Pictures of Patriotism: A Photo Diary from the Mother of a Louisiana Veteran
Crowley, Louisiana (KPEL News) - The word "veteran" conjures up different images for different people. For me, it looked like the silhouette of a soldier or veteran in front of the American flag on a truck plaquard or a bumper sticker proclaiming "God bless America." But in 2017, this Louisiana mother became acutely aware that patriotism is more than a bumper sticker.
In preparation to share these photos and include accurate information, I sifted through the letters we received from our boy while he was at basic training. The emotions came flooding back. It's remarkable how the memories you'll see here seem like a lifetime ago, but feel like they happened yesterday.
My son joined the Louisiana National Guard in February of his senior year of high school, and he left our little town of Crowley for basic training seven months later.
Army National Guard soldiers attend the same basic training as active duty members do. It's no easier and no harder for them than it is for enlistees who will continue in the military as a job. Many people don't understand that.
My husband and I dropped off our fresh-faced, bright-eyed boy at the armory in Lafayette, Louisiana to begin a journey that neither he nor I understood would take us on an emotional roller coaster.
That was the hardest 10 weeks of my entire life.
My cell phone was permanently glued to my hand. We were told to expect a call when he arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia. That call didn't come. For nearly a week, I didn't sleep and worried every single minute of every single day. He wasn't allowed to use his phone at all, I knew. Had he made it there? Was he alive? What was happening to him?
Finally, the phone rang. I answered it and heard his voice like music to my ears, sort of. His message was curt and far shorter than I was expecting. I think he gave me an address, but I can't remember clearly because the relief I felt in that moment zapped every brain cell in my head.
I do remember hanging up the phone and dissolving into a puddle of tears. What had my son gotten himself into, and how would my heart survive it?
Thankfully, a girl in his graduating class had left for basic training just a couple weeks before he did. Her parents helped me find a closed Facebook group open only to the family members of soldiers in his training class. The military let us know that they would sporadically upload pictures of the group to the page. Needless to say, I scoured that page like a starving man devours a hot dog every single day. I worked, held my phone, and clicked on the Facebook page every waking hour.
We also learned that the US Postal Service offers an option that allows you to see what you're getting in the mail that day. Sign me up! I'd check it faithfully to see if I could expect a letter.
And one day, the first one came.
He let us know he was okay and exactly how to address mail to him. I've never been so exacting in my entire life!
I continued each day as I started, phone in hand and waiting for the military to upload photos. I was grateful for that Facebook group because misery loves company, and every single family member on the page, especially the moms, were frantic together. You could feel the emotion in every post.
And the pictures finally started posting. None of the photos were identified, other than to let us know what they were doing, so we clicked on each one and blew it up on our phone, hoping to see even a profile of my son. Finally, we saw his picture before he left the intake where he spent the first 10 days or so.
I cried. Again. I cried because every cell in my body was lonesome, and I cried out of gratitude because he looked healthy and safe.
Each day, I rinsed and repeated. It was like I was living my life in a vacuum.
Pictures came, but not often. Some of them broke my heart, like the one below. I saw, for the first time, his completely shaved head and it took my breath away.
We saw him amongst a group of trainees during their PT time. The Army requires them to complete certain tasks. For instance, they must do a certain number of sit ups and push ups in a specified amount of time and be able to run a certain distance on a clock. Every morning, they ran and trained.
His letters came about once a week and, with the delay, a couple may come at the same time. His emotions were all over the map. He talked about the food, getting "smoked" which meant the instructors made them do pushups or run until they puked, and how much he missed us. Yeah, that was as devastating each time as it sounds.
Imagine seeing your son walking a tight rope. I have no idea what this exercise is called, but my momma bear instinct was to jump in the car and take him home.
Have you heard about the gas chamber task they must complete? It's definitely a thing. They put on gas masks, and a group of soldiers walks into a small room. Once they are inside, the drill sergeant does whatever they do to fill the room with a non-toxic, but incredibly irritating gas. And then the soldier must remove the masks and stay in the room for a predetermined amount of time. My son, pictured below upon emerging, actually did relatively well. He would later tell me that some of them vomited or needed treatment to recover.
I understand why the gas chamber is a requirement, but my momma heart was sobbing again!
When we saw this picture, my heart was lighter and the sense of pride I felt was enormous. My son, the soldier. I began to understand how his training would prepare him not only for service, but also for life.
In the photos that I'm sharing that include faces of some of his team members, I've blurred the others out. We learned a lot about what's referred to as OPSEC or Operational Security and protecting the identities of enlisted persons.
The obstacle course was difficult. I wouldn't know how difficult until at least a week after he'd completed it.
You see, mail both getting to us and going to him is delayed by about a week.
One day, the following pictures populated our Facebook group.
About a week after we saw the obstacle course photos, we got a letter from my son written on the small notepad paper. It read, in part:
So I was able to do the obstacle course but messed myself up a bit. When I did the rope climb, coming down I fell and lost some skin on my hands and most probably bruised my pelvis.
Cue the hysterics.
If everyone in the platoon behaved themselves, they were allowed to call on Sundays. We never knew whether the phone would ring or not, but it was my constant companion every day of the week.
The next time he was able to call after we received the obstacle course letter, I threw a million questions at him. He was only allowed a very short amount of time with his phone. He told me that he was still training, but they sent him to physical therapy after the fall.
On November 18th, we received a letter that lifted our spirits. It began:
It's been a long and painful road, but as of last night, I'm an American soldier.
The end of his hell (and ours!) was in sight.
On Tuesday, November 28, 2017, my husband, my son's dog, and I hit the road, bound for Georgia.
