A poignant Mother’s Day for military moms
May 9, 2008
The job of a mother is to take care of her children. There is nothing more at odds with that mission than the call to war.
Anna Quindlen, Newsweek
Deb Melle’s son, Christopher Bova, called Thursday from Fallujah to make sure she knew he hadn’t forgotten Mother’s Day. The young Marine knew he would not be in a place where he could call home on Sunday and he was worried that his gift wouldn’t arrive on time. Melle assured him, though, that hearing his voice and knowing he was safe was the only thing she wanted.
Marion Wheaton, whose son Cody is currently serving as an Army Ranger in Iraq, will no doubt check her email on Sunday but intends to stay busy hosting an equestrian clinic on Mother’s Day. "Otherwise I’d be at home being sad," she admits.
Sally Elliott, also a military mom, will not have to factor in international time zones when she talks to her son Chip this Sunday — he is back on U.S. soil. But she says she will never forget what it is like to have a child in a war zone.
The three Park City-area moms had different reactions when their children chose to join the military, and all admit to conflicting feelings about the war in Iraq. But they are unanimously proud of the courageous men their boys have become.
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Wheaton: Surprised but supportive
Wheaton doesn’t exactly remember the first conversation she had with Cody about his interest in the military. Neither she nor her husband Bob had family in the armed forces. Cody, though, had a close friend whose dad was a two-star general. Still, she says, during his senior year at Park City High School she was surprised when he applied to the Air Force Academy.
Cody wasn’t accepted, though, and seemed to shrug it off when he headed to the University of Utah to study physics.
But as he was casting about for a career, Cody was drawn to the university’s ROTC program. Wheaton remembers cautioning him to "do your homework and do what’s right for you."
"I was really impressed with the people Cody worked with through the ROTC. They were so supportive of the students, they really focused on physical fitness and academics and frowned heavily on drugs and alcohol so we thought that part was great."
According to Wheaton, her son loved the program. "He went to Korea, to Washington, did jump school, got his wings " He also earned a rare four-year scholarship.
Now, she says, he is paying back those four years.
Cody was commissioned as a second lieutenant in May 2005 and headed to Virginia for officer training. From there, she says, the boy she once thought of as a "homebody" fought tooth and nail to be accepted into Ranger school at Fort Benning, Ga. Army Rangers, she explains, are the equivalent of Navy Seals, "the elite, top-fighting group."
He emerged from that rigorous training as a Ranger-certified transportation officer attached to the 101st Airborne Division. He was also, according to his mom, "a whole different person.
"There is a different level of self confidence that you only get from the military experience," she observed. But, while her admiration for her son swelled, so did her worries.
Wheaton’s worst fears were realized when Cody learned that he would be deployed to Iraq. Nevertheless, she stuck to her commitment to be supportive. She and Bob flew to Tennessee last October to help close up Cody’s house and see him off.
"We had made pretty elaborate plans with one of his friends to give us a ride so we could actually go out on the tarmac and say goodbye. But as the day got closer, I told Bob, ‘You can do whatever you want but I can’t do that, I just can’t be strong. Here is Cody, here is my child a 24-year-old man with 50 soldiers under his command, he can’t have his mother out there bawling." So, on Oct. 27, they said their goodbyes at 6 a.m. in the driveway.
Melle: The recruiters were relentless
Melle’s son Christopher tried to enlist when he was 17. But since he was a minor, he needed parental permission and Melle and his dad, Charles Bova, refused to grant it. In the meantime, she remembers, the recruiters that Christopher met at Park City High School’s career night kept calling the house.
"I was not happy," she said. "We were at war and no mother wants to send her child to war. My job is to care for him and that seems incongruent with sending him off to the military."
Melle recalls adamantly refusing to buy Christopher a gun when he was a little boy, "but that is where his interests kept going. Christopher was very interested in weapons."
Despite his parents’ vocal opposition, on his 18th birthday, Christopher went right to the Marine recruiting office in Salt Lake City. Before long he was in boot camp in California and Melle remembers receiving letters from a very homesick young boy. "He really struggled, but he came out at the top of the class ."
Now, almost three years later, Christopher isn’t homesick anymore. He still calls and emails but Melle knows that he chooses his words carefully. "He doesn’t want to scare me."
When Sergeant Bova was deployed to Fallujah, Melle received a letter from his platoon sergeant who told her of his own leadership and wartime experience. Melle says she wrote back, "I feel better knowing Christopher is under your command but please understand that while he is your Marine, he is my child, my baby and in my mind I still see my little towheaded toddler, my goofy adolescent, my lacrosse goalie." She says she still "can’t picture him with an M16 in his hand."
