold of the eagle, globe and anchor.
“I drove them crazy [at Sweet Surprises candy shop] until they got a Marines mold,” she says. Smiles break out across the table.
“No one gets it but another Marine mom,” says Phyllis Sossi, Stephen’s mom. Because despite their different backgrounds and views on the war, they have one thing in common: None of them signed up for this.
They were recruited by the little boys they once signed up for swimming lessons and summer camp. Because there is no Parris Island equivalent for Marine moms, they devise survival strategies all their own. They continually check their e-mail. Some devour every detail of the conflict, from the latest insurgency to the weather. (They know, for instance, that the new desert cammies are wrinkle-free and the temperature in Iraq can soar to 145 degrees.) Some moms visit and revisit the U.S. Department of Defense Web site for the latest casualty reports, relieved when their sons’ units aren’t mentioned, plunged into despair if they are.
Much has been written about being a Marine, especially a Marine during wartime. But being the mother of a Marine is rarely discussed. She is portrayed only in tragedy, in grief-stricken quotes and weepy photographs after the worst happens. She only gets mentioned in the extreme, as if having a child in the Marines during wartime is only worth hearing about if war exacts the ultimate sacrifice. But day to day, week to week, month to month, Marine moms are fighting an emotional war, from simply missing their children to wondering if they’ll ever see them again. To be a Marine mom is to be assailed daily, even hourly, by difficult, sometimes unanswerable questions. But here, at these gatherings that draw other people experiencing the same strain, the mothers can find some refuge, if not in answers, then at least in solidarity.
12:00 AM EST
January 1, 2006