How does a relationship change between a mother and her son when he goes off to war? And then how do they communicate about what he saw and experienced after he returns from the battlefield a changed man?
Sue Diaz, a writer and essayist for Newsweek and The Christian Science Monitor, details how her family experienced both the deployment and return of her son Roman from two tours of duty in Iraq in a new memoir, Minefields of the Heart.
Diaz recounts what it was like to experience the day-by-day horrors of war from the home front, as well as the emotions she felt when her son first told her that he was joining the infantry -- and when she received news that he had been injured in an IED explosion.
She tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that communicating with her son, who is normally a reserved person, was made even more difficult by news blackouts and by Roman's trying to protect his family from knowing what took place on the battlefield.
"At one point he said, 'Mom, I wish you didn't know about these things. Some horrible stuff goes on here and you don't need to know about it or for anyone to associate it with you,' " she explains. "He wanted to protect us from what he was experiencing."
Sue Diaz is a journalist and essayist who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Reader's Digest and The Christian Science Monitor.
On receiving a phone call about an IED explosion while Roman was deployed
"It was two days before Christmas and the phone rang. It was early in the morning. A voice asked, 'Is this Susan Diaz?' And I thought it was a telemarketer. It had that kind of formality to it. And then the voice said, 'This is Capt. Candrian of the 101st Airborne and there's been an incident. Your son has been involved in an IED explosion.' And then he said, 'Are you familiar with the term IED?' And I thought, 'Yeah.' I mean those three letters were as familiar to me as PTA used to be. And he went on to say that [Roman] wasn't injured seriously. That he had suffered some wounds and was being patched up at the aid station. ... There were two soldiers that were lost in that. I remember at the time writing down the name of the place ... and being very focused and meticulous about taking notes about this, as if that would somehow make right what I was hearing."
On not learning about the danger her son was in until after he came home
"On some level, anyone who has someone in a combat zone -- in some deep corner of your heart -- you know the kind of danger that they're in. ... There were deaths reported in the newspapers and I didn't know exactly how bad it was. We did get a letter from him. ... He said, 'We're out here, kind of away from things. We have our food dropped off by helicopters. We're out here on our own.' I remember reading that at that time and thinking, 'Oh, they're in some remote area where they're keeping an eye on a distant border and that's why a helicopter is dropping things off.' So I fooled myself into thinking that indicated that they were in a safe place. But as it turns out, the reason the helicopter was dropping things off is because the roads around that area were deemed too dangerous for supply trucks to travel -- and these were the roads that every single day, they got in the Humvees to go in patrol [and] they walked."
On seeing Roman when he returned from his final tour
"It was wonderful. We flew to Fort Campbell, Ky., from California to be there when the plane landed when his unit finally came home. I remember sitting in the big cavernous hangar, and the door opening, and the sunlight behind the men, and them marching in, and the place erupting in pure joy to see them. They march in front of you and you're in the bleachers and you can't touch them, you can't throw your arms around them yet. I remember Roman looking up and seeing us and we're waving and his eyebrows lifting, and it's a moment that a parent or anyone in that situation never forgets."
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TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Sue Diaz, never expected her son Roman to become a soldier, never expected him to go to war. But instead of college, in 2002 he chose the paycheck, health benefits and money that came with joining the Army. He thought the structure and discipline would be good for him, too.
He did two deployments in Iraq, 27 months. One of those deployments was at the height of the insurgency, in the area known as the triangle of death, 20 miles south of Baghdad. His platoon suffered a particularly high death toll. He was injured by an IED.
Sue Diaz has written a memoir, called "Minefields of the Heart," about what it was like at home when her son was at war. She's written essays for the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. She's also conducted writing workshops for veterans at the San Diego vet center, and created a website for the writings of veterans around the country.
Sue Diaz, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write that your son never played with guns. Was that because you didn't want him to?
Ms. SUE DIAZ (Author, "Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War"): Right, yeah.
GROSS: So you were raising him to not be a gun kind of guy. So it must have really shocked you when he joined the military.
Ms. DIAZ: Yeah, you know, not the military so much but the infantry was the real shocker.
GROSS: Why was that the real shocker?
Ms. DIAZ: Well, I mean, the infantry is the boots on the ground, the guys carrying the guns.
GROSS: And why did he join the infantry?
