This is the world’s first war in which our fighting men and women are able to convey their thoughts and feelings instantaneously to loved ones back home. On the home front we Americans are receiving much-anticipated e-mails of how a distant war is being experienced. Combined with the reporting of embedded journalists, this makes for an historically unprecedented awareness of war from without — on battlefields — and from within — in defenders’ minds.
During the past month, my wife and I have changed our routine. We have learned that, if we stay up till 1 A.M., we are often rewarded by an incoming e-mail from our son Ian, who serves as an A-10 crew chief in Kuwait. We are grateful for the daily contact — it helps us stay connected in a way that previous generations never could have.
Some of the most unexpected details come streaming in. Our son recently wrote of a menace that probably all our men and women in the desert are dealing with:
Mom, guess what? I have fleas. After you sent me my pillow, I started to wake up every morning with over 50 flea bites. We all know that Skippy [the dog] sleeps on my pillow. Hmm … does Flippy have skeas?
Ian was asking, in a Spoonerism — which is transposing the initial consonants of adjacent words for humorous effect — if his dog had unintentionally sent some little friends to the desert via a care-package. E-mail response from his mother:
Oh, dear. Do you want me to send you a flea collar?
Ian was not amused by the repartee. He had to see a medic, who told him the dog couldn’t be the scapegoat. He treated Ian for sand fleas and gave him a pesticide to spray down his bedding and clothing.
One problem cleared up — but then other challenges arose. Last Thursday, April 3, Ian sent family and friends this e-mail, the subject line of which was “Band of Brothers”:
Anyone who has run cross-country or long-distance track will fully
understand what I am about to describe. Running is 90% mental, 8% physical, and 2% cajones. There comes a point in the race when that little voice inside says, “It’s okay to quit. It will feel better. Just slow down a little.” Right then, you must decide whether to listen and give in — or give it all you’ve got as though it’s your last race.
I, along with the other guys here, have heard that little voice. We see the struggle in each other’s faces. But we press on and give it all we’ve got.
I now understand why basic and tech school were so hard. It was to prepare us for times like these. It was to weed out the weak; it was to weed out the ones who give up instead of giving all they’ve got.
We work 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week. We are tired. Fridays are just like Mondays. It would be easy to give up. But we’ve learned to stick together and help each other out. Henry V before the battle of Agincourt spoke of a “band of brothers.” The phrase endures. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II: the men who bravely fought in these and other wars understood this phrase. Now we do too.
I do not know everyone on this base, but I know we have something in common. We experience this bond. We are fighting for justice. We are fighting for America. We are fighting for each other.
This e-mail of Ian’s elicited several strong responses. One of the ROTC commanders at Michigan State University, for example, wrote:
WOW!!! You knocked my socks off with this e-mail. I am extremely impressed with your insight and maturity.
I have no doubt that you will benefit from your present experiences for the rest of your life. They will serve you well no matter what obstacles you face in the future. I’m sure many people are very proud of you and you can certainly count me among them.
Do you mind if I share your e-mails with some of our cadets? I think they are very insightful and give us a different dimension we never hear just listening to the news.
GENE QUINTANILLA, Colonel, USAF
Commander, AFROTC Detachment 380
This last e-mail reminds us that just five weeks ago, Ian was a student at a Big Ten university. His days were divided into studying, partying, and recovering (from both). He liked his classes and was happy with his routine. Some of our son’s e-mails reveal the mixed feelings he has about being away from his family and friends, college and routine. Of course he has mixed feelings — he’s only 19 years old. Recently, for instance, he wrote:
It’s starting to get hot. It is now getting into the 90′s and stays there for 8-10 hours. The sun has bleached what little hair I have and I am getting a decent tan. We are now having to take breaks because of the heat. This affects our tempo. I hope we can get the majority of the bombing and strikes out of the way while it is still reasonable outside. I have heard it can get up to 140 degrees in the sun during the hottest weeks in the summer. I don’t know how we’ll do it, especially if we have to wear our chemical warfare suits. It’s bad enough sleeping in those things.
Speaking of which, I have kept count of the incoming missiles. We have had a total of 17 so far. Intel believes we’ve hit all of their launchers so they shouldn’t be able to hit us. Your prayers and our crews have warded off the danger. Please continue to pray for all of our safety.
My plane was shot at 3 times by non-guided missiles today. Luckily, the Iraqis don’t seem to know a thing about the archaic Russian equipment they are using. So, my bird and pilot came out of there unscathed.
I wish I could let you in on all of the juicy information. There are a lot of exciting things going on, but for security, I can’t write about them all.
What Ian did write subsequently revealed his own private war — the inner war to which e-mails open a window. To a few family members he said:
Mentally I’m running out of steam. I have had 1/2 day off over the past 4 weeks. Same old, same old. I work, eat, and go to bed. But I’m ok.
This e-mail prompted my brother, Frederick Whitney, a graduate of the Air Force Academy (class of 1970) and an F-4 pilot for many years, to write a response that deeply moved and helped our son:
There are times in life when we are asked to endure more than we thought we were capable of enduring, to work harder than we thought we were capable of working. War is one such time. There will be other such times in the years ahead.
The ability to summon the inner strength (required to persevere) is critically important. It is important to each individual placed into such a position, and it is especially important to leaders.
Several techniques, or mind-sets, are helpful in dealing with such situations. First and foremost, remember why you are there. Think of what you are trying to accomplish (big picture) and what would result should you fail. Think of 9/11, think of the USS Cole, think of Kobar Towers, our bombed embassies in Africa, the Marine barracks in Lebanon.
Secondly, think of those who are asked to sacrifice even more than you, who are enduring even greater hardships. Yesterday, I read a letter from a young army captain who is operating within a few hundred miles of you. He and his men have been on the move constantly for the past two weeks. He has had no more than two consecutive hours of sleep at any time during those two weeks. He has lived on cold MREs. He has neither bathed nor showered in that time. He and his men have exhausted their supply of dip and/or cigarettes, and his letter was his first opportunity to access e-mail. There have been neither letters nor care packages from home — they are moving too fast for the mail to catch up. Enemy soldiers dressed as civilians have tried to kill him, and enemy artillery has come too close for comfort on several occasions. It may seem perverted, but it is helpful to think of those in even more difficult positions.
Finally, after having reflected upon the two thoughts above, concentrate on the small picture — your immediate job. Concentrate on doing it as well as you possibly can. Concentrate on every detail of servicing and caring for your jet, and in your spare time, look for opportunities to do a little more. Maybe the guy next door needs a little help getting his bird ready. Think of an Army or Marine E-4 who will return to his family because your airplane, and your pilot, destroyed an Iraqi tank.
Above all, be proud of yourself and what you are accomplishing. You, along with scores of thousands of other young Americans, have given up your personal safety and comfort to protect and preserve an ideal, a way of life. I thank you and I salute you.
— Gleaves Whitney is editing a book of wartime speeches by American presidents, to be published later this year by Rowman & Littlefield. This is the seventh in a series of reports about his 19-year-old son Ian, who is serving in Kuwait with the Michigan Air National Guard.