My son, who has served in the U.S. Navy since 2002, will soon return to Iraq for a second tour of duty. As he prepares to join the 21,000 extra troops President Bush demanded in January, I have found a de facto support group among the military parents I’ve seen on TV. I watch them hugging loved ones as they slip off to war—and I fixate on their expression, all too familiar to me in my 21-year skirmish with HIV. It is the haunted gaze I observed among those in my AIDS support group, especially in the pre-HAART era. They were grasping that death could be near—for them or for someone they cared about. You might think that as a healthy, long-term survivor who, at 55, blissfully approaches early retirement, I would have exorcised that look from my memory. But the president’s deployment speech, bracing us for “images of death and suffering,” conjured up my first band of brothers.
Today’s war is, in my opinion, comparable to the pre-cocktail AIDS epidemic: a lethal White House response with no bona fide plan for success. Just like the Feds’ initial response to AIDS—and like much of the response now—failed strategies rule the day, with useless equipment rationed to those battling an unspecified enemy.
In his first tour, my son (who’s HIV negative) served far from the front lines—on a carrier patrolling the Gulf region—but was eager to join the fight. I dreaded his call to action, just as I resented President Ronald Reagan’s depraved indifference when AIDS first invaded our nation. As scared as I was thinking I’d be the next casualty, I’m even more afraid of my son being a casualty of this latest “stay the course” mission. When my son’s initial tour ended, I was thrilled to be invited to join a Navy custom called the “Tiger Cruise.” Based upon my son’s distinguished performance, his mom and I would board his ship in Pearl Harbor for his triumphal return to San Diego. Yet my openness about my HIV status on a preboarding medical questionnaire led the carrier’s chief medical officer to invoke a policy regarding positive sailors. They are relegated to shore duty, so a medical facility can manage their care. The officer’s email read: “If such a restriction applies to our sailors, I believe it is only fair and proper to apply that restriction to our prospective Tigers.” Now I was the enemy, alone on shore.
Maybe that’s why my son has had as difficult a time talking to me about my HIV as I’ve had questioning his dedication to this war. Yet we veteran HIV survivors have also seen the horrors of battle. KS lesions and emaciated torsos jumped out of our TV sets as each new AIDS report surfaced—a constant reminder of our seeming fate.
How were we to know that, for many, the détente of combo therapy would blur these visions, and save our lives? That many of us could return to the workplace, or focus on advocating and regaining our dignity and self esteem—or even, perhaps, both? We may even forget that terrified, frozen look—until, say, we survivors answer our own inner call to action, volunteering to help other, less fortunate AIDS warriors.
Or perhaps it crossed your own face this January, while watching those tearful troup deployments, and remembering that in the government’s eyes, you don’t deserve to hold your child upon his return—and share the happiness in your eyes.
As I pray for my son’s second Iraqi homecoming, I ask: If Tigers are expected to be truthful in their disclosure, isn’t it only “fair and proper” that we expect the same from our leaders in their campaigns against Iraq—and AIDS?