Ms. DIAZ: He actually qualified for every job that the Army offered. So he had his pick of anything. And he chose the infantry. And he said, you know, it offered the largest signing bonus, and my thought was, well, there's a reason for that.
GROSS: You actually offered him money to stay and not join the infantry.
Ms. DIAZ: I did, yeah. Well, and it wasn't not to join the military but it was the infantry, and the bonus was, at that time, $10,000. And I had a CD from an aunt of mine who - it was an inheritance thing, and it was sitting in the credit union. And I said, I will give you this bonus for not joining the infantry.
It wasn't a thing to bribe him not to join the military. It was the infantry thing that I was really bent out of shape about, I think.
GROSS: Now, when he joined the infantry, it was in 2002. You opposed the war in Iraq. Your husband supported it. Did your son have a political opinion about the war in Iraq, and did that come into play at all in his decision to join?
Ms. DIAZ: I would say no. I mean, I don't really want to speak for him about that. I would say, you know, politics was sort of on the periphery, really, of his thinking. It was more of a life choice, not a political statement.
GROSS: So give us an overview of when and where he served in Iraq.
Ms. DIAZ: He served with the First Army Division. That was his first tour of duty. And that was also in and near Baghdad, in what was called the Triangle of Death.
But his first tour of duty, the group that he served with, they seemed to live a charmed life, actually. It wasn't until the very end of their year-long deployment that they lost someone in their company.
He actually said to us on occasion that, you know, bridges blow up after we cross them, and mortars land in a barracks after we've left. And it seemed to be - I mean, they had a reputation for being golden at that time, actually. It wasn't nearly as difficult as his second deployment.
So he came back from that, and was transferred to the 101st Airborne. I think he chose the 101st Airborne. They're based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. You know, he went there, and shortly after he arrived there, it was announced that the 101st Airborne would be going to Iraq.
So, you know, he had maybe six months or eight months in between deployments, and then was headed back to Iraq once again with First Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment Bravo Company First Platoon.
GROSS: Well, while he was in the military, you worried about getting the phone call or the knock at the door. And you got one of those phone calls, about an IED explosion. Tell us about the call.
Ms. DIAZ: It was two days before Christmas that the phone rang, and it was early in the morning. And a voice, you know, asked: Is this Susan Diaz? And I said yes. And I thought it was a telemarketer. It had that kind of formality to it.
And then the voice said, you know, this is Captain Candrian of the 101st Airborne, and there's been an incident. Your son has been involved in an IED explosion. And he said, do you know what an IED is? And I was like, yeah. I mean, those three letters were as familiar to me as PTA used to be.
And he went on to say that he wasn't, you know, injured seriously, that he had suffered some wounds and was being patched up at the aid station in Mahmudiyah, and that we probably wouldn't hear from him for a while because there was a news blackout.
And I asked him about that. You know, what do you mean, a news blackout? And then he explained; he said whenever there's an incident and soldiers are killed, that they don't allow the soldiers in that unit to contact their families until the next of kin of those who have been lost have been contacted.
And so then that indicated to me sort of the seriousness of this explosion. And there were two soldiers that were lost in that.
And, you know, I remember at the time, you know, writing down the name of the place where that happened, Mahmudiyah, and asking the captain to spell it. I mean, I remember being very - kind of focused and almost meticulous about taking notes about this, as if that would somehow make right what I was hearing.
GROSS: What the captain told you was that your son had suffered a perforated eardrum and that his face was peppered. And I'm sure your instincts - was, as a mother, was like, send him home so he can rest and heal, and so we can take care of him.
Ms. DIAZ: Yeah. Right.
GROSS: But you were told, well, you know, the injuries aren't serious. So he's going to just, like, heal briefly and go right back to combat. How did that make you feel?
Ms. DIAZ: Well, you know, sad, disappointed. I mean, I even in hearing that terrible news, there was this element of hope that maybe, you know, he would come home to us and heal, and be okay. But that, you know, that wasn't the case.
And I later learned that the explosion was very serious. I mean, they said that it was four guys on foot patrol, and the IED exploded beneath their feet. But it was powerful enough to be heard 10 miles away.
And in another book written about my son's platoon - "Black Hearts," by Jim Frederick - he talks about that incident. And he says that he writes, all four of those men should have been dead. And it was quite something to read that.
