Last week at University High School, students gathered for a pre-Veterans Day assembly to honor teachers and neighbors who served in the armed forces.
Each stood for recognition and polite applause. Each remained standing as the accomplishments of every soldier was read out loud. Each veteran, except for Drew Schaefer. The 19-year-old couldn’t stand because his feet were crushed by a Humvee on the outskirts of Baghdad a few weeks ago. Just about every bone was broken. The success of his recovery won’t be known for months.
Schaefer drew the loudest cheers of the seven veterans. His girlfriend still goes to school there. Surely there were kids in the crowd who remembered seeing the blond, athletically built boy in school hallways just 19 months ago, walking.
A good number of the kids never took their eyes off Schaefer. It’s easy not to gape when the face of war is a grandfatherly old man, or even a middle-aged veteran, easy to wax poetic when the poem is “In Flanders Fields” and the 89-year-old words drone on like a catechism. It’s not so easy when the veteran isn’t even old enough to drink or buy a handgun.
“I joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars. They signed me up at the hospital,” Schaefer said in an interview before the ceremony. He listens disbelievingly to his own words. “My mom told me it would mean a lot to my grandfather if I did. I don’t know if I’m ready for the purple jacket.”
Schaefer’s veteran status, so fresh, makes even him uncomfortable. The day before the assembly, he was nervous about attending. He didn’t want to speak because he’s still searching for the right words. He didn’t want to be the example of what the Army can do for you.
The face of war, the current war, isn’t often seen in Spokane Valley without some searching. It isn’t visible until a teenage girl like Kayla Henson steps forward to dedicate a choir song to her uncle, Stephen, an Army sergeant killed in a mortar attack last Christmas.
Drew’s mother, Patti Schaefer, tells of a friend who not long ago peered out her front window as two formally dressed military officers made their way to a neighbor’s porch. The woman’s first inclination was that there must have been a ceremony that day. Then reality set in. A neighbor’s son had died.
The face of war is invisible, until one steps inside Ramax Engraving and Awards. There, owner Stan Soash has pinned to a corkboard eight buttons bearing the faces of young soldiers serving in the military. They are all young men, posed beside American flags in clean, pressed uniforms.
Soash’s Millwood business makes the buttons for families of children at war. He knows that at least one of the smiling faces, a man with family in Lewiston died of heat stroke while stationed in Afghanistan. And every now and then, another button gets added to the board.
The absence of war reminders in our daily lives takes some getting used to. For Drew Schaefer, the reminders are limited to a 27-inch television screen in his parents’ living room. Occasionally, he’ll spot footage of places he’s been, but it hardly seems real from the blue reclining chair where he sits.
Here, it seems funny to drink water out of the tap without worrying about getting sick. On the freeway, advancing at high speeds without knowing what dangers might lie ahead, seems a little pell-mell to the soldier.
His childhood friends who come to visit are all racing ahead in non-war directions, college mostly, careers. The separation from his own changing life and theirs happened faster then he could have imagined, Schaefer said. When they ask him about the war, he tells them about Iraqis who are glad the Americans are there. Most Iraqis believe there is no crime in America, no poverty, no murder. When Schaefer tells them the United States has all three, they don’t believe him.
He also tells his friends at home about Iraqi interpreters killed by insurgents for helping Army soldiers. He tells them about going out on night patrols in Baghdad, just to see if he can draw enemy fire.
Schaefer talks about starting college, once his Guard commitment is over. He also talks about joining the Special Forces, or returning to the National Guard infantry if his feet will allow him.
It will be three months before he stands, six months before he finds out if all those broken bones are up for a return to the infantry. Once the casts come off, he will blend back into the crowd. The face of war could belong to any one of us.