I finally got to hold my son again after 10 weeks of agonizing, emotional pain for both of us, and physical pain for him.
For 10 weeks, the worry lines had dug deeper and my smile had never reached my eyes. That cloudy day, though, our world was incredibly bright.
Our two older daughters and their brother are close, and they made the trip to celebrate his basic training completion with us, as did my mom and dad. My son wasn't allowed to be in public without the appropriate military attire, so we hung out at the cabin we rented so he could relax and just be himself, enjoying his family and the down time.
Graduation from basic training is filled with ceremony and pride and emotion. A few soldiers are selected to don the uniforms worn by soldiers of previous American conflicts from the American Revolution to present day. My son was asked to represent the soldiers of World War I.
The feeling of patriotism as we watched the soldier march in formation onto the field to check off the dreaded basic training box was overwhelming.
They had survived. And so had we.
Then we began the next steps on our journey.
On the Friday after graduation, Friday, November 30, we were fortunate to have had the opportunity to transport my son from Fort Benning to Fort Gordon where he would attend advanced training, referred to as AIT.
We enjoyed the weekend with him, but not as much as he enjoyed being away from drill sergeants and push ups and with his faithful labrador. Leaving him there was difficult, but he would have greater access to his phone, so my heart wasn't nearly as heavy.
He was able to come home for Christmas that year, but returned to AIT until May 2018. He made some good friends there, as he had at basic. Trials and tribulations seem to solidify friendships.
We made our final trip east to watch our son graduate as a member of the 15th Regimental Signal Brigade. Then, we brought our boy home, at least for the time being.
DEPLOYMENT... SAYING GOODBYE AGAIN
Soldiers in the Louisiana National Guard attend drill weekends once a month and spend two to three weeks in more intense training during the summer. What people may not realize is that they are activated stateside when the governor calls them to duty for things like hurricane response.
In early 2020, we found out The Tiger Brigade would be deployed to the Middle East in 2021, likely leaving late in the year.
As luck would have it, COVID struck a few months later, and the Guard was activated for response in various ways. In the summer of 2020, Hurricanes Laura and Delta hit Louisiana. My son was sent to Lake Charles with his unit where a temporary base was set up and he stayed for nearly two months. Most of them were cycled out because they needed to prepare for their federal overseas deployment.
Because of national security, we weren't told a lot about exactly where he would be or what he would be doing. I thanked God every day that he had not enlisted as an infantryman. However, as part of the communications unit, his job was crucial because the Signal folks are the ones that keep information flowing.
Off we went, to drop our son at the armory to depart for what they call "the sandbox."
I was fortunate to have developed a rapport with the public affairs staff and was able to cover their departure as a news person. The send-off was inspiring and, although I was fearful for my son and his destination, the anxiety was far less overwhelming than it was during his basic training time because I knew he would be able to maintain contact with us.
They left in December of 2020 while the world was still in the throes of the COVID pandemic. They were required to mask up for the journey half way around the world and at each stop along the way.
He arrived at his destination. At the time, all we knew was that he was in one of four countries.
He called as often as he could, and we texted frequently. He worked at what amounted to a "help desk" alongside his team to make sure computers and communications equipment was running properly and helped to fix a problem when it arose. We learned that he was in a non-combat zone, so I was lonesome but relaxed.
He did go Erbil in Iraq for a specified period of time. I didn't find out about the change of location until after it happened.
He called to let us know all was well. He did tell us that bombs had gone off not far from their location, but he was okay. My anxiety and my heartrate both rose exponentially.
Out of the blue one day when I was at work, I got a text that said:
Whatever you hear, I'm okay. Just didn't want you to worry.
We all know telling a mother not to worry works about as well as climbing a greasy pole.
He Facetimed me later, and I could tell he was anxious. He told me that a bomb had gone off, essentially, across the street from where he was. He explained as many of the details as he could, which I won't share here. I could tell the experience shook him.
As we both processed that, thoughts of moms, dads, spouses, and other family members whose soldiers face that regularly flashed through my mind. I had experienced fear, but so many had endured so much more.
Not long after that incident, my son returned to the non-combat zone to complete his deployment. The Tiger Brigade came home in October of 2021.
A FAMILY'S LEGACY OF SERVICE
Our son's contract with the Louisiana National Guard expired in February 2023. His entry into the military came in with a roar and left with a whisper. He reported for his final drill weekend with no fanfare. When he got home, I asked, "Are you done?" He replied, "Yep."
My son comes from a legacy of military service.
- My grandfather served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II.
- My dad was enlisted in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.
- My first cousin who we consider a brother joined the Army out of high school and was sent to the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm in the late 80s/early 90s.
- My third brother is currently in the U.S. Space Force, stationed in Colorado.
- My fourth brother retired this year from the U.S. Air Force.
- My nephew is currently enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
- My nephew/Godson is studying at the U.S. Naval Academy.
My Godfather, who also served, lost his grand son Matthew, a Marine, to an IED in Afghanistan in 2011. Matthew's dad allowed me to be present when his casket was brought home. It lives forever in my memory.
His mom and dad established a foundation in his honor, The Cpl. Matthew Richard Memorial Foundation:
The Cpl. Matthew Richard Memorial Foundation is formed in an effort to ensure that the sacrifices made by Cpl. Matthew Richard, USMC and all who serve our country with pride: past, present and future - are never forgotten.
Thank a veteran. Thank their families.
The saying "All gave some, but some gave all" is more than a bumper sticker. God bless America!
Military Air National Guard Park
Gallery Credit: Randy Bogden