Monday, September 25, 2006

Five more minutes

I had always imagined with horror what it would be like to get the news that my son was killed in Iraq. Then it happened.

By Christy Miller

Sept. 25, 2006 | On April 26, 2004, I woke up around 4:00 in the morning and turned on the television in my bedroom. At least 12 Marines had been injured, and by 6:00 a.m., reporters were saying that one had died. I typed Aaron a letter, as I'd been doing daily for several weeks, trying to sound positive. Outside of mentioning that we had one Marine down, I avoided the hard news of the day.

It was around 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. when the two Marines drove up to my house. The noncommissioned officer began to approach me. It seemed to take an eternity for him to cross my lawn -- I think I must have walked some, gone to meet him halfway.

He began, "Ma'am, are you Christy Miller? Can we go inside? We need to talk to you." His wasn't an easy job.

"No, we've got to do this outside." Mine, still the harder.

The other Marine, the officer, said, "Ma'am, your son was killed in action today in Al Anbar province."

I said, "My son was killed in the firefight that's on the television right now. He was killed in Fallujah. There's been one Marine killed today."

There, in that moment, that tiniest and longest length of time, there must've been a mechanical failure, an embodiment of someone's (it couldn't have been mine) heart and brain colliding.

"Mine," I finished. Yes, the Marine was mine.

My son, Lance Cpl. Aaron C. Austin, USMC Machine gunner, Team leader Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division was killed in action on April 26, 2004, in Fallujah, Iraq. He was born on July 1, 1982, at 8:53 p.m. central daylight savings time in Amherst, Texas. Circumcised and sent home on the Fourth of July, he was my breast-fed, blanket-sucking baby boy, a little Linus look-alike. He threw his blanket away when he was 10. God, how I wish for that blanket now. It surely would carry some scent.

Aaron's company commander, Capt. Zembiec, wrote me right after it happened. He wrote, "Your son was killed in action today. He was conducting a security patrol with his company this morning, in enemy territory. His company had halted in two buildings, strongpointing them and looking for insurgents. A large number of enemy personnel attacked Aaron and his platoon at around 1100. Despite intense enemy machine gun and rocket propelled grenade fire, your son fought like a lion. He remained in his fighting position until all his wounded comrades could be evacuated from the rooftop they were defending ... We held a memorial service this afternoon in honor of your son. With the exception of the Marines on Security, every man in the company attended the service. Aaron was respected and admired by every Marine in his company. His death brought tears to my eyes, tears that fell in front of my Marines. I am unashamed of that fact."

From the men who first told me the news, who had stood outside my home, compassionate Marines in dress blues, to those who entered my living room and placed before me the one remaining box of my son's life, and then, on bent knee, took out a smaller box from within the larger, and handed over to me Aaron's watch, the one removed from his body at the time of death -- it is to these men that I owe so much.

I began to wear Aaron's watch, which was still on Baghdad time. His watch became my watch. His alarm would go off at 3:28:24. Then again at 3:33:20. Aaron always said, "Give me five more minutes, Mom." This early alarm, its hidden meaning, meant only for him, for duty on a rooftop possibly, is 5:30 p.m. (the evening before) my time.

When the battery goes dead on a digital watch -- it's gone. Blank. Not even a zero. Aaron's watch stopped somewhere between late afternoon on the twenty-eighth of November and noon on the thirtieth. Since then, I've experienced the first Mother's Day without my son, his 22nd birthday, and the homecoming of his unit. More of the "firsts" will soon be behind me. I don't know if the seconds, thirds and fourths get any better.

At times I believe I can learn to live a life without my son. After all, I must. There are other mothers who have lost their boys -- car accidents, war, illness -- who can shop for dinner at the local grocer's without the macaroni-and-cheese boxes suddenly causing them grief. But the memory of him is planted in everything around me. Inside of me. So much of him has been lost, is fading, breaking down. His blanket, his watch, his uniform.

The military uses commercial washers to clean personal items before they are handed over to the families. Understandable, but it leaves a synthetic laundry smell. Aaron's scent is gone. These are the realizations, the moments I've most dreaded. And they come out of nowhere.

I went through several rounds of "looking for him." Articles, pictures, his voice, things like that. He used to chew on the caps of pens, his dog tags, everything, so I saved a few things I found like that. You're not ever preparing for this day, so everything had pretty much been washed, given away, or thrown out when Aaron deployed. I did find his voice on a couple of tapes, including when he was in the third grade, and he was studying for a spelling test, spelling dinosaur words over and over. Then his voice for a few minutes back in '98, I think, and then, after his first trip to Iraq when a news station interviewed him. Each and every new little discovery is uplifting for a while, it lends hope, and then you remember why you're doing it.

Then one day, I was in a closet, and I looked down and saw a pair of Aaron's house shoes, lizard-striped ones. The shoes brought a smile and tears and when I grabbed them up, and noticed a kind of grimy stain in the bottom, I sniffed, over and over. I cried, of course, but I was still so happy. It was the smell of his feet. No one ever expects that kind of smell to be a gift, but to me, that day, it was. Still, every once in a while, I go and get them out of his room. Now they sit by his bed, close to our two pairs of boots: jungle boots I wore in Panama, and his pair, from Iraq.