Elliott: The military is a ‘fabulous’ life
Sally Elliott’s indoctrination into military life began when she met her future husband at the University of Oklahoma in 1961. A member of the campus ROTC, Torch Elliott planned to follow the tradition set by six previous generations of his family by attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. "He planned to be a career military officer," she said.
Nevertheless, even as Sally and Torch became close friends, she campaigned for John Kennedy and harbored deep misgivings about the Vietnam war. Inevitably, Torch was sent off to fight and Elliott sealed off her political leanings. He promised to propose when he returned.
While Torch was in Vietnam, Elliott says she talked to military wives and learned "it could be a pretty good life." They married a month after he returned from Vietnam and it was indeed "a fabulous, glamorous, exciting life."
Over the ensuing years they had three children who were educated at a variety of military bases from Oklahoma to Alaska, El Paso, Texas, Vietnam, Japan and Korea.
"Chip loved growing up in the military," she said. In fact, he was so determined that during his senior year at the Seoul American High School he only applied to one college – West Point.
"I tried to get him to go to a state university and pledge to a fraternity because I wanted him to have a broader experience," she said. But the younger Elliott stood his ground. Elliott said she pressed Chip to ensure that he didn’t feel obligated because of the family history. When he assured her that his enthusiasm was genuine, she was convinced.
In 1986, Chip headed to West Point and his parents moved to Park City.
His first assignment was in Germany but in 1991 he was deployed to Iraq during Desert Storm. Elliott adopted the stoic military mother’s code. "Being married to an army officer and hearing the family stories, I was just sort of fatalistic about it. You do the best you can and trust fate, knowing that regardless of the outcome you will be able to cope with it."
When his mission was completed in Iraq, Chip returned to Germany but was soon sent to Saudi Arabia. That was in 2002 and, by then Chip was a father. His growing family moved in with Torch and Sally in Park City to await his return.
Chip spent the next four years were spent in Kansas pursuing peacetime duties but in 2006, was notified that he was being sent back to Iraq.
Elliott remembers, "It was dangerous in Desert Storm but I had no idea how dangerous it was when Chip went back to Iraq . He was training a transportation battalion and he was on the roads all the time. But he never did tell me that."
Taking it day by day
Elliott flew to Kansas to welcome Chip home last July but says she will never forget what it felt like to have a child in a war zone.
"It was very dangerous, but you can’t dwell on the danger – you have to think about how important it is." She and Torch closely followed the news while Chip was overseas, "but you keep moving through your daily lives," she said.
Elliott admits it is sometimes difficult to reconcile her own politics with the war but says, "I kept my feelings about the Vietnam war close to my chest. I thought it was a senseless war but I didn’t speak up about it out of respect for my husband. And I suspect the Iraq war is even worse."
Soldiers, though, are not politicians. They are professionals. And according to Elliott, "Being associated with those professionals means that as military wife and a military mother my job is to be strong and supportive."
Perhaps because her son is still in Iraq, Melle is much more emotional. "I watch the news voraciously. I read everything I can about what is going on in Iraq. I have become a CNN junkie. I don’t know why that helps me cope but it does when I see not much is going on in the area I am a little relieved."
Melle, a self-described liberal who opposes the war, has reached an important détente with her son. "We have come to a place where we have agreed to disagree my relationship with my son isn’t about politics. I love him, I support him and I pray for him. Our relationship supercedes politics.
"Chris is there to do a job and to do it well. He is committed to being the best Marine he can be and, 21 years ago, I made a commitment to be the best mom I can be to him, so that is what I will continue to do."
With the prospect of nine more months of deployment, Wheaton has devised a unique way to fend off her anxieties about Cody’s safety. She has his one-and-a-half-year-old German shepherd Rhiley and they have their own training regimen. They passed ‘basic’ in Park City Recreation’s Dog Obedience School, sailed through the intermediate level and they are now working toward Rhiley’s Canine Good Citizen certification.
She also sends weekly packages – "cookies, newspaper articles, just goodies from home."
"We are both so very proud of our son and his accomplishments," Wheaton says, but she also admits deep misgivings about the war in Iraq.
"People say things like, ‘We need to get out of there,’ and then they take a breath and say, ‘But thank your son for his service.’ It’s kind of weird when you think of it it just doesn’t make sense. But I kind of feel that way too. When I hear about what is going on in the Shiite communities in Baghdad and the violence and all the bombings – we don’t understand their culture and we probably never will.
Sunday morning Melle will wake up with her phone by her head and, unlike most local moms, she will be happy if it does not ring. Elliott will likely think back to Mother’s Day last year and heave a deep sigh of relief that Chip is safe at home in Kansas with his wife and children. Wheaton will take Rhiley for a walk and begin planning what to include in Cody’s next care package. Like the military mothers across the country, she says, "they are in our thoughts 24/7."