Give me five more minutes

I had always imagined with horror what it would be like to get the news that my son was killed in Iraq. Then it happened.

Published September 25, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

On April 26, 2004, I woke up around 4:00 in the morning and turned on the television in my bedroom. At least 12 Marines had been injured, and by 6:00 a.m., reporters were saying that one had died. I typed Aaron a letter, as I'd been doing daily for several weeks, trying to sound positive. Outside of mentioning that we had one Marine down, I avoided the hard news of the day.

It was around 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. when the two Marines drove up to my house. The noncommissioned officer began to approach me. It seemed to take an eternity for him to cross my lawn -- I think I must have walked some, gone to meet him halfway.

He began, "Ma'am, are you Christy Miller? Can we go inside? We need to talk to you." His wasn't an easy job.

"No, we've got to do this outside." Mine, still the harder.

The other Marine, the officer, said, "Ma'am, your son was killed in action today in Al Anbar province."

I said, "My son was killed in the firefight that's on the television right now. He was killed in Fallujah. There's been one Marine killed today."

There, in that moment, that tiniest and longest length of time, there must've been a mechanical failure, an embodiment of someone's (it couldn't have been mine) heart and brain colliding.

"Mine," I finished. Yes, the Marine was mine.

My son, Lance Cpl. Aaron C. Austin, USMC Machine gunner, Team leader Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division was killed in action on April 26, 2004, in Fallujah, Iraq. He was born on July 1, 1982, at 8:53 p.m. central daylight savings time in Amherst, Texas. Circumcised and sent home on the Fourth of July, he was my breast-fed, blanket-sucking baby boy, a little Linus look-alike. He threw his blanket away when he was 10. God, how I wish for that blanket now. It surely would carry some scent.

Aaron's company commander, Capt. Zembiec, wrote me right after it happened. He wrote, "Your son was killed in action today. He was conducting a security patrol with his company this morning, in enemy territory. His company had halted in two buildings, strongpointing them and looking for insurgents. A large number of enemy personnel attacked Aaron and his platoon at around 1100. Despite intense enemy machine gun and rocket propelled grenade fire, your son fought like a lion. He remained in his fighting position until all his wounded comrades could be evacuated from the rooftop they were defending ... We held a memorial service this afternoon in honor of your son. With the exception of the Marines on Security, every man in the company attended the service. Aaron was respected and admired by every Marine in his company. His death brought tears to my eyes, tears that fell in front of my Marines. I am unashamed of that fact."

From the men who first told me the news, who had stood outside my home, compassionate Marines in dress blues, to those who entered my living room and placed before me the one remaining box of my son's life, and then, on bent knee, took out a smaller box from within the larger, and handed over to me Aaron's watch, the one removed from his body at the time of death -- it is to these men that I owe so much.

I began to wear Aaron's watch, which was still on Baghdad time. His watch became my watch. His alarm would go off at 3:28:24. Then again at 3:33:20. Aaron always said, "Give me five more minutes, Mom." This early alarm, its hidden meaning, meant only for him, for duty on a rooftop possibly, is 5:30 p.m. (the evening before) my time.

When the battery goes dead on a digital watch -- it's gone. Blank. Not even a zero. Aaron's watch stopped somewhere between late afternoon on the twenty-eighth of November and noon on the thirtieth. Since then, I've experienced the first Mother's Day without my son, his 22nd birthday, and the homecoming of his unit. More of the "firsts" will soon be behind me. I don't know if the seconds, thirds and fourths get any better.

At times I believe I can learn to live a life without my son. After all, I must. There are other mothers who have lost their boys -- car accidents, war, illness -- who can shop for dinner at the local grocer's without the macaroni-and-cheese boxes suddenly causing them grief. But the memory of him is planted in everything around me. Inside of me. So much of him has been lost, is fading, breaking down. His blanket, his watch, his uniform.

The military uses commercial washers to clean personal items before they are handed over to the families. Understandable, but it leaves a synthetic laundry smell. Aaron's scent is gone. These are the realizations, the moments I've most dreaded. And they come out of nowhere.

I went through several rounds of "looking for him." Articles, pictures, his voice, things like that. He used to chew on the caps of pens, his dog tags, everything, so I saved a few things I found like that. You're not ever preparing for this day, so everything had pretty much been washed, given away, or thrown out when Aaron deployed. I did find his voice on a couple of tapes, including when he was in the third grade, and he was studying for a spelling test, spelling dinosaur words over and over. Then his voice for a few minutes back in '98, I think, and then, after his first trip to Iraq when a news station interviewed him. Each and every new little discovery is uplifting for a while, it lends hope, and then you remember why you're doing it.

Then one day, I was in a closet, and I looked down and saw a pair of Aaron's house shoes, lizard-striped ones. The shoes brought a smile and tears and when I grabbed them up, and noticed a kind of grimy stain in the bottom, I sniffed, over and over. I cried, of course, but I was still so happy. It was the smell of his feet. No one ever expects that kind of smell to be a gift, but to me, that day, it was. Still, every once in a while, I go and get them out of his room. Now they sit by his bed, close to our two pairs of boots: jungle boots I wore in Panama, and his pair, from Iraq.

The days have become different. Sorrow is a tile in the mosaic and flashes of grief still come. But I believe that time does heal. I think it teaches. The moments pass. I can't say how. It's not of my doing. Sometimes I question. Why has God taken the only child that remained? Left me with no hope for a grandchild? I'm certain there can be no more. No more children.

And yet I have no particular animosity for my son's killer. He's a nameless and faceless combatant to me. Should I ever have the opportunity to meet him, I hope that I'd forgive him. To me, the buck stops with the Father. His power stings at times. But He's listened to me; perhaps He's even cried with me. And yes, I do know what I'm talking about here. It's a belief, man. Aaron's words. You either believe in God or you don't. Yes, I'd forgive. I do forgive. There is absolutely nothing I'd do to keep myself from spending eternity with God and Aaron.

The words "forever" and "eternity" mean something to me now. Before, I wouldn't concentrate on their true definition, on their essence. I thought they were for later. Now, I have an aching need to know that forever and eternity started long before my time -- way before Aaron, before the Marines came to my home that day.

By Christy Miller

Christy Miller is a former U.S. army specialist.

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Iraq Middle East National Security