One day in 2003, when I was in fifth grade, Ms. Brune partnered me with Brandon so we could quiz each other for an upcoming test. The desks were pulled into pairs, facing each other. I was glad we were by the window because it was hot that day Brandon sat on his feet the way he normally did, playing with his pencils. I sat cross-legged on my chair. We weren’t concentrating very hard because we knew we could study at home. We started talking about the war in Iraq; that’s all anyone talked about. It was on the news every night. Teachers talked about it in hallways when they thought we weren’t listening. Brandon said that one of his relatives had been in Iraq and was killed by a bomb. I told him that my Aunt Kerri had been there over the summer, but she had come home fine with lots of pictures to show. He said I was lucky.
I always look forward to Aunt Kerri’s visits. She says “Hey Kiddo!” and gives me a hug. She travels to cool places and has cool stories to tell. In 2003 she had been to Iraq as part of her job. I noticed right away that her hair had grown longer. She arrived at our house with her laptop computer, her camera, and a plastic bag with some Iraqi money. The money was orange and green and had Saddam Hussein’s portrait on it.
We sat on the couch and looked at pictures. She complained about jet lag, but she didn’t seem tired. She pointed excitedly at the pictures, explaining what they were. Some were taken from helicopters whose cockpits looked small and uncomfortable, though their rotors looked large and disproportional. In one picture Aunt Kerri was standing in the hatchway of a humvee by a machine gun. In another she was dressed in camouflage, like a soldier, wearing a helmet and holding a rifle. She was smiling.
The next year, when I was in sixth grade, Mom read in Mom-mom’s and Poppop’s church newsletter that we could send care packages to soldiers who were from her hometown of Bel Air, Maryland. She started gathering things for a soldier named Patrick Adle. He was the nephew of one of Mom-mom’s co-workers. The newsletter said to send foot powder and Chapstick, earplugs to keep the sand out of his ears, and other toiletries. The box sat on the dining room table until she had all the stuff together. Then she packed it up and sealed it with a lot of packing tape.
Two months later the package arrived back on our doorstep. When Mom picked me up from school that day, I wanted to tell her about a good grade I got on my math test. Before I could start she told me that the package had come back. When we got home the box was still on the porch. It was dented, the corners pushed in. There was more tape over the tape we had put on. Written on the package in black marker was the word DECEASED.
Mom called her mother. She was almost crying. Her voice was higher than usual. We had found out a couple of weeks before that Patrick had been killed in action, but we weren’t expecting the package to come back. We thought they would give the things to somebody else who could use them. For me it was a new thing to feel sad about somebody I didn’t know.
In the summer of 2005, we went on vacation to Seattle where it was sunny and cool. When we got back to Baltimore, it was hot and humid. Mom-mom and Pop-pop picked us up at the airport. I sat in the back seat with Mom-mom. It was dark outside; street lamps cast bars of light across the seats. The air conditioning was on high; I was shivering. I wanted to tell Mom-mom about my trip, but Mom-mom and Pop-pop had been on a trip, too. They had been to Philadelphia where they visited a memorial to honor soldiers killed in Iraq. The memorial included the boots of some of the fallen. Patrick Adle’s boots were there.
It was obvious Mom-mom wanted to talk. Her voice was quieter than usual, her hands were still. She had held Patrick’s boots in her hands.
I think the war impacts us through the things that have been to Iraq and have come back.