GROSS: The IED explosion happened almost under your son's feet. How did he survive?
Ms. DIAZ: That's a very good question. And in Jim Frederick's book, he asks that same question. And the answer is that whoever planted that large IED somehow didn't have it pointed in the right direction.
I mean, it was supposed to be some part of it was supposed to be pointing straight up, and it was angled. So they did a poor job of planting it. And because it was angled the way it was - I mean, the power of the explosion was still there, but the force of it went in a different direction. So that was probably the thing that saved him.
GROSS: Well, this is one of the amazing parts of your story - is that, you know, your son tells you, really, very little about what his life in combat is like.
And then years later, after he's returned - this year, in fact, in 2010, Jim Frederick publishes this book, "Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death." And you read that, and your son is one of the men being written about.
And some terrible things happen. We'll talk a little bit more about that, but it was in this book that you learned that your son - it was amazing that he survived this IED explosion. And I'm wondering what it was like to read this book and find out through a book what had actually happened to your son, as opposed to hearing it from him firsthand.
Ms. DIAZ: Well, I mean, Roman is a Roman, and he never really has been much of a talker. And so this wasn't like a new kind of - a new shutting down. I mean, he has always been a very private person.
But when the book came out, I knew the day that it was coming out, and I went to the bookstore and purchased it. And I read it from start to finish in a day, really, and felt afterwards shaken to my core. It's a story of an extremely difficult deployment on many, many levels.
During the worst time of the war, when Roman's unit was there, when his battalion was there, the region around Mahmudiyah was patrolled by a thousand soldiers who encountered, on the average, about 100 attacks per week. His battalion, in one year, encountered 900 - 900 IEDs.
And later, after the surge and when things had quieted down, in that same area around Mahmudiyah and Yusufiyah, 30,000 troops were brought in to cover that same area. So it gives you some idea of what these men were up against.
GROSS: Do you feel lucky that you didn't know about that as it was happening?
Ms. DIAZ: Yes, I do. I do. I mean, I think on some level, anyone who has someone in a combat zone, I think in some deep corner of your heart, you know the kind of danger that you're in - that they're in.
You know, you don't really go there, but you know that that's there, I think. And I know, like, when Roman was there, there were deaths reported in the newspapers, and I didn't know exactly how bad it was.
I mean, I remember we did get a letter from him, and he talked about he said, oh, I haven't written to you for a while but, you know, I think I ought to let you know what's going on here. And this was shortly after they arrived with the 101st Airborne into this area, Mahmudiyah and Yusufiyah.
And he said, we're, you know, we're out here, kind of away from things. We have our food dropped off by helicopter. You know, our supplies are dropped in by helicopter. We're kind of out here on our own.
And I remember reading that at the time and thinking, oh, you know, they're in some like, remote area where they're keeping an eye on a distant border, and that's why the helicopter is dropping those things, you know, off.
And so I fooled myself into thinking that, you know, that indicated that they were in a safe place. But as it turns out, the reason that the helicopter was dropping the things off is that the roads surrounding that area were just deemed too dangerous for supply trucks to travel. And these were the roads that every single day, they got in the Humvees to go on patrol; they walked. So that fact says a lot, I think.
GROSS: I remember interviewing an author who said that she was always so worried about her children; that, for example, whenever they would take a long plane ride and she was worried about the plane crashing or something, that she'd like, she'd clean the house. She'd wash the kitchen floor. She would do anything that was not pleasurable because she was afraid if she had pleasure, that that would superstitiously put her children in danger. So she'd wash the floor. Did you have any superstitions that you developed, things that you needed to do to keep your son safe?
Ms. DIAZ: I would sometimes, I mean, compartmentalize. I mean, I would just take that fear and that terror, and I would almost picture myself putting it someplace else - putting it in a box, so to speak.
And I would know it was there. I would go there from time to time, but I could not live there. And you can't. I mean, life goes on even against a backdrop of, you know, of these incredible dangers that our loved ones face over there. But, you know, life goes on here, and it has to.
And I think on some level, that they want to know that, too, that they find some comfort in knowing that okay, we're here, we're protecting you. But they want to know that life as they knew it is still there.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Diaz, and her new book is called "Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War," and it's about her experiences while her son Roman did his two tours of duty in the Iraq War. We'll talk some more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Diaz, and she's written a memoir called "Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War." And it's about her experiences at home while her son did two tours of duty in Iraq.
