When I found out that my baby brother, Marcus, would be headed to Iraq in 2005, I couldn’t breathe. I thought about him being in the midst of a raging war, and felt that I would suffocate and be swallowed up by fear.
I am the oldest of three and, until then, my only brother was just that dude who loved to sing REALLY loud in the shower, a pizza fanatic and aspiring professional baseball player. Sure he was able to ward off my sister, Angie, and me, when we launched our sibling antics against him, but what about a real enemy? Could he defend himself, and his country, against an army of men who saw him, and those who wore his uniform, as evil?
Before he left, I remember the news cycle was a constant rotation of stories about young American soldiers being killed. There were tales of roadside bombs and reports of suicide attacks.
How could I protect him?
Weeks later, we attended his deployment ceremony. My family and I pulled up to the military base and saw a long line of stone-faced soldiers dressed for battle. I was not prepared to see that among them were very young men with bright eyes and baby faces. And, I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect to see women in uniform, too. But they were there; ready to be put on the front line.
One soldier there had just gotten out of boot camp fresh from high school graduation. His eyes were wide, his posture tense and he looked as if he would flinch if you breathed in his direction.
I scanned the rows, looking to see Marcus’ face, and partly hoping he wouldn’t be among them. Then, I did. When our eyes met, I felt the blood rush from my head down to my feet.
Inside the building, I sat with the families while a man in uniform briefed us about the timeline. He talked about living wills, power of attorney and such. It was surreal.
Sitting there, among the wives patting the backs of their crying babies and the graying parents with worried eyes, we all had a bond. We were all there waiting for our loved ones to be flung to a part of the world that we only knew about from the nightly news.
Little did I know at the time, my brother had joined the unfamiliar ranks of the army because it was more appealing than the familiar lands of Birmingham’s Woodlawn and Gate City. Prior to enlisting, he found himself being recruited to be among an unsavory bunch. He had been searching for a corps of men who would make him feel as if he belonged. But that army fought a war where the innocent, not the bad guys, were the casualties. He didn’t want that life.
At least if he died in battle, he would be a hero, instead of among an endless list of black men who dishonorably lost their lives on the streets of Birmingham.
While in Iraq, Marcus sent us postcards and pictures. He wrote about the blistering heat, the mammoth insects and how much he missed us. In one of the photos, he knelt down on a desert in front of a barbed wire fence, and smiled while a large military rifle was slung across his back. I didn’t see the smile, though; all I could see was that gun.
He would call home when he could, and I remember my mother said she could tell he was getting concerned. Soldiers over there were losing their lives. There were close calls, and like birth pangs they were getting closer and closer. Who knew what was going to happen next?
I prayed more than I ever had before that. “God, please bring my brother back home alive,” I’d say.
When he finally did come back home for good, we gave him a hero’s welcome with all of his favorite dishes, impromptu speeches and whatnot. Even today, sometimes I just stare at him because I know we are blessed. Things could have gone another way.
Today, my brother is still a soldier. He works as a mechanic for the U.S. Army and heads off to his base for drill in Mississippi tomorrow, in fact. I no longer see him as my “little brother,” though. He’s a man, husband, a father, a war veteran, and absolutely, “my hero.”