BAGHDAD – What is the most common thing moms do? Take care of their kids?
That’s what Susan Galleymore was doing when I met her. The uncommon thing was that she’d traveled halfway around the world, from San Francisco to Baghdad, to take care of her son. Nick is a U.S. Army Ranger, an occupation generally regarded as pretty rugged, or at least not likely to include a mother’s personal touch. But that was not about to stop this committed former South African.
Now living in California, Galleymore became familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when her brothers served in the South African Army during the "front-line states" wars that nation waged against neighboring countries. "I know what PTSD is," she said, and added with a mother’s steely resolve, "I’m not going to lose my son to that."
Over many glasses of tea at a Karrada St. café in central Baghdad, Galleymore described her anxiousness for her son, and her Internet project, called "Motherspeak," relating the anxieties of mothers on all sides of the Iraq war.
You spoke earlier of an Iraqi mother whose whole family was killed in a tragic encounter with the U.S. military, and how that tragedy will ripple beyond what we might normally consider.
Yes, I spoke with an Iraqi woman whose husband and three children were killed. They were driving after dark in their neighborhood, visiting family. A Humvee came around the corner about the time that an electrical transformer apparently exploded. Her husband tried telling the soldiers not to shoot, that he was with his family, but they were killed and she was wounded.
That is a horrible story. But my concern is also with the young soldiers in that position, where you do something because you’re so scared and you can never find your way through it psychologically. And that’s just one incident out of a whole plethora of things that are happening to these soldiers all the time. I’m really, really concerned about that aspect of my son. It’s pretty scary. This is supposed to be a job. But it’s a job with real, real consequences. Even though he’s an adult, I can’t let go. I can’t not do what I can, to somehow work with him around that stuff. My son is not going to break down and open up to me about how terrible it was. He has a lot to defend because he knows I didn’t really want him in the military. So given that, I have to find another way of supporting him.
The first American mom I interviewed had been a peacenik during the ’60s. She married a man who was a Vietnam vet, in the 82nd [Airborne]. Their son, who is 19, came straight out of boot camp to Iraq, and he’s in the 82nd. The son calls home every week. Every now and again he’ll ask to speak privately to his dad, and the two of them will talk through some experience that he’s had. That was such a wonderful role for a father to be able to play in his son’s life. My son’s father can’t really play that role, and I don’t really know any men who can play that role for my son. So I sent a letter to that father who’d been in Vietnam and asked him if he’d make contact with Nicholas. Not to be overt about it, but just say that he’d been in the military and understands how harsh it gets. So I’m trying to find all these avenues, hoping that one of them may spark something for Nicholas.
What are you hoping it will spark?
That instead of holding a severely difficult, traumatic experience inside, he’ll be able to bring it out and talk about it and see that this is something that goes along with the territory and that people can actually talk about it; that men actually talk about it. It’s not something they hold inside all the time which is my impression of the way men are. They tend not to be overtly open about that sort of stuff. I don’t want that to happen to him. I want him to find a way to bring it out within the manly culture.
So far, the American mothers I’ve talked to, except for the first mother who’s married to the Vietnam vet, I think have not really taken on the responsibility of the mental health of their kids. They’re still thinking the military will do it. One of the people I talked with here is a psychiatrist working with post-traumatic stress in little kids and he also works with the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority, the body administering U.S. authority over Iraq], with the soldiers. But he said it’s so minimal that it’s almost nonexistent. If it’s not expedient, they don’t bother. So I decided I’m not going to watch my kid disappear into this war and not do my best to find to find another track for him. It ain’t gonna happen.
Many parents, if they thought about it, would have the same concerns that you do, but probably not many of them would travel here from California to do something about it. What made you decide to travel halfway around the world to visit your son?
I know I’m in a weird position, not wanting to interfere with my son’s choices but understanding that the ones he made are really dangerous. I wasn’t going to tell him that I’m just trying to get a sense of where he’s at. I’m not going to ask him, "How are you dear, and is everything OK?" He’s a little annoyed for me being here, so we may have to get over that hump, but I would prefer just to talk about basic, ordinary stuff. My concern is that when he gets out of here in six months, besides the physical health problems he’s facing, I hope I’m wrong, but I believe he’ll be dealing with some heavy duty psychological stuff.
When Nick was in Afghanistan, I tried to think of a project we could work on together, expecting he would be coming out of the military this July, but he re-upped for three more years. I was thinking he’d need some kind of decompression time and maybe we could work on a project together maybe two voices of war a mother and son sort of thing. It would be interesting and maybe it would be a way to work through some of the things in his head. When he came to visit after he got out of Afghanistan, I realized this was not going to happen at this time. But I was not giving up on my target that my kid is not gonna disappear if I can help it. Then when they sent him to Iraq, I was furious because they had promised he would return home for Special Forces training. So I said, "Look, if I’m having this much trouble with [what’s going on in] Iraq, there are definitely a whole host of mothers who wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, panicked about what’s happening with their kids." I’m really curious about where those mothers are coming from. Some of them are really gung-ho, saying "My son is fighting for the country," and others are like, "Well, I didn’t want him to go, but he’s there." I’m really interested in finding those voices not from an ideological perspective, but sort of [to] find out what it’s like for a parent to have a kid over here and hear about these bombings and every time you turn on the television there’s another dead soldier and wondering if it’s your kid?