We talked earlier about the IED that exploded and was sort of 10 miles away and that nearly killed him but amazingly, he survived with, you know, with mild injuries. But it turns out the injuries weren't really as mild as originally diagnosed because he had TBI. I assume it was from that blast?
Ms. DIAZ: He was involved in several explosions peripherally. But I think it was from that one, yeah.
GROSS: And I should say, TBI is traumatic brain injury, when the brain is kind of shaken up so much by something like a blast that there's damage that's caused. That went undiagnosed for a long time, and is still going undiagnosed in a lot of places. How was your son diagnosed?
Ms. DIAZ: Well, he's been seen by, you know, doctors and therapists at the VA, you know, since his return. And you know, there are different degrees of traumatic brain injury. And his, I would say, is milder than some.
It affects his ability to his sense of direction and his memory, his short-term memory, especially. He is able to, you know, function and stuff, but it makes like that much harder.
And he's in college right now. He's going to the Art Institute of California up in Orange County. He's a full-time student. And things that he used to be able to do - you know, turn around in half an hour projects, programming projects or Web projects - now takes him, you know, much, much longer. So there you know, it's an ongoing struggle, really.
GROSS: He's also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Do you see the symptoms of that?
Ms. DIAZ: Occasionally, yeah, from time to time, yeah, as all people who have that, I think, are can be quicker to anger sometimes and, you know, a little antsy in crowds. Or, I've noticed this, actually, with the veterans in the writing groups that I lead now. They'll tell me about it, or they'll demonstrate it, where if they're sitting in a room, they want to be, their back to the wall and their eyes to the door. And that's something that they'll do all their lives, probably.
GROSS: So how close to you, geographically, does your son live now?
Ms. DIAZ: It's about a two-hour drive. He lives up in Lawndale, which is in the L.A. area.
GROSS: That's not bad.
Ms. DIAZ: So it's about two hours on the I-5. He is married now, too, so we see him and his wife quite often. They were down maybe about a week and a half ago, helping with some hedge trimming in the backyard.
GROSS: Your father served in World War II, right?
Ms. DIAZ: Yes.
GROSS: Did he talk about the war?
Ms. DIAZ: No, he didn't. There was a time where I once discovered, when I was about 10 years old, in a he had an office in the basement of our house in Wisconsin. And in a drawer in that office, I was looking for something else and opened that bottom drawer, and found a shoebox full of black-and-white photos that he had brought home with him from the war.
And I can still see the faces and those images in those photos. I mean, he landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He fought through to Paris, and then toward the end of the war, he was involved in liberating some of the concentration camps - or one of them. I think it was Bergen-Belsen. I'm not sure about that, but it was a concentration camp.
And they were photos of, you know - that were taken in the war by if it was by him or other soldiers, but he had those photos. And I remember seeing those photos and, you know, realizing in some 10-year-old way that, what - the hell of war, and what that was for him.
GROSS: I've asked you to describe some of the most horrific things that happened to your son and your reaction to it, but tell us what it was like when he came home from his final tour and you got to see him, still intact.
Ms. DIAZ: It was wonderful. And I remember, you know, we flew to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, from California to be there when the plane landed when his unit finally came home.
And I remember sitting in the big - sort of cavernous hangar, really, which is where the families gather, and the door opening and the sunlight behind the men, and them marching in - and just the place erupting in pure joy to see them.
And, you know, they march in front of you, and you're in the bleachers, and you can't touch them; you can't throw your arms around them yet. They're standing there and, you know, I remember Roman looking up and seeing us and, you know, we're waving and his eyebrows lifting, and it was you know, it's a moment that a parent, or anyone in that situation, never forgets.
And I remember when finally the songs were sung and the speeches were given, and then they said, you know, okay, you can break ranks and be reunited with your families - and, you know, finding him on the floor, I mean, it's just a swarm of people, everyone looking for their soldier and finally throwing my arms around him and, you know, simply saying, Roman, and hearing him saying Mom, and, you know, thinking that was all that we said but that was everything, in that moment.
GROSS: Sue Diaz, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. DIAZ: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Sue Diaz is the author of the memoir "Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.