Thursday, September 12, 2002

A father’s heartbreak on sending his son into battle

Published in the Current

Patriotism is a less certain thing for Kevin Sweeney now. Since Sept. 11, 2001, he has been engaged in internal conflict between what he sees in the world and what it means for his son, Brendan.

Brendan is a specialist in the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C. His unit is one of the first to head into harm’s way.

Sweeney, a New York native who received the coveted “New Yorker for New York” award in 1986, grew up, so he said, “watching the Twin Towers go up.” He lived in a working-class neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens and spent most of his life in the city, working to better his block and his neighborhood.

An Army veteran, who is not shy about expressing his pride in his son, Sweeney wonders and worries about the world his son – and all 20-year-olds – are living in.

Brendan called last Sept. 11 to say he and his fellow soldiers were in their combat gear, getting set to move. They didn’t go anywhere that day, but have been prepared to depart at a moment’s notice for a year.

“There is no sense of security in what Brendan will be doing from day to day,” Sweeney said.

There is a sense of relief when Brendan or his wife calls to say other units have been deployed, because it means at least six months before another unit
rotates overseas to replace it.

But, Sweeney said, with “war drums” beating like they are, it might not be six months, and could be far less.

Brendan is now slated to head to Germany in January for two weeks, and then on to a location officially undisclosed, but more than likely Afghanistan or Iraq, Sweeney said.

“It’s almost a relief to know he’s going in January,” Sweeney said. At least there’s a date to dread, though he knows departure could happen tomorrow.

Sweeney takes some comfort in knowing that he will get a call to say Brendan has gone overseas, because Brendan’s wife will let the family know. Other soldiers, ordered to pack up and get on airplanes double-quick, may not get a chance to let their families know they are leaving until much later, if at all.

It is not what Sweeney envisioned when Brendan graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School two years ago. At that time, Brendan had little interest in college and no concrete plans. Sweeney encouraged him to join the Army, knowing Brendan was interested in law enforcement and needed some training.

Back then, long before Sept. 11, Sweeney said he saw the Army as a way to get young men like Brendan shaped up, with opportunities for future educational scholarships, chances to get paid for training, and even management and supervisory roles.

Now that has changed. He thinks of Brendan, and all soldiers, differently.

“We have had to talk about things that no father should ever have to discuss with his son,” Sweeney said, his voice breaking. He has helped Brendan with a will and a power of attorney in case his son can’t act on his own behalf.

Some of the father-son time has been more sinister. “You shouldn’t have to go out with your son and buy personal sidearms,” Sweeney said. But that is what they did, when Brendan was home recently.

Sweeney, a self-described curmudgeon, is near tears when talking about Brendan. His depth of emotion springs from both pride and fear.

Proud to serve
“I’m damn proud of him,” Sweeney said. He expands that to the other “kids,” as he calls them, in Brendan’s unit and throughout the Army. “It makes you think,” he said, about all the families across the country, all worried about their own kids.

But he knows Brendan is special, one of the elite fighters the Army spends thousands to train and equip.

“Brendan is one of the few who is in combat arms,” Sweeney said. “They go in harm’s way just training.”

To show his support for his son, Sweeney flies an Airborne flag in front of his house, and wears Airborne jump wings – the symbol of a qualified Army paratrooper – on his lapel.

Sometimes, for variety, he substitutes a pin version of the 82nd Airborne division patch.

But Sweeney also harbors fears for Brendan.

During the Vietnam War, Sweeney said, “people took out their frustration on the individual service member. That bothers me a lot, and I don’t want that to happen again,” he said.

He worries about a lack of popular support for an attack on Iraq. President George W. Bush and his administration are talking about invading Iraq, though national opinion polls indicate the public is about roughly split on the issue.

Former national security advisers and a number of top generals don’t want to go to war either.

Sweeney recalled a statement by Gen. Anthony Zinni, a U.S. envoy to help negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians: “The people who seem to be most inclined to go to war are the ones who have never been there,” he said.

If Brendan – or any American soldier – dies in Iraq, Sweeney said he will want strong proof that Saddam Hussein does have weapons of mass destruction, as the Bush administration alleges. Sweeney vowed to hold the administration to account for any missteps.

“I want the United States to be aware of the implications,” Sweeney said.

Putting a face on war
He doesn’t challenge the government out of enmity for the U.S. Rather, it is the opposite. “If there’s anything I do that’s patriotic, it’s playing devil’s advocate and asking the questions,” Sweeney said.

He is scared that with John Ashcroft and others in the administration making policy changes to “improve security” by taking away civil rights, what the terrorists had hoped to achieve with their attacks, “they have, in fact, accomplished to some degree.”

He reminded Brendan that he swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and he reminds himself of others who fought to defend American freedom, and what they believed in. Today’s leaders, he said, are different.

“There are people who think that in order to protect those same liberties, we have to take them away,” Sweeney said. But rather than give up his rights and follow along blindly, Sweeney has a simple question: “Why is it so important to go to war?”

He also wants people to understand the true cost of war.

There are about 400,000 soldiers out of nearly 300 million U.S. citizens. “Most people don’t know a real soldier,” Sweeney said. Those who serve in the armed forces are people, too. He wants the politicians to remember that. “These soldiers have moms, dads, brothers, sisters, wives and kids,” he said.

War is a big decision, and the distance between soldiers and Washington policymakers can be dangerous, he said.

“It’s easy to send somebody else’s kid,” Sweeney said. The solution? “Make them faces. They’re people, and for the most part they’re kids,” he said.

He said even the national media has gotten carried away, encouraging war and not questioning government officials enough. Sweeney said he recently wanted to call up the war-hawk TV talk show “Fox and Friends,” to say, “You’re talking about killing my son.”

He has worked to help Cape Elizabeth’s members of the armed forces stay in the minds of town residents, especially the children. Last year, classes in the middle school adopted service people, writing them letters and sending them reminders of home.

The activity is one way Sweeney can avoid being overcome by fear. In a phone conversation from North Carolina, Brendan once said he was scared. Sweeney reminded him that fear is normal.

“Courage is not an absence of fear, it’s perseverance in the presence of fear,” Sweeney told his son.

The father’s heartbreak is still palpable, though, as Sweeney begins to cry, thinking about the last time he saw Brendan.

“I can’t say goodbye to him without being in tears,” Sweeney said, “because I don’t know if I’m ever going to see him again.”