Parents' quiet struggle as their son goes off to war

Alex Horton with his father, Jeff, at his homecoming in September 2007.


By ALEX HORTON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 1, 2016

At the same table in my barracks room we used to play poker, my squad sat to fill out our living wills and burial instructions. My Army infantry unit was deploying to Iraq in the next few months, and among other mundane tasks like inventorying our equipment and scheduling movers to store our possessions, we had to carefully document what would be done with our remains if we came home in a box.

My family has a burial plot near Austin, Texas, and I called my father so he could help plan the theoretical funeral service of a son who could not legally buy a beer. He told me the address of the cemetery. I checked the box marked “full military honors.” A soldier would arrange those familiar notes in “Taps” on a bugle, and my mother would receive a crisp U.S. flag folded precisely 13 times. There was even a section where you could pick a song. I chose Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Little Wing.” It’s a melancholy instrumental that astounded my father and me into silence any time it came on the radio as we ran errands in his pickup.

My parents’ quiet struggle over my own mortality was on my mind as I watched Khizr Khan deliver his remarks of the closing night at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday. Khan and his wife, Ghazala, were there to tell the story of their son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in a car bomb explosion in Iraq in 2004.

The Khans’ unending grief has thrown into wide relief a typically private agony endured by relatively few numbers of Americans. They’re called Gold Star families, those mothers and fathers and grandparents and cousins of troops who died overseas.

I cannot imagine the pain of Gold Star families. But I do know how they lived anxious lives until those tragic moments.

My father already understood this dynamic. He watched his older brother Eric leave for Vietnam as a Marine grunt. His father-in-law was wounded in Korea. My mother worried during his Navy deployments aboard a destroyer to Grenada and Beirut in the 1980s before I was born. And here I was in 2006, in a retelling of an ancient story of anxious parents watching a son leave for war.

Iraq was the first digital war, even when it came to correspondence. When we wrote letters home, it was not with a paper and pen. We sat at keyboards in dimly lit internet cafes on base to email lies to our families.

Everything is going well, some would tell their wives and parents. It’s mostly boring. Which was true. But every soldier understated what we did outside the wire, preferring to discuss what was happening back home, how school was coming for their kids, how their detailed cars were being washed and handled.

My team leader was often eager to hear about how his infant daughter was doing. She was born in the weeks after we deployed from Fort Lewis, Wash. On one mission in Baqouba, he and other members of our squad helped exhume the decomposing remains of a woman  and her little girl executed by insurgents. “Here,” her surviving husband said to our interpreter, pointing to one particular spot in a particular dirt field next to an empty stuccoed building. “Here is where they are.” My team leader was the newest father in the platoon, seeing one girl and thinking of another.

We went back to Forward Operation Base Warhorse, through the same gate Humayun Khan was killed defending three years earlier. Members of my platoon went to the internet café to look at pictures of their kids and tell their families everything was OK. Nothing was out of the ordinary, we told them, as the smell of decomposing bodies mottled on our skin.

The deception did not work on my father, who is news savvy and hungry for every bit of information. He set up countless Google alerts to learn about our area of operation. I was there during the height of guerilla warfare in Iraq — the surge — and torrents of news would jam his inbox every few minutes.

He devoured the news. He’d get to work and open his email, looking for updates from me. He clicked through message boards and email correspondence with other family members from the unit and death announcements from the Department of Defense. He could rattle off the most dangerous areas in Iraq more readily than some generals.

My father sat transfixed as he powered through his accountant duties the best he could, spooning lunch into his mouth while reading about the most recent car bomb explosions or statistics on ethnic cleansing while colleagues popped into his office, asking, “How’s Alex?” Fine, he would say, and show them a picture of me holding a captured insurgent’s weapon.

Then he’d go home to sit at his computer for the night. My mother would often bring him dinner as he sat in front of the computer for hours. In bed he’d flip through every single war memoir published since the invasion. He awoke to repeat the process every day for 15 months.

My mother was different. She wanted to know the least amount possible and preferred to hear from me using instant messenger. Only then could she be reminded to breathe, she said. She collapsed to the ground after we said goodbye at Fort Lewis, suddenly struck with the realization that it could be the last time she sees a son who doctors told her would not be born after her bout with cancer.

Months later her boss told her to take down photos of me she had put up outside her office. It could make coworkers uncomfortable seeing the war every day, she was told.

On my platoon’s worst day — when a friend was killed by an IED in an ambush — the family message boards lit up with discussion. Several soldiers had been killed in a steady drumbeat; it was nearly 10 days before I could email my family to explain what happened.

It rattled my father so much that soon after, he pushed a shopping cart around a grocery store for a few minutes in a daze before realizing it belonged to someone else.

Several friends were killed, yet my grief is different from what my parents endured, and what the Khans will continue to suffer. How their lives been transformed. How parts of their lives have ended with a knock at the door, and what comes after.

Politics diminished the Khans’ brief tender moment in front of millions, but it brought ordinary Americans back into the discussion about loss and grief stemming from the longest wars in our history.

That is a good thing.

Even though I’m home, there are moments from my tour they will never hear about. How many times I could have come home without limbs or my life. How many times a matter of inches or seconds determined that. My parents will never know those stories.

But they also will not know what it was like to hear the knock that the Khans heard 12 years ago. They won’t ever have to find the last remnants of shade under a dying Texas oak, its branches curling over our family tombstones, grieving without anyone there to tell them why.

Twitter: @AlexHortonTX

Alex Horton in Iraq