(WOMENSENEWS)–This is how Rachel Normandy, the mother of Ryan, a soldier in Iraq, received word.
“It was a Friday and the message was left on my answering machine at noon,” Normandy said. “It was someone from the army in Germany. All it said was, ‘We need you to call us back as soon as possible.'”
Twenty-four grueling hours later she learned Ryan had been injured by a suicide bomber in the Southern Iraq town where he was stationed in the 1st Armored Division.
“I felt like the blood was sucked out of my body when I found out,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Cupertino, Calif. “He had shrapnel lodged in his brain . . . He was burned on his arms, neck, face, hands. His wrist was damaged. There was a hole in his left cheek, shrapnel through his eye.”
Normandy, beginning to choke up, added: “He lost his right eye!”
Normandy left her job in airline customer service and spent all last year in a Texas hospital with her son. Support groups of other mothers, she said, helped get her through the year.
“I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel or react,” Normandy said. Groups such as Blue Star Moms in San Francisco, which formed shortly after Sept. 11, provide support to mothers with children in the armed forces. It helped Normandy, she said, just by providing her with someone to talk to.
Efforts to Bring Troops Home
In addition to providing other mothers with support many military mothers are also spearheading efforts to bring U.S. troops back from Iraq.
These groups–many of which invoke Julia Ward Howe’s 1870 “Mother’s Day Proclamation” antiwar manifesto–are as longstanding as Another Mother for Peace, based in Beverly Hills, Calif., and founded in 1967 to help stop the Vietnam War. Another Mother for Peace has been educating women and lobbying politicians ever since.
Code Pink, based in Venice, Calif., is another group, with its pink-clad members easy to spot at protests and readings.
Leave My Child Alone!–a campaign launched by San Francisco-based Working Assets; Mainstreet Moms, out of Bolinas, Calif. and ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, that advocates for social justice–aim to educate parents on preventing military recruiters from targeting their children.
The U.S. groups have counterparts around the globe, including the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, which succeeded in bringing home 180,000 soldiers from the military service in 1989. Five years later, mothers went to Chechnya and removed their sons themselves.
Many of the U.S. activist mothers are finding a natural leader in Cindy Sheehan, the woman from Vacaville, Calif., whose son was killed in Iraq. Her August stakeout of President Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch–where she demanded an explanation for her son’s death from President Bush–has energized anti-war efforts and bolstered sentiment for her.
Now, as the country observes the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, part of that event will include Sheehan’s 26-state “Bring Them Home Now” tour.
Those on the tour have loved ones in Iraq; they will be holding public discussion forums and pressuring lawmakers to oppose the war. The tour culminates in an anti-war gathering in Washington, D.C., Sept. 23-26. A march and rally at the Washington Monument is scheduled on Sept. 24 and is expected to draw thousands of protesters. Other plans include civil disobedience demonstrations, lectures and vigils.
A 2004 survey for the Pentagon found that 81 percent of young men and women interviewed said their mothers exerted the greatest sway over their decision on whether to join the military. The Joint Advertising Market Research and Studies program of the Department of Defense has launched a 270-person “Mothers’ Attitude Study” to evaluate factors that may be deter mothers from encouraging their children to enlist.
Recruiters, meanwhile, seem to be expanding their target area from young people to include parents as well.
In an example of its outreach to young people, a U.S. Army handbook encourages recruiters to attend sporting events and school events that do not charge admission, as well as to become actively involved in Hispanic heritage and black history months. The handbook also suggests driving a Hummer, preferably with new recruits, referred to as “future soldiers,” along for the ride.
In April, the Army launched a four-part television ad series of poignant conversations between children and their parents, both fathers and mothers. The ads emphasize benefits such as college funding and discipline.
In one, a son tells his mother he found a way to pay for college. Interested, the mother says “go on.” Prepared for his mother’s objection, the son says, “Before you ask, Ma, I already checked them out. And I can get training in just about any field I want . . . It’s time for me to be the man.” All the ads, including one in Spanish, end with the motto, “Help them find their strength.”
Carol Schneider, president of Another Mother for Peace, says low-income women may be particularly susceptible to the new ads. “They target mothers of color in less advantaged socioeconomic groups. It brings in a candle of hope to these homes where kids may die on the street in gang wars.”
Normandy said that although she opposed the war, she felt the helplessness of having a son struggling to succeed. “The recruiter didn’t waste any time,” she said. “I thought my son was at a stage; he wasn’t into structured academics, I guess. He needed some discipline in his life, so I supported him.”
To bolster recruitment, a 12 million-person Pentagon database stores student data such as Social Security numbers, grades, ethnicity and weight to pinpoint new recruits. The file is supported by provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act that require public schools to turn over the records to military schools, services and recruiters. But the Pentagon also collects information about students independently of school districts, according to Code Pink’s Rae Abileah. That information is drawn from a wide variety of sources, including advertisers, educational testing companies and private data collection firms, she said.
Leave My Child Alone!, based in San Francisco, is a coalition of anti-war groups including the Mainstreet Moms that is urging parents to opt out of having their children’s records sent to Army recruiters. Parents opting out download a form from their Web site, which generates separate letters that are then forwarded to the Pentagon and their school district’s superintendent.
“Opting out is a great way to organize and bring attention to this issue,” Abileah said. “But opting out is by no means a surefire way to avoid being contacted by recruiters.”
Normandy said she would do anything to go back and prevent her son from enlisting.
“So far, he hasn’t shown any brain damage,” she said of her son’s head wound. “But it is the mental scars that are the worst. He has difficulty sleeping; he never sleeps. They even give him medicine. Now, he’s using alcohol.”
During the phone interview her voice began to break and her Filipino accent grew thicker with each sob. “It’s unbearable,” she said. “It is so hard for me. It is so hard.”
Rachel Corbett is a Women’s eNews intern and freelance writer based in New York City.
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