Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
Monday March 27, 2006
Ginger Fitzgerald knows her son has found a purpose in the military. But still her days are filled with tears and prayers.
The telephone rings. Ginger Fitzgerald picks it up. She smiles. Her son, Jordan Sherwood, is calling from Kansas.
Guess what, mom.
I joined the Marines.
She says nothing for a moment. She's proud but stunned. It is February 2003 and America is at war in Afghanistan and preparing for war in Iraq. She thinks: My son -- a sweet, gentle, bullheaded kid -- a member of the United States Marine Corps. For God's sake, we're at war and he joins the Marines? Why didn't he talk with me first?
Ginger knows they haven't communicated well since Jordan became a teenager, a troubled period in which he bounced between his mother's home in Roanoke and his father's in Arizona before stopping in Kansas to try living on his own.
He had found a measure of stability there, starting over at 18 in an unremarkable city on the high plains, stopping for no other reason than his car broke down and he was low on cash.
But it was as good a place as any: He knew no one, he had no friends who were into drugs, he could figure out what he wanted to do with life.
Now, at 20, he's finished high school. He has a steady job in a mall bagel shop. He talks with his parents on the phone, visits them occasionally.
Ginger Fitzgerald, mother of Jordan Sherwood
Ginger is relieved when he gets his diploma, hopes he will settle down in a stable job, maybe go to college, meet a nice girl -- not become cannon fodder in the war on terrorism.
But she and Jordan view life differently, two people who are alternately easygoing and stubborn, creating a close but tense relationship that continues as the years pass into his manhood.
"My mom's an awesome person and I love her," Jordan says, "but we just never get along."
She says: "We butt heads -- God, we butt heads -- but I still love him."
Ginger, 45, has a gregarious personality and a quiet faith in God. She works as a construction site manager, a job that suits her taste for blue jeans and off-color jokes. At night, she unwinds by reading Patricia Cornwell novels and sipping a Grey Goose orange-flavored vodka and tonic with friends at the Brambleton Deli bar.
She lives with her long-time boyfriend, Mark VanBuren, in a red brick Wasena house with a front porch full of colorful potted flowers. A knock at the door sets off a cacophany among their five dogs and cats, including a stray pit bull that Ginger took in and now can't find a home for.
Jordan is 6-foot-3 and 165 pounds, gangly like a heron, his body just starting to become muscled. He talks slowly, smiles often. He dresses carefully whether in his razor-creased uniform or civilian clothes with a necklace and a little gel in his close-cropped hair. He has tattoos and sometimes smokes, drinks whiskey, curses.
But there's still a lot of kid in him -- he says "awesome" a lot, loves Cap'n Crunch cereal, video games, cartoons. He's neither aggressive nor shy, a rank-and-file follower who fulfills his duties eagerly, reliably.
Before Jordan goes to Iraq, Ginger gets him a St. Christopher's medal, the patron saint of travelers, to remind him of her love. After he leaves, random memories sometimes pop into her head -- his first girlfriend was Sarah Jane Bova and his first hamster was Molly, both in the third grade. She keeps his childhood mementos in a cabinet -- sports trophies, exam papers, art drawings.
One day, she finds an eerie foreshadowing in one of his grade-school reports in which he imagines he's a patriot-soldier writing a letter home in the American Revolution: "War is an awefull, awefull thing. Dead bodies everywhere. We march miles and miles each day. ... I can make it though, I know it."
For Mother's Day, Jordan names a star in the Taurus constellation for her: "Ginger' s Jewel." The framed certificate from the International Star Registry hangs on the latte-colored walls of her living room.
"I don't know where the star is, if it's way out where you can't see it without a special telescope or whether it's right overhead in the Big Dipper," Jordan says. "Who knows, maybe it'll burn out and fall from the sky one day, but she thinks it's the coolest thing."
Following a new path
In May 2003, soon after President Bush declares that major combat is over in Iraq, Jordan arrives at boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
He is immersed in Marine culture -- the