The war in Afghanistan has been plodding along for about one-sixth of my life, but the headlines were all I knew until I started handing homemade pillowcases to fatigue-clad soldiers who were heading downrange.
The first deployment fair I attended at an Army post in New Mexico resembled a college orientation. Civilian support groups displayed brochures on tables in the auditorium, while several of us volunteers arranged pillowcases on our table. We had spent weeks sewing for the nonprofit called Ziacase, and now we were ready for the long line of men and a few women from two companies of combat engineers.
As the somewhat somber parade passed by, a casemaker who had been an Army draftee in the 1950s described what these men and women might face. One company’s soldiers were sappers, which he described as guys who put down their guns to build things or blow them up while they’re getting shot at. The mobility company, driving heavily armored vehicles, would lead the way through ambushes and improvised explosive devices.
We were giving them a scrap of cloth, and they were giving us their lives — and, it turned out, the great gift of stories fresh from the front lines by e-mail.
The core audience for Ziacase is the 20-year-old male trained in warfare. So the pillowcases that day included plenty of patriotic designs with stars and stripes. Those cases went quickly, along with any design depicting deer or fish.
The Hawaiian-style florals produced a certain gleam in the eyes of those who remembered the womanizing reputation of the fictional Vietnam veteran “Magnum, P.I.” in the 1980s TV series. But the most popular cases featured John Deere.
The tractors were the choice of the farm boy who finished high school, completed boot camp and was shipped to the post on Thanksgiving. The following Monday he was told that he would deploy, maybe before Christmas.
The next day, I met him at the pillowcase table, and he got a hug whether he wanted one or not. He had grown up 40 miles from my hometown in Wisconsin, and in the high desert of southern New Mexico, that made him kin. Where there’s kin, the stories flow.
The sapper company deployed in early December. The mobility company of my Wisconsin kid was luckier, if you can call it luck to face at Christmas those family discussions about the possibility of not coming home.
The casemakers kept sewing, binding new friends and new stories into every stitch. The sewing machines were staffed sometimes by homeless vets making the transition to a roof over their heads, sometimes by spouses at the Army post.
The post, having just deployed two companies, was getting ready for the return of a third company that had left in July, before the post and the pillowcases were connected. Ziacase was invited to deliver “welcome home” cases to at least 100 soldiers.
Meanwhile, an officer in an intelligence unit sent an e-mail thank-you for his pillowcase — another John Deere. The bold green and yellow inspired memories of his rural boyhood, he said, a welcome relief in the minutes before bedding down in his harsh brown environment.
He left the door open for more stories, and we started with the weather — a safe topic in the intel world. I told him about rosebuds straining to open amid windstorms in southern New Mexico. He told me about snow melting in streaks on the cruel Afghan mountainsides.
As spring fighting picked up, he dreamed of a world away — the mountains of the American West, where he could listen to music if he chose and enjoy his family amid nothing but beautiful scenery and freedom.
My Wisconsin kid wrote a couple of sentences every few weeks after I hugged him goodbye in January. Posted to a bare-bones forward operating base, he was happy for the chance to buy toothpaste when he was sent elsewhere for a week of advanced weapons training. The class improved his accuracy, he reported later.
By April, he wrote that he had been busy with missions and was glad to tell me he was still alive. I was glad to know that up until a half-day earlier, he was still safe.
The war didn’t turn out that way for a sergeant in the soon-to-return company. An improvised explosive device killed him fewer than 10 days before the plane ride home.
The stories stopped that day for those closest to him — wife, daughter, parents, fellow soldiers. I, far on the sidelines, felt the loss also. I would never have the chance to know if he was another John Deere kind of guy. A fresh story had gone forever missing from my life.
The day after his death was announced, my heart was heavy as I drove to a long-planned sew-in at the post. Now there was no rush to complete pillowcases for 100 returning soldiers.
Only 99 were coming home.
Trudi Hahn Pickett retired from the Star Tribune in 2005. In 2009, she started the nonprofit pillowcase project called Ziacase. She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.