One of those heart-stopping moments

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By Steve Doyle

The heart-stopping sounds that raise us from deep sleeps and catapult us into an adrenaline-infused tidal wave of fear now have a new coconspirator.

You know that remorse that automatically overwhelms you when you hear a telephone ringing in the middle of the night or a text message beeping on your cellular telephone while you are aslumber. Each of us to is ingrained to believe that no good news ever arrives during those hours. Our personal histories stand testament to that.

Now consider the moment-rocking response when you read 140 characters on Twitter and think its words may be directed at your soul.

That happened to me on Friday, a seemingly quiet night before a busy weekend when I saw a tweet from CNN about several Marines having been killed by insurgents in Afghanistan.

It was anonymous and simple, just those few words, but when you have a loved one who is a Marine in Afghanistan, whose pure safety is your first thought in prayer, you automatically have that frantic and helpless feeling that is even more all-consuming than the wee-hours phone calls.

Many of you doubtless understand that immediate response. You have had or do have loved ones and friends serving in harm’s way. It’s part of the bargain they made on your behalf when they signed up to protect and defend each of us.

If you’re like me, and your beloved oldest son is one of them, you feel the lightning constriction on all the chambers of your heart, overpowering dread consuming the logic or arithmetic and the vastness of geography.

So you show the tweet to your wife, who frantically launches a patrol on Google. You click on the link attached to the tweet – the very use of that trite word in this context feels insulting, doesn’t it? – and scan meager sentences in search of comfort, assurance and calm.

But you read that the insurgents breached the ring of security that surrounded Camp Leatherneck, a vast Marine base in southern Afghanistan, and shudder in familiarity that your Marine has been spending time there.

You read that the dead Marines haven’t been identified, that several more were injured, that the situation now is “secure,” as if that’s a term you can accept and process in your moment of dread. There is no pacification here. You need more information.

Your son’s wife, at home in Camp LeJeune, N.C., taking care of the toddler son and baby daughter with whom he has spent scant days since deploying in the spring, has posted no news on her Facebook page. This quiet is not comforting. You aren’t so schooled as she about the nuance of military matters, nor do you get the routine chance to E-mail, talk and even Skype with him about his life in the desert. Modern technology keeps her closer, and she is your conduit to every syllable of information.

This silence inspires a telephone call to your daughter, who lives in Florida. If there were  anything to fear, any fiber of uncertainty, surely she would know.

She had not heard about the attack, the news only an hour or so old, and wasn’t sure what to make of the information. She promised to check it out and keep you informed, taking on the role of a parent to the aggrieved parent. She is strong but also sounds worried.

Uncertainty is the enemy of the military family, the serenity in any storm providing no security. No news is not necessarily good news.

This is an entirely new phenomenon in my life and, I’m sure, many of yours. Maybe you, like me, had relatives and acquaintances who fought in Vietnam. Others of you can trace such moments to the battles in Iraq, Korea and even the outposts of World War II. But this isn’t the same.

This isn’t your understanding that your loved one is going off to a destination of mysterious and muzzled importance, that you have to live with no word until perhaps hearing a bad word. A letter may arrive long past the time it was penned. There was no such thing as  immediate correspondence, nothing even close. The scant phone call might be arranged, but that was a miracle gift from God if you were waiting to hear anything.

Those of you with second- and third-generation warriors resolutely accept the uncertainty and dangers out there. Even though you hear from your family member, you accept that the enemy is nigh. You don’t sleep sometimes. You just pray.

And you know, too, that any deployment these days carries danger, no matter how quiet and serene it may seem. Standing down can be the most dangerous position of all. Even if your loved one isn’t on a front line – maybe involved in communications processes from  a central location – you know that the rocket-powered grenades like those that brought death on Friday can explode just about anywhere at anytime.

So you read Twitter, read the stories, make the phone calls and wait.

About 30 minutes or so pass and your phone buzzes, a text message from your daughter that says that your son had departed Camp Leatherneck for Camp Geronimo, that all appears safe and sound, that everyone is accounted for. Four words of comfort: Everyone is accounted for.

The breath that has built up in your lungs explodes. Tears appear from nowhere. Relief seizes you almost as immediately and totally as had the fear.

And you go about your business. Until the next time, the next tweet, the next moment of indecision, and then it is you who goes to battle, the internal confrontation of being human.

That won’t improve until the fall when your son is back at home, enjoying perhaps the rarity of a holiday celebration with his personal little company. That thought and image make you smile, but the smile is short-lived. There can be no true smiles now. There could be a message at any moment.