Saying Goodbye to Soldiers

By Michael R. Malone

Saying Goodbye to Soldiers

By Michael R. Malone
As part of the University of Miami Libraries StoryCorps-Warmamas Community Archive, mothers bid goodbye to sons and daughters deployed to war zones.

The history of Memorial Day continues to be debated. The first official “Decoration Day” was observed in 1868 to honor Union soldiers killed in the Civil War, the deadliest of all American conflicts. Survivors “decorated” graves with springtime flowers. Another version attributes the roots of Memorial Day to black residents in Charleston, South Carolina, who in 1865, on discovering a mass grave of Union soldiers who died of disease while captive in a city prison, exhumed the bodies to provide them proper burials and then staged a procession or mourning attended by thousands and led by children singing spirituals.

Regardless the exact history, our nation’s most sacred and solemn day centers on the notion of bidding “goodbye” to soldiers, of remembering and honoring those who have died while serving in the U.S. military.

University Libraries Special Collections is currently at work to digitalize and archive a cache of videos for its own “goodbye” to soldiers project, a component of Oral History Collections. For the project, Libraries partnered with Warmamas, a nonprofit founded in Coral Gables, to document the stories of mothers whose sons and daughters are leaving for war, deployed to war zones especially in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Southwest Asia countries. Most of these soldiers have returned, but others have not, or have returned traumatized by their experience.

The full recordings of these personal interviews are stored at the Library of Congress, but Warmamas sought out the University as its local partner and repository, and launched StoryCorps-Warmamas Community Archive several years ago.

“None of us were prepared for the kinds of stories we heard,” Patricia Sowers, director of Warmamas, wrote in a 2016 blog published in the Libraries Mosaic newsletter. “They were beautiful. They were painful, they were inspiring—they all told a story of strength.”

Sowers recounted that she lived in secret fear for six years while her own son was deployed on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East. She felt that women whose children were involved in direct conflict were mostly ignored yet were an essential part of our ongoing national narrative on the gravitas of war and so launched the project together with Gail Ruiz, a local artist, and Philip Busey, an agronomist and local activist.

Here are a few segments from some of the Warmamas narratives contained in this special Libraries Oral Histories Collection.

Janine, Davie, FL.

My son Johnny was a beautiful, healthy boy. Even at a young age, he had such character. He had a great sense of humor and was a real jokester—he got that from me. He was so smart—he could have a conversation with a child or with a 90-year-old, and could talk to anyone. When his father and I divorced, I began to take Johnny to work with me, so he didn’t go to day care. He was such a good boy and I was always so proud to have him there with me.  

Then when he was 13, 9/11 happened (September 11, 2001, coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and other U.S. targets) and he decided that he wanted to go fight in the global war on terror. When he was in high school, the recruiting office started visiting him there—something I totally don’t agree with, they tend to target children who don’t have a father in the home. So you have this guy all dressed up in Marine blues—and there’s nothing more handsome to see than that—and they’re glorifying the infantry, but that’s not the reality of it. And it’s wrong: No child should be taken at 18 into the war, they’re still developing. And I’m angry about that. When Johnny told he was going to enlist, I tried everything in my power to convince him not to do it. But the attack on 9/11 really affected him.

Irma, Miami, FL.

I remember my son Carlos telling me out of the blue that he had enrolled in the Navy, he said he didn’t want to go to college. And so he enrolled. I knew that they were going to pick him up for boot camp but I didn’t know when. And they came to get him the night before Thanksgiving. Well, you can imagine the kind of Thanksgiving we had. And then a few weeks later my older son told me that he had enrolled in the Navy as well. And he left two days before Christmas. In other words, they took one from me at Thanksgiving and another one at Christmas. And so I didn’t even know what to do. How can I describe this? Our house, that had always been so busy with children and their friends and all kinds of noise and things going on, was now such a lonely quiet place.

Mary, Pembroke Pines, FL.

It’s hard being a mother of a son of a soldier, and I’m a mother with two sons serving. I keep up with the news on a daily basis but I don’t go to war movies—I can’t bear that they remind me of things to relive or to think about what might happen.

One of my sons was in boot camp and a few days later 9/11 happened. Then President Bush declared war and that’s when the anguish began as a mother concerned, but we couldn’t be selfish because he was our son because it was in our country’s defense.

 

For the project, mothers can be interviewed in their homes or audio recordings can be done at the Richter Library. 

Special thanks to Beatrice Skokan, Curator of Caribbean Collections and Interim Esperanza B. de Varona Chair, and Bryanna Herzog, Audio/Video Media Manager for their assistance on this article.