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Atlanta Airport, December 2006
Laura Vookles

It’s miles to baggage
and the escalator goes up forever.
Holiday fatigued travelers on nearly every step—
no will or room to pass and climb ahead.
Intermittent applause, faint at this distance,
filters down,
registers too low to frame a question.

Dumped out at the top—
we are in a vast cavern of people and stanchions,
balloons and clapping, camera flashes.
And then I see three pale sand camouflage backs,
slumped—too tired to play the runway model—
crew cut heads bowed in acknowledgment.
And though 20 feet away, I stop,
overcome, as it hits me.
Stay my child with a hand on his shoulder—
not to intrude.

I say to him, not hiding emotion,
“Look, it’s soldiers from Iraq.
They’re on leave for Christmas, and
their families and friends are here to cheer them.
They have been away at war,
and now they are home.”

And I am near crying
like the time a small town Veterans' Day parade
processed down Main Street, Hastings, New York,
while I was in the Laundromat.
We all came out to watch,
trapped in the parking lot by police barricades,
but not minding.
Tears streaming down our faces
for those elderly soldiers and nurses—
marching, riding, waving in uniforms age worn.
Themselves, still so proud.
I felt small and petty. Like these
stoic youngsters in Atlanta airport,
they would die for me,
and I cannot say the same.

This weepy mood ever startles me,
because I hate war.
I may be the most pacific person that I know—
or cowardly—too meek for protest.
But I am also a mother,
and only chance and choice
determined that I have no child their age,
caught in an unjust war.
Each one an older version of my 9-year-old,
who asked me lately,
“You would not let them make me go,
would you, Mom?”

I have no good answer and,
naïve and sexist as it is,
cannot deny I’m more afraid he is a boy.
But these kids’ mothers kissed them bye
and wait, still and wounded,
for footsteps at the door.
Myself, I cannot bear to see the news,
and I do not even know their names.