From there I thought, "Well, that would be interesting, but what would be really interesting would be the other side of it," you know, because we get so little news about Iraq. We get the sort of chewed-up and digested version that’s spit out on the other end that says, "Oh, OK, George Bush is doing a great job." And I know that isn’t true. So I knew this would be a dangerous environment but it wouldn’t be half as dangerous as they were portraying, and I decided to come and check it out and get that other viewpoint. I mean, George Bush actually says the Iraqis are not our enemy and I’m taking him at his word for once [laughs].
What about your background got you started in this direction?
I grew up in apartheid South Africa. I grew up in the country, and my parents had a hotel. I had nannies and cooks and some very close relationships with them, in a lot of cases closer than with my parents. They took care of me and I grew up with them. Then when I was about 14, I came into contact with the whole notion of the Holocaust and war. I read a lot about it, and I read a lot about how people were injured by it. They called it shell-shocked in those days. Then my brothers went into the military. My older brother was in an area near what was Angola at the time. South Africa was conducting a war that would later be called the war against the "front-line states," but internally within South Africa there was no war. No one talked about it as a war. It was called "doing your army training on the border." In the meantime, South Africa was doing incursions and massacring people in Botswana and Angola, and the South African public didn’t know about it. My brother was in that, and he told me a couple stories that are still really, really hard for me to talk about because they were so vile. He’s 50 now and he’s just sort of broken through the cloud. We don’t talk about the war, although I had talked about my concerns for Nicholas, and he said, "Oh, Nicholas is doing what he wants, he’s having a great time. Leave him alone."
So I don’t know where this concern came from. I’m just very aware of what psychological health is and what it isn’t, and what it can do to you to hurt or kill or maim or humiliate other people and have it sanctioned at a high level.
You mentioned not wanting your son to "get lost." What would getting lost consist of?
It could consist of a lot of different things. In San Francisco, there are a lot of street people at various levels of being in touch with reality, and it happens to be true that a lot of those folks are Vietnam vets. The system failed those people, and they don’t have anyone else on their side rooting for them. That’s kind of a really harsh level of this, and my kid ain’t gonna go that direction. I don’t believe he would, but there are various other levels of functionality. He could fall into various other traps, I think.
Do you mean drugs?
No, he’s not a drug guy. I’ve heard of sort of spontaneous outbursts of violence in the family those sort of things. My son doesn’t drink much and he doesn’t smoke, so I’d be surprised if he did get into drugs, but that’s always a possibility. Looking at the whole range of things that could happen to him the worst one being a street person at sort of a higher functioning level and being too ashamed of himself to be with anyone.
Has he told you whether he’s been in firefights or seen any casualties?
He was in eastern Afghanistan, and I know they went out on patrols and he saw some of his buddies killed not killed by hostile fire, but killed by drunken driving accidents and stupid accidents like that. But it could not be as bad as it is here. Of course, there were civilians under occupation there, but where they were it was so isolated.
It’s a weird thing, when he came back from Afghanistan, I was very ginger around him, because I wanted to get those details but I didn’t want to seem sort of bloodthirsty, so I was kind of waiting for these things to emerge in sort of an organic way. I didn’t want to just sit down and say, "OK, have you killed anyone, or who have you seen killed?" That just seemed really crude to me. But once I invited my girlfriend to dinner, and she didn’t have any of those parental hesitations, and she just asked him straight out. He was really happy and open to talk about it. He told us about a kid that was in the turret of a Humvee and when it tipped over he was crushed to death and he was due to go home in two days.
And then there was the story about how the soldiers, in this very masculine environment camouflage, trucks, there’s no softness there, there’s no flowers, it’s just bleak and someone brought in a rabbit to eat. They didn’t eat it, but it became their pet. And some dogs from the neighborhood sort of wandered in and became pets. And then an order came down that all the dogs had to be shot. What for? I don’t know, but this is the way it is. The colonel said, "We don’t have pets on base." So they had to go out and shoot the dogs you know, that’s like shooting your friend. The guys had gone through the whole thing, they spayed and neutered the dogs, and then they were told to shoot them. Nicholas shot one through the neck, but it wasn’t killed, so they fixed it but then they had to shoot it again later. So those kinds of stories I’ve heard, but we haven’t gotten into the really nitty gritty stuff. Some of it was that I was afraid afraid of hearing how damaged he was already after just six months. Then I understood that it was my fear, and that wasn’t very helpful to him, and that he was in a real hellhole now, and I decided it was enough about me. It wasn’t about my fear of hearing something bad; it was about my son’s actual reality.
In the book Achilles in Vietnam, the author, Jonathan Shay, explains that there’s a big difference whether soldiers reintegrate into society healthy or not, based in part on whether the public supports the war’s purpose the most obvious example being the difference between public support for WWII and Vietnam. Soldiers are asked to do terrible things. But in one case what they were asked to do was supported. What they were asked to do in the other case was seen as shameful. The public perception of the war figures into the individual soldier’s mental health or illness. Is that something you’ve thought about?
The way I see it is how isolated you have to be with your actions if society is open to hearing about it, then you’re less isolated and maybe you can talk about it some night over a beer and maybe it escalates into sort of a confession. Or if society is really against it, then you’d have to hold it close and be really guarded. One of the mothers I interviewed related the story of a kid, 18 years old, who shot his first person over here and he just crumpled just couldn’t take it, and they sent him back home. He said, "Yeah, it wasn’t like a video game at all. When I saw that person actually fall down, I realized what I’d done."
What can we do about this? It’s so shameful the way we deal with these folks and what’s put upon them. The whole thing is shameful. I’ve been the loudmouth, pushy person out on the barricades, and I’m just not there anymore. It’s such a huge task. I want to work in a way that gets things to happen, one small step at a time, starting with just my son. I invite other mothers to do the same.