War is Personal is part of an ongoing photojournalism project by Eugene Richards and The Nation Institute. Click here for a slideshow of the complete series of images.
Jeremy was sitting alone at the kitchen table, his thoughts somewhere else, when the women in his life began to encircle him. His wife, Maricar, slumped down across from him, her arms wrapped tightly around herself; his mother, Mona, sat closer, but looking down. Sayward was standing directly behind her brother when she started in. She shouted for Mona and Maricar to get the rope and the dark clothes. “I’ve got the iron skillet to whack him with,” she said.
When Jeremy pretended he hadn’t heard a word of this, Sayward snapped, “It’s up to you what we do. If it was my husband going back to Iraq, I’d divorce him. I’d have him sign the papers before he ever got on that plane.” She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. “Worst thing is, we’re powerless. We wake up from all the bad dreams, call our congressmen and senators; we still don’t get anybody to say that what’s happening is wrong.”
Rubbing at her eyes, she reminded him that it was only a short drive to Canada. “No joking, what other options do we have?” she asked. Her voice began to crack. “You have to know I would willingly go to prison if you don’t go back.”
Jeremy stood up from the table. He was turning to leave when his and Maricar’s 5-year-old daughter sashayed past wearing a tattered Cinderella gown and a rhinestone tiara. Sayward reached for her brother’s hand. It seemed as if the storm had passed, then Mona placed the newspaper she’d been holding onto the table.
She began slowly and solemnly to read the headlines. “Sixty-nine killed in Iraq today. Police raid mosque. Thirty more bodies found…”
“If I could end the whole business, I would,” Jeremy interrupted, sounding defensive and sad.
“But it’s not getting any better over there–it’s getting worse.”
“I’m all right. For me, it’s easy. I sit in an office, work in a headquarters.”
“Unless they change where you’re at, and that could happen at any time.”
“Right, and I volunteer for suicide missions every day.”
“In Sunday’s newspaper the death toll was 2,319. Today, 2,322. In August, the death toll was 1,820–”
“Can’t we stop before we rehash everything–”
“Being your mom, my greatest fear is that you won’t come back to me. So I feel that I have to fight, have to argue, do everything I can. You know, when you leave, everything stops–”
“OK, yeah, feel sad. But after I’m gone, please. Tonight, just try to enjoy my company… if you can.”
On Tuesday Mona awoke before dawn. She peered outside, put the coffee on, then, determined not to let her emotions show, pushed her grandchildren’s toys out of the way. It had been agreed earlier in the week that she would be the one to drive Jeremy to the airport. Goodbyes would be said at home.
Mona had just scooped up some discarded socks when the bedroom door opened and Jeremy hurried out. Gone were the T-shirt and the bits of stubble on his chin. He was clean-shaven, in uniform; with the stress of having to leave showing on his face, he looked much older than he had a day earlier.
A high school dropout who had been, in his own words, “curious about books and the world but in need of discipline,” Jeremy enlisted in the Army when he was 22. It was while stationed in South Korea that he met and fell in love with a young waitress named Maricar who had journeyed there from an impoverished village in the Philippines.
Honorably discharged after four years, Jeremy earned his high school equivalency, married, had two children, tried college, worked in a series of what he called “on-and-off, going-nowhere” jobs. Then about a year and a half ago, after a particularly hurtful bout of unemployment, he re-enlisted. He did this without first informing Maricar, his sister, or his mother, knowing that they wouldn’t approve.
“It’s time,” Mona called out. Jeremy gave his sleeping children a last hug and kiss, and went looking for Maricar, who had abruptly left the room. Finding her slumped over on the couch, he bent down, took her face in his hands, tried to console her. He knew all too well that she had suffered from depression the whole time he was away, that she had anxiety attacks, couldn’t sleep, had recurring nightmares. She would hear gunshots, see cars exploding, watch as men with guns and knives placed a long, black hood over his head.
Jeremy cleared his throat and pressed against her. He told Maricar that his family loved her, that he loved her. She grew rigid. “If you love me,” she said, “you won’t go.”
The drive down to the Columbus airport was quick, despite the gusty winds and the rain. At the gate Jeremy and Mona held on to each other. They hardly spoke. Then Mona watched from a distance as her son put his belongings through the X-ray, pulled his boots back on, trudged away.