Tuesday, October 02, 2007

We're all still kickin'

This is an assignment we had in my current journalism class on literary non-fiction. Some of the more well-known practitioners of literary journalism are Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Jack London, Susan Orlean, Joan Didion. It's the kind of in-depth profiling they do in the New Yorker. Anyway, we were asked to do our first assignment using interior perspective, such as Capote used in "In Cold Blood."

The headline on page one read “The green, green grass of home.” A color photo featured a beaming National Guard lieutenant in sunglasses and army fatigues, reclining on a patch of grass, smiling up at the sky. The photo was taken on the first stop on the journey home after a 17-month deployment in Iraq. Joe Hazelton called his parents in northern Minnesota to tell them his sister, 1st Lieutenant Nicole Siegler, and her brigade, the Red Bulls, was on the front page of the July 11 Star Tribune and that he had saved several copies for them. Joe and his family had been anxiously awaiting Nicole’s return after her year-long tour was extended as part of the military “surge” designed by the White House to provide some tangible signs of success in an increasingly unpopular war. She was safe on U.S. soil and they would be together within a week.

It had been an excruciating few months since the family learned that Nicole’s March homecoming would be pushed back. Joe followed the news stories about the frequent and often random violence against U.S. troops and shared his frustration with coworkers, friends and family. Although proud of his sister’s work as part of a preventive medical group in Talil, he was against the invasion of Iraq from the start and didn’t believe the U.S. should still be there four years later. He often voiced his anti-war and anti-administration views at the family table when he joined them for Sunday night dinners. Joe’s brother is a staunch conservative and the brothers often butted heads on civil liberties issues provoked by the 9/11 attack and the so-called war on terror. Joe often felt like the lone voice of reason, but with Nicole in Iraq, their mom took any dissent against the war or the government as a personal attack on Nicole.

In Nicole’s correspondence and phone conversations to the family she tried to distract from the fact that she was in a war zone, instead steering the conversation toward family's daily goings on in Minnesota. But she shared more of the realities of her situation in private emails with Joe, whom she felt would not overreact. In one email she wrote: “Things have gotten a little crazy around here, lots of rocket attacks (please don’t tell mom, you know how the smothering nature of her would freak out). It’s a weird experience, a rocket attack, but we’re all still kickin’. I’m ready to come home, too bad I’ve got to wait through the hot summer.” Joe kept a level head for his parents’ sake and did not share these details with them, yet he worried about what the waiting and worrying was effecting them.

Joe’s mom had become involved with a family readiness group, assembling care packages and networking with other guard parents, even as she tried to insulate herself from the war news. His dad was more stoic and rarely shared his opinions about the war. During the planning for the reunion, Nicole insisted they take only “one day to make a big deal,” then things would have to go back to normal. They would have to treat her like everyone else.

On the day of the reunion, two tourist-style buses shuttled the troops on a roughly three-and-a-half-hour drive from Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin dto the Cottage Grove Armory, where the brigade would be dismissed. A few of the Red Bulls on the bus kept waiting families updated on their journey via cell phone. The Patriot Guard Riders – a group of motorcycle riders, many ex-veterans, who shield mourners at military funerals from protestors – met the buses at a nearby rest stop and joined their procession toward the armory. These were met at the city limits by local police, fire and other emergency vehicles which lead the way onto the base. The two hundred or so family members in the anxious crowd were waving small paper flags, and neighbors near the base came out onto their lawns and stood on front porches to witness the homecoming. When the buses pulled up, music from loudspeakers swelled with the opening strings of Neil Diamond’s “America.” The only lyrics Joe would hear before the flurry of welcoming embraces and greetings would drown out the music were the first two stanzas:

We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star

Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

The platoon spilled off the bus and lined up in front of their commanding officer, who saluted and bellowed “dismissed” to screams and laughter from the troops and the waiting crowd.

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