Open letter to three Iraqi women

The steam has long since dissipated from my coffee cup as I strain to write this letter to the three of you. You don’t know me and one of you will never have an opportunity to read this letter but you have each left your mark upon my soul. Though I do not know your names you will recognize who you are and I speak to you woman to woman and mother to mother and mother to child.

Before I begin, if you don’t already know it, the US military can train a man to kill but can not train that man how to handle it when he does. For this reason amongst many others my Marine son, John, who touched your lives in Iraq, (and through him, so did I), is in treatment along with other veterans of this and earlier wars. They are ten wounded warriors, five from the Iraq war and five from that earlier American fiasco, Vietnam.

John has bonded most closely with one of these older Vietnam vets, “Old Man”, he calls him. Like my son Old Man is a first timer in the program. The reason I am telling you about Old Man is that it took him thousands of bottles of alcohol, dozens of jobs, seven marriages and forty years to accept that he had never recovered from his war time experiences. They never recover really I want you to know that.

So I am reaching out to you three Iraqi women because, while we didn’t realize it at the time, our paths have crossed, tragically and we are connected now. This connection has provided me with certain details about your lives that I feel I have to share if only that some small light may be shed on dark places.

There was a firefight in Baghdad, a 360 degree battle with the Marines taking fire from all around and overhead. You were there, not as a participant just a civilian and you are my first connection though I learned of you last because my son couldn’t tell me about you until recently.

Training had the Marines firing back reflexively at anything that moved, vehicles, stray dogs a blur of a shirtsleeve. The Marine who fired upon your husband and two children was almost 100 yards away and he jerked his weapon up in horror at the end of the burst and watched your family fall.

You didn’t know it at the time but he watched you run out to your family. He saw you in your light blue wrap as you went from one body to the other. He tried to avert his eyes as you picked up your dead child and then the other and wailed in your grief. He tried to look away but that light blue color was always in his peripheral vision, pulling at him drawing him back.

It might have been five, seven even ten minutes when, in what John described as the coldest thing he’d ever seen, that young Marine could bear your grief no more and killed you. So you see, we are connected because my son saw you die.

Does it matter to you about this man who killed you and your family? Perhaps not but he hailed from what we call the Deep South. At 6’5” healthy and solid muscle he looked the perfect Marine and though he returned from Iraq in one piece he has not fared well since that day in Baghdad. Within months of returning stateside, he amassed multiple alcohol related assault charges and engaged in all the self destructive behavior typical of combat veterans.

Finally, in what John calls Karma, he plunged over a beachside cliff and lay in a coma for months. If not Karma, perhaps self imposed penance but he is only now relearning how to speak.

To the mother in Fallujah who also lost her family. Not long ago I met a Lance Corporal who had determined during the siege on your city that he and his men must enter your home in search of combatants. He prepared and set a timed charge to blow a new doorway in the side of your building. He gathered intelligence assessed the situation and finally gave the order to blow the charge and his men darted through the newly opened breach and he followed closely behind.

You will remember him because when he entered to find your husband and children dead from the blast you were standing there crying out, “lemad’a, lemad’a” (why, why?) You will remember him because when he saw what he had done his knees buckled and the blood drained from his twenty two year old face. You will remember him because he fell back against the wall and clutched at his chest and gasped for breath.

You saw his reaction. You watched him try and shoulder the enormity of the order he had given and when his eyes finally met yours you placed your hand on his cheek and said, “masha, Allah” (God’s will). You should know that your compassion, your understanding and yes, your forgiveness that day destroyed him.

Please know that he would give his life to undo what he did. Please know that he works hard to end our occupation of your country. Please know that I have thought of you every day since he told me your story.

Now to you little girl of Ramadi, you cannot be more than six now, if that. With luck you do not remember that October day in 2004 when your parents died. With luck you are far away from Iraq now.

To you I feel the closest connection, the greatest responsibility and the deepest agony. You see your father wanted only to rescue you. He wanted only to grab you from your dead mother’s arms and he gave his life trying because he loved you so much.

My son and his sergeant did not understand. They mistook your father’s actions as a threat to their comrades and fired upon and killed your father. So you see we are connected because my son killed your father.

Please know that when the men of weapons platoon found you, scared and crying that many of them including John fell apart. You undid them. You and your scared wide brown eyes and dark curls brought many of them to their knees.

They took your picture that day. You are a tiny bundle of pink and blue flowers and puffy sleeves set against the digital camouflage jacket of John’s sergeant who did not set you down for hours. Please know that John keeps your picture though he looks at it rarely because it hurts so much to remember.

What can I say to you? That I am sorry goes without saying. Does it help that my son suffers because of that day? Does it matter to your life that he will carry your image with him forever? Probably not, I don’t see how it can but I will tell you that I love you.

As one American woman to you three Iraqi women, I am sure you cannot welcome this connection but I feel it nonetheless. Taking your families from each of you has also lost my son to me for he will never be the same. In this way we are forever deeply connected. To each of you, Assalamu alaikum, peace be upon you.

A Marine mom