The days have become different. Sorrow is a tile in the mosaic and flashes of grief still come. But I believe that time does heal. I think it teaches. The moments pass. I can't say how. It's not of my doing. Sometimes I question. Why has God taken the only child that remained? Left me with no hope for a grandchild? I'm certain there can be no more. No more children.

And yet I have no particular animosity for my son's killer. He's a nameless and faceless combatant to me. Should I ever have the opportunity to meet him, I hope that I'd forgive him. To me, the buck stops with the Father. His power stings at times. But He's listened to me; perhaps He's even cried with me. And yes, I do know what I'm talking about here. It's a belief, man. Aaron's words. You either believe in God or you don't. Yes, I'd forgive. I do forgive. There is absolutely nothing I'd do to keep myself from spending eternity with God and Aaron.

The words "forever" and "eternity" mean something to me now. Before, I wouldn't concentrate on their true definition, on their essence. I thought they were for later. Now, I have an aching need to know that forever and eternity started long before my time -- way before Aaron, before the Marines came to my home that day.

Adapted from "Timeless," a personal narrative published in "Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families.". It appeared on


Anonymous istas said...

And how many Palestinian Aarons are there? EXCEPT they are really fighting for freedom and democracy, not for bloody gift-wrap for some oil. You make your bed with Bush, you lie in it with him. I will save my tears this time.

4:02 AM  
Blogger N said...

Istas, have you no heart? you say that, and they say that, and everyone violent says that, and at the end these mothers pay the price, now even if you have actually felt some pain yourself, that is all the more reason to relate. When will the world ever get the point?

5:21 AM  
Anonymous istas said...

He is a soldier, what about the innocent civilians that die? What heart do you speak of? Where’s your heart may I ask? I will not weep for those that wear a soldier’s uniform knowing that they are going to kill innocents or torture and torment them in unlawful jails for an internationally unjustified cause. Also, you owe me an apology 'N'. Don’t you worry about my heart; it is safe and sound and will always beat in resonance with justice. I will not mourn a soldier’s death, he made a choice.

7:07 AM  
Blogger N said...

he is a brainwashed 22 year old, who made a choice according to his conditioning and the only things he knows and God knows whatever else that formed his life.. Do you think i see tragedy in this and not in civilians dieing? Pain is pain, and tragedy is tragedy all over irrelevant to race or religeon. I wont apologize to you, you have not even diplayed an interest in trying to see beyond your own prefixed judgments.

7:15 AM  
Anonymous istas said...

You know nothing about me or what I have tried to see or what my judgments are. I will not mourn a soldier’s death, and that is MY choice. You have the freedom to be so loose in your affections, but you don't know what goes on the other side of the world, it is not a matter of sympathy, it’s a question of life and death. Justice and injustice. The American government chose to recruit these kids, is that not so? Why should I mourn for the mistakes of America? I’m sorry for his parents, but I’m a Palestinian, and try to imagine why I am hardened. Well come and visit my blog in a couple of days and I will let u know specifically why. you still owe me an apology.

7:52 AM  
Blogger N said...

Just a note, i'm an Egyptian, i am from the part of the world you talk about.
And had you directed your anger at the US government you would have found nothing but respect from me.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Basil Fawlty said...

Ladies, ladies...I understand you both feel strongly about this. Istas, I put this post up solely as an example of human loss, not political support. As is often the case, the real victims of war, violence and terrrorism (the real definition of terrorism which includes dropping bombs from planes) are the family members who are left behind to mourn loved ones. In that respect, at least, we're all the same and that's what I was paying my respects to. N., at a certain point compassion runs out, especially for those who are directly affected. It can also be maddening, especially to a Palestinian or an Iraqi or even a neutral to see page long tributes, overblown memorial services and streets renamed after someone of one country, whereas countless, nameless innocents struggle to be remembered even by their neighbors. That's not right either, right? I think that's the view that Istas is coming from.

Anyways, the reason you're both angry is because you're both passionate. Which we could always have more of.

9:36 AM  
Anonymous istas said...

no, they had a choice not to start this war. where are the weapons of mass destruction? Christy forgives? what an egotistical self centered thing to say! she forgives the iraqis! and you are buying this? if she wants to see Aaron, she should pray to God that the Iraqis find it in them to forgive her and her son.

10:03 AM  
Blogger N said...

:) i feel like i am being told off by my dad Basil, however, you are right of course. It is difficult on both sides, and right from wrong is anything but clear.

Istas, i went to your blog to find out who you are and left you a comment there to spare Basil's blog from turning into a forum, its a bot too late though :)

10:55 AM  
Blogger Basil Fawlty said...

Ha! No problems, I don't mind. And yes, Uncle Basil is being preachy:)

11:17 AM  
Anonymous istas said...

sowwy n, i didnt mean to hurt ur feelings i just get crazy like this when i talk about politics...
although, i really didnt say anything that should upset you. what u need is thicker skin, this world is beyond chutzpah. will u shake hands with me?

1:41 PM  
Anonymous istas said...

and please visit my blog and i will urs, we can talk about girlie stuff... :)

1:43 PM  
Blogger Basil Fawlty said...

Yes, I don't mind if you fight here but take your girlie stuff outside:)

1:58 PM  
Anonymous izzi said...

lol fawlty

4:01 PM  
Blogger N said...

I have gotten all girlie on istas blog and spared you Basil :)

4:38 AM  

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