A mother, a son and a deployment. Few civilians will ever understand the impact these three things have on a family. Especially when the parents never thought their son would be serving his country.
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Rayan was a typical young man. Until 9/11. When the world turned grey. When eighth graders had more to talk about than the girl in the short skirt. When high school students had their first shot of patriotism. And college students left their desks for something they could touch.
9/11 touched us all. But it touched Rayan at an age when the towers were scalded in his memory and the only way to heal his wounds was to enlist. But he was only thirteen.
A Valencia High School ROTC instructor, Captain Ed Colley, spoke at Rayan’s school. His interest was piqued. He made the decision to enroll at Valencia High School just for the ROTC program, even though he lived in Canyon Country on the other side of the Santa Clarita Valley. He would have to take the bus. His mother, Jeri, tried to dissuade him from this daily trek. An hour and a half by bus in the mornings. Two hours home in the evening. But nothing could stop him from following his dream. Some kids get addicted to drugs. Rayan was addicted to his country.
Jeri understood patriotism. Her father-in-law fought in World War II. He was stationed in Italy, was shot and watched many friends die. Jeri secretly hoped the long bus rides would break Rayan from continuing at Valencia's ROTC. But to no avail. Rayan did so well, he became the youngest student leader ever of the ROTC program. After 9/11, the number of students jumped from 50 students to 150, with a waiting list.
Eleventh grade came around, as did college applications. Rayan’s dream was to attend West Point Academy. Army was in his blood, and Jeri didn’t even know it. Rayan applied for the West Point Summer Camp, the precursor to acceptance to the Academy. Rayan was denied. He was crushed. Instead he attended the Coast Guard Summer Camp, and it seemed his destiny had shifted. Until a large leather bound thick-papered package came in the mail addressed to Rayan. He had been accepted to his dream school, West Point Academy.
Jeri’s wall came down. It was time to make the decision to support and rejoice in his accomplishments, or get out of the way. Her son would be going to war.
But not yet.
West Point was everything he wanted it to be, and everything Jeri hoped it could be for her son. He made friends for life, and their families became extensions of Jeri.
Rayan met his wife just after graduation. They married June 2012. A common occurrence among West Point graduates with a future so uncertain, the only right thing to do is live.
Rayan deployed in May 2013.
He was in the top 10 percent of his class and had the choice to branch into any specialty he wanted to. But he chose the difficult, and more challenging choice of infantry. During his years at West Point, Rayan spent a summer at the State Department in Washington, D.C., with an internship working with General David Petraeus. To this day Jeri does not know what this entailed. Her first taste of the secrecy that would come with Rayan’s enlistment.
After graduation, he went to Rangers School for sixteen weeks in Fort Benning, Georgia. It is the equivalent of the Navy Seals, but for the Army. Only 20 percent make it through Rangers School.
He never stopped. He never quit. His eye was on the goal. The goal was Afghanistan.
Rayan never gave up on his dream. But how does a mother support a son who has chosen to place himself in harm’s way, every day of his life? Faith. It sounds like a cliché. But it’s not a cliché to Jeri. It is as real as the towers. As pure as her son's first breath. Faith was her oxygen. Her anchor. It is what keeps her alive when she hurts so much she can't breath.
Faith has allowed Jeri to do the impossible. To imagine he is safe. And to accept without hesitation that his situation is out of her control. This is the advice she would give any mother of a child that is deployed. Acceptance, and perhaps denial. But it works for Jeri. Because she has faith.
Not all mothers of our troops have faith. Some are too hurt to have faith. That their child enlisted and decided to go to war. But no matter their outlook on their child’s decision, there is a common thread among military families. A brotherhood. A sisterhood. A support system of people with one thing in common. They could lose their son or daughter at any moment. Every ring of the phone makes their heart skip a beat. But it’s the knock on the door that haunts them every day. A phone call means their child could be injured. A knock on the door could mean they lost them forever. For Jeri, there is is little room for negativity, or imagining the worst. Because the worst will never be what she imagined.
Rayan is now in Afghanistan. His duties morphed into heading the breakdown of old camps and the raising of new ones. He finds himself often without essentials such as towels or toilet paper as these camps are on the fringe of civilization. He has risen to 1st Lieutenant. And carries on his shoulders the weight of a past generation, when young men deployed and were lifted by their country back home.
We have a new generation of men and women who enlisted because, to them, there was no other choice. It was a calling for something that mattered. Because so little seemed to really matter. We have a generation of troops who have optimism that their sacrifice will make a difference. For one soldier, he already has. He changed a life back home. Because of him, his mother believes, she surrenders her fears, and chooses light over darkness. He has changed the very way his mother breathes. He changed how she speaks his name. How she holds a frame with his young face so filled with hope. Because of him, she lives for today, when the phone doesn’t ring and there is no knock at the door. He has given her the ultimate gift. Faith.
As the bases in Afghanistan are shut down, and the contractors are pulling out, he faces challenges he did not expect.
But in the fashion of the eighth grader who had a dream, Rayan never stops. He calls his family and calms their fears. The Army might be a career. A life of uncertainty linked to hearts that skip a beat. But it is his love for country. His pride in possibilities. And his commitment to a goal that will make him a success. But if he is anything like his mother, a dose of faith will take him a long way too. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Editorial: A Mother, A Son And A Deployment