The first day of every semester, college teachers peer out into the classroom, surveying the group for two or three special students. Maybe there's a young woman taking notes seriously. A young man looks you in the eye. Somebody nods in understanding as you speak, somebody smiles. Connections.
This semester, in early January, one of those students was Brad. I guessed that he was younger than the rest, with rosy cheeks and huge, brown eyes and a buck-toothed smile. A freshman, I guessed, in a class of upperclass students looking mostly to finish requirements and graduate. A farm kid -- when we discussed the coming visit of a speaker from PETA, Brad said that he didn't like hogs and the class laughed.
It was almost mid-semester when Brad came to my office. "I just wanted you to know I won't be in class next week," he said, "my outfit is getting some training -- not going out, just training for a week, in case we get called later."
He had joined the reserves after high school to pay for his education. That's all the recruiters had told him. It had never occurred to him that he might be called to active duty. I told him about another student who said he wanted to join up. "Tell him to get everything in writing," he said. "The recruiters will tell you anything. Get it in writing."
Turns out, even though they had promised to pay full tuition, the checks didn't even cover 25% of his costs. He had had to fight for the correct payment and, in the meantime, became deeply suspicious of the government. He repeated what he knew -- he'd miss a week for training. "They want us to learn some extra stuff."
I told him he could make up all the work when he got back. "I'll be thinking about you," I said.
A week later there was a notice in the newspaper. The public was invited to a reception for the local guard units leaving for Iraq. Brad's unit was on the list, shipping out to Georgia where they'd get other orders. Now you see them, now you don't.
When they leave, reservists leave holes in the community. Student-sized holes, firefighter-sized holes, cop-sized holes, parent-sized, crater-sized holes. Lifetimes of training and expertise, and the community has to fill them. The New York Times estimated on Feb. 15, 2003, The War could cost $127- to $662 billion. In Columbia, Mo., one estimate is that for every $100 billion, the community will lose $23.1 million out of education, health, welfare and other programs.
And, the expense doesn't stop when the troops come home. Untreatable, undiagnosable diseases come back with the troops -- Gulf War Syndrome, Agent Orange Exposure, who-knows-what disease, alcoholism, drug addiction. Partially because of the huge expense, as of February 28, 124 city councils have voted themselves "Cities of Peace."
"What could I give to Brad? I just feel like I want to give him something. For luck." I asked my husband, a Vietnam-era veteran. The answer came immediately.
"I took a tiny St. Christopher's medal," said my husband. "So tiny it just pins in my jacket. I still keep it. The traveler's saint."
We're not Catholic, not even churchy. "Don't worry," my husband said, "St. Christopher isn't a real saint. He's a legend. He carried the Christ child over the river. If you don't like that, maybe get a shamrock."
But the medal idea felt right. Even though St. Christopher's not a real saint, I found his medal at the Christian bookstore -- tiny, brass.
That night, my husband had a nightmare, something that happened frequently when we were younger, years ago. "Help help help help help help," he cried in a tiny voice.
"It's OK, it's OK," I told him. "It's not Vietnam."
There were two units -- 50 kids -- shipped out of our community, and the VFW threw a big barbecue to say good bye. I went to look for Brad, and found him in the center of a crowd of tearful friends and family. In his uniform, camouflage, he looked even younger than in class, like a kid ready for his first turkey hunt. It reminded me of all the "good-bye" soldier pictures I've ever seen. Maybe all wars are like this, with kids snatched away and families trying to be brave.
Feeling silly, I put the little packet in his hand. He gave a huge smile and I suddenly choked, turned away abruptly.
"Don't worry," he told me, "It's not Vietnam."
After the units left, an e-mail bounced around campus asking for prayers for peace. Then another one came, saying that prayers for peace are a slap in the fact to the military men and their families, who are perhaps about to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Not so. Those kids and their families are praying for peace, I have no doubt of it.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Editor's Note: According to www.AmericanCatholic.org, the Roman martyrology lists Christopher as a martyr in the late 3rd or early 4th century A.D., although scholars disagree over the date and place. He was a soldier from North Africa who in early church history was venerated in both the Eastern and Western liturgies. Celebration of Christopher's feast was eliminated in the 1969 revision of the Roman Calendar, when the number of saints' feasts was significantly reduced. Prime targets in the reduction were saints with dubious legends and facts.