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Soldiers Coming Home: A Military Mother’s Answered Prayer

It was her idea to have her son live at home after his return from Iraq. Was it a bad move?

Guideposts: Janet Paige Smith and her son David

My son David was in his bedroom, studying. I stood at the door for a moment, watching him. On the shelf above his desk were his old football trophies, his prom picture, the plaque declaring him high school offensive lineman of the year.

Beside him was a more recent photo, his graduation picture from Army basic training. How quickly my son had changed! One minute he was a teenager serving shakes at Dairy Queen to save up for his own car. Now David was 21, an Iraq War veteran newly returned from two tours of duty.

He was back living in his childhood bedroom, attending college nearby. I was overjoyed to have my son home safe. But things weren’t working out. That’s why I was at the door.

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“David,” I said.

He looked up.

“Let’s go for a drive,” I said. “There are some…apartments I want us to look at.”

David’s eyes widened as my words sank in. “Wait, Mom!” he cried. “What are you talking about? You’re kicking me out?!”

“David, just come on. We can talk about it in the car.”

Military obedience won out. After all, I outranked him. David pushed back his chair and followed me to the car.

I dreaded the half-hour drive to Milledgeville, where David’s college was. I’d looked up some apartments near campus. I wanted so badly for this to be the right thing. But David’s dismay tore me up. What kind of mother was I?

It’s not like David was a bad kid. Just the opposite. He’d been an easy teenager. Oh, there was the usual grumbling at Mom and Dad. But he got good grades, graduated from military prep school and went straight into the Army. Just like my husband, Mark, and me.

We were both veterans. I’d served as an officer during Operation Desert Storm. Mark had been a radio operator. We brought up all three of our boys—David and his younger brothers—to be respectful and responsible. Ours was a “Yes, sir, yes, ma’am” household.

The Iraq War started right as David finished specialist school to become a heavy vehicle mechanic. His unit was in the first wave of troops streaming toward Baghdad. He was there when the statue of Saddam Hussein fell.

He traveled all over Iraq repairing broken equipment in the field. Which meant he was on those roads booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices. We went weeks without hearing from him. I lay awake every night praying myself into a state for his safe return.

His first tour was extended to 18 months. Then, almost as soon as he got home, he shipped back out again, like so many other soldiers. He was in Iraq another full year. Finally, three years after I’d first watched my son board a plane for the Gulf, he was home.

I had to write a special letter to his commanding officer to get David released in time to start college. The Army wanted to keep him on the base a few extra months to watch for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I told David’s C.O. that I’d keep a close eye on him. Mark and I were veterans, after all. We knew what to look for.

So why, after just four months with David at home, was I nudging him out the door?

David sat in silence all the way to Milledgeville. I thought back miserably. Why was I doing this, again? Everything had seemed so right at first. David was thrilled to be home. And we were thrilled to have him back.

“Anything you want to eat, you just tell me,” I promised. “I don’t want you worrying about a thing. You focus on your studies. Get used to civilian life. Midnight curfew, that’s all we ask.”

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Our middle son, Ryyan, had taken David’s old bedroom. So at first David bunked with his youngest brother, Laughlin. He applied himself at school, even made the Dean’s List. He’d always been good with numbers and decided to major in accounting.

His time in Iraq hadn’t dampened his cheerful personality and he made plenty of friends. I thanked God every day I saw him sitting across from me at the dinner table. My son was alive and well! He was home and he’d never have to go back to the battlefield again.

After a few months, though, I began noticing things. When David got up from the table he didn’t take his plate to the sink the way his brothers did.

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Trash can full? He walked right on by it. Bed unmade? Mom would do it. Lawn needs mowing? Dad’s job.

Then David met a young lady and evenings we hardly saw him. He’d scoot in right under that midnight curfew.

“Where’s dinner?” he’d say on the rare evenings he graced us with his presence. Like I was some cook in the mess hall!

Ryyan graduated from high school and enlisted in the Army (I guess you could call it the family business). David moved back into his old bedroom. Was he settling in for the long haul? Mark and I wondered.

We couldn’t decide which was better—let David take all the time he needed or encourage him to be independent? I certainly didn’t want to be his personal chef forever.

Yet I was reluctant to confront him. I’d promised his commanding officer I’d help him adjust. Military life is very different. Give him time, I told myself. Besides, I wasn’t ready to let my baby go.

One morning Mark asked David to cut the lawn.

“Why can’t you do it, Dad?” he replied. “I’ve got to study.”

“David!” commanded Mark. They had a big argument. Two military men giving it all they had. David stormed off.

“That’s it,” Mark declared. “He’s got to move out. He’s too old for this. He needs to be on his own.”

And so here we were, David and I, pulling up in front of some apartments a short walk from campus. I got out. David stayed in his seat, arms crossed.

“You coming?” I asked. He shook his head.

Fine. I went into the office and explained that I was looking for an apartment for my son.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said the young lady behind the desk. “All our apartments are taken.”

She saw the crestfallen look on my face. “Does your son have a car?” she asked. I nodded. David drove a Chevy truck he’d bought with money he saved during his service in Iraq.

“There are other rental apartments in town,” the girl said. “They’re just farther away. Here, take this list.”

“No room at the inn, huh?” David said sarcastically when I got in the car. I didn’t reply. We drove to the first address on the list. Not promising. It was an old house cut up into apartments. Everything looked jerry-rigged.

The next place was way too expensive. “I could never afford that,” said David, running numbers in his head. Well, at least he was paying attention.

We headed to the third address. David looked out the window instead of at me and said quietly, “You know, Mom, I’ve never lived by myself. I was with you and Dad. Or the Army.”

“I know, baby,” I said, my heart tightening. Suddenly my mind went back to a phone call from David in Iraq. I could barely hear his voice. There were explosions, gunfire in the background.

“The base is under attack!” he shouted. “Mom, I need you to pray for me.” We prayed together until David had to go. Mark and I couldn’t sleep that night. David had seen friends killed and maimed. How could I trust God would spare my son?

And yet now here he was, home safe, and I was willingly putting him out of my house! Lord, I want to be a good mother. I need to know I’m doing right by David.

We pulled up to a brick apartment complex a short drive from campus. There was a nice lawn with tall shade trees that waved in the spring breeze. David seemed to perk up.

“Yes, we do have a one-bedroom,” said the manager. “It won’t be ready for a couple of weeks, but you can look at it.” She handed the key to David. He gave a tentative smile.

It was a warm, humid afternoon. We walked down the sidewalk peering at apartment numbers.

“Here it is,” said David. He unlocked the door. The walls were freshly painted. The carpet was new. David walked across a large room.

“This must be the living room,” he said. I followed him into the kitchen. “Look, this spot would be perfect for a small table,” he said. “It’s sunny.” He inspected the stove. He turned on the sink’s faucet. He looked out a sliding glass door to a small concrete patio.

“Hey, I could put a grill out there and have you and Dad over for a cookout,” he said. He ventured into the bedroom.

“This is bigger than my bedroom back home!” he called out. He returned to the living room. Now he was really smiling. I did a double take. For a moment, standing before me, I saw that 18-year-old boy I’d watched board a plane bound for Iraq.

He’d looked so young with his Army crew cut. I remembered that awful phone call from the base, shouting my prayers so David could hear them over the explosions. Yet God had been with us then. He’d kept David safe from every danger.

I looked at my son. He was a man now, shaped by his upbringing, his military service, his faith. I didn’t have to be his shield anymore. God was taking care of that. It was time for me to do the hardest thing a mom can do: let my son go.

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“You like this place?” I asked.

“Love it,” said David. He paused. “But I have no clue how to decorate. Mom, will you help with that?”

It was my turn to smile. And to say a silent prayer of thanks. “Of course,” I told him. Together we walked back to the car.

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