from James Grippando
It’s the kind of news that appears at the end of yet another daily newspaper round-up on the war in Iraq. Half a column about a car bombing that kills 41 civilians in Baghdad. And then, almost, parenthetically, USA Today reports at the bottom of the page:
“Also Wednesday, three U.S. soldiers were wounded in north Baghdad in a blast from a type of weapon which the U.S. military believes is manufactured in Iran and smuggled from Iran. The U.S. military confirmed the attack and said the bomb was an explosively formed projectile, which hurls a fist-sized piece of copper through armored vehicles. Iran has denied providing such weapons.”
Hmm, you say. And then you flip to Section C to check out the basketball scores.
Unless one of the three soldiers wounded is your nephew.
James Nixon Hall is on his second tour of duty in Iraq. He is my older sister’s youngest child, Roberta's only son. His father served in the Vietnam War. His grandfathers fought in World War II, and his grandmother (my mother) was a Navy nurse in the Korean War. His wife Anna raises their children while he’s away, with an able assist from my sister, who I still can't believe is a grandmother several times over. His son was born while he was three thousand miles away on his first tour of duty.
PFC Hall was a gunner on a tank on his first tour in Iraq. He’s a twenty-eight-year old sergeant now, responsible for the lives of greener troops, many of them teenagers. The quiet and deliberate sergeant doesn’t share many details with us civilians about what he does over there. My sister thinks he’s running more night missions this time around. That worries us.
Last Wednesday, those worries went off the charts.
Roberta had been visiting our mother in Ft. Lauderdale, and her return flight left on Wednesday morning. She called me from O’Hare Airport in Chicago, halfway home to Washington State. She was surprisingly calm.
“Anna got a phone call,” Roberta said. “Jimmy was injured in Iraq today.”
I was driving on I-95, returning from a book signing in Naples, the cell phone plastered to my ear.“How bad?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“How did it happen?"
“Don’t know that either.”
“Where is he?”
“A hospital. Baghdad, I think.”
Roberta asked me to call our mother, tell her the news, and try not to scare her to death. My sister had to get on the plane from Chicago to Seattle. She would have no cell phone, no text messaging, no e mail—no way of scratching and clawing for more information about her son for the next five hours.
I can only imagine what Roberta was thinking as she sped west at 30,000 feet—toward home, but farther and farther away from her injured son. My own mind was racing. I was thinking about three-year-old Jimmy, the mischievous little monkey who almost electrocuted himself by sticking a house key in an electrical outlet. I remembered a five-year-old boy fighting to keep his eyes open past midnight to watch The Empire Strikes Back and talk like Yoda with his Uncle Jimmy from Miami. I remembered crossing the Puget Sound on a ferry and lifting him up on my shoulders so that he could feel the wind on his seven-year-old face. I thought of him all grown up, six-foot-three-inches tall, sitting on my deck last June, calm but contemplative, just a few weeks before he was scheduled to ship off to Iraq—again.
I passed the hours by doing computer research, doing the things I figured my sister would be doing if she weren't stuck on an airplane. I was desperate to figure out how to get more information on my nephew. I was surprised how little I was able to find. I took a little diversion and dug up a photo of Corporal John Crawford and six other marines in Iraq. Last year, Corporal Crawford sent me an e mail telling me that he and his men were fans of James Grippando novels. They were part of the security force in Al Tequadem, and after finding only three of my novels in the PX, he very humbly wrote "to ask if you would give us the privilege of sending some of the other books for us to read." We sent a box with everything I had ever written, and they sent me a thank-you photo, each of them holding a copy of their favorite Grippando novel.
"On long days standing post or trying to find ways to keep occupied on your time off, a GOOD books does wonders," he wrote. Soldiers talk freely about the boredom, the need to make time pass. They don't talk about the parts of their day that worry us folks back home. My nephew is just like them. I wondered if all of those young men had made it home.
I went back to the internet research and came across something called “Our Hero Handbook,” a Department of Defense "Guide for Families of Wounded Soldiers." It was dated June 2006, and I had no idea if it was still current, but this is what it said:
"The process begins for the family with notification. Families are notified of the injury to their soldier in a number of ways. Some families receive phone calls from their soldier who then tells them of their injury. Often another military member present may speak to the family to provide additional information…”
I stopped right there. Why hadn't my nephew placed the call himself to tell Anna or his mom or his dad of the injury? He was in the hospital. Surely they have telephones. Was he not conscious? Was he in surgery?
Stop it. Don't freak.
The answer came at 9:03 p.m. (4:03 a.m. Thursday in Baghdad). Roberta forwarded me a text message she received from her son upon landing in Seattle:
“i am fine. who called and said that i was hurt?”
Roberta's first thought was that the army had notified the wrong family. “Hall,” after all, is a pretty common name. But the army had not made a mistake. It was indeed his vehicle that had been struck by the Iranian-made explosive device. All three soldiers aboard had been taken to the hospital.
Fortunately, my nephew really is fine. The army sent him to the brain trauma unit to make sure of that. I can only presume that he didn’t call his family—and he didn’t want anyone to call on his behalf—because he knew that we would all worry ourselves sick if we heard he was in the brain trauma unit. He was probably right. He was definitely courageous.
And on this Memorial Day, he is one of many heroes. One of the lucky ones.
Patty will return next week in her regular slot.