From the St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota), December 29, 2007:

Peace at home, war and two sons abroad


The 2007 holiday season has been lonely around the Bess household. Our sons are deployed in war zones. Our oldest, Capt. Jon, is an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot and is in Afghanistan. Our youngest, 1st Lt. Jeff, is a Chinook helicopter pilot deployed to Iraq. This is the first time we have not been together at this time of year. It is difficult to wrap my brain around the fact that half our family is so far away, participating in wars so alien to my way of thinking.

I think of Jon and Jeff every day and, having never been to war myself, wonder what their daily life is like. I hear and read all the platitudes about honor and duty to country, but I only hope for their safe return. I have never been a believer in the heroics of war; in fact, I do not believe that war resolves any problems between peoples of any countries. I am an advocate for peace - who happens to have two boys fighting wars on two fronts.

War changes the young men and women we send to defend our stated principles, changes them in ways no parent can hope to undo. Whether I agree with the principles for these wars is irrelevant. What is relevant is my strong desire to support the men and women whom we have sent to war. They are soldiers, sailors, pilots and merchant marines who do not dispute their obligations and orders. They deserve our utmost respect and humility.

This December, I had been feeling somewhat lost, without a compass to direct me toward what is significant about what my sons are undertaking in their missions. I suppose I did my fair share of wallowing in self-pity that my sons are in harm's way.

Then I received an e-mail from Mike Rankin that helped me to understand not only what my sons are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also what it means to me. Mike is an old Navy guy who serves on interview committees in Minnesota that help select congressional nominees to all five military academies. He and I have served on these committees together, and he was instrumental in getting my son Jon enrolled in the United States Merchant Marine Academy.

In his e-mail, Mike explained that he had just received a U.S. flag in the mail, with a certificate and a card. The certificate attested that the flag had been flown over the skies of Afghanistan on a combat mission in an F-15E Strike Eagle.

The card had come from my son Jon. It read:

Hello! It's been too long since I've written you - I hope everything is well in Red Wing. I'm currently deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. I've been here since September, and I'll be leaving at the beginning of January. My brother is a Chinook helo pilot on a 15-18 month deployment in Baghdad, and I'll be home at the end of January to visit him and my family up in Cottage Grove. I'm looking forward to it.

I've been mission qualified in the F-15E Strike Eagle for a year now and have about 1 years left in the squadron out of Seymour Johnson AFB, Goldsboro, N.C. My call sign is 'Ripper,' from a legendary story of one of my less than stellar moments in the jet.

I flew this flag on Nov. 23 in Southern Afghanistan, the Helmind Province. We supported some British troops who had been getting attacked by many Taliban Fighters throughout the day and into the night. We ended up finding several of them as they were sneaking up on the Brits in a direction they didn't expect and dropped two laser guided bombs on their position. Our British friends slept safely for one more night.

I hope everything is well with you these days. Thank you again for helping me with the Academy - it was the best decision I ever made and one that shaped me into the man I am today.

Merry Christmas and God Bless,

Jon Bess (USMMA Class of 2003)

In the e-mail he sent me, Mike wrote enthusiastically - lots of capital letters and exclamation points - about how much my son's letter meant to him, and he signed off with this: "We ordinary citizens should be thanking our service men and women and here one of them is thanking me. Can you imagine!?!"

Knowing my son, that's not so hard for me to imagine. But it has been sometimes difficult to imagine how to support my peaceful beliefs and at the same time support my boys in something I do not believe in - war.

Mike Rankin's unrestrained regard for my son's service, and, by extension, for all who serve, has helped focus my thoughts and lift my spirits this holiday season. I am an advocate for peace, but believe that once we put our troops in harm's way, they deserve our total support. If we are unwilling to thank our troops, then we are unwilling to accept our obligations to them.

My daily routine in our safe, prosperous society does not compare to the daily routine of my sons, or of the other sons and daughters in harm's way. I humbly request that each of you, somewhere in each day, pause to think of what our service men and women are doing at that moment in time - so that you can begin to appreciate the luxury of daily life in America.

We owe them more than we can ever repay, more than we will ever know. I could say that it does not matter if you believe in the wars or not, but that would be arrogance on my part, especially since I have been an anti-war activist. I know that my sons are serving their country each and every day, and doing what they believe is making a difference.

Our service men and women did not create these two wars, but we sent them there, and they are carrying out their obligations and deserve our gratitude. Please support our service men and women and their families.

Timothy A. Bess is a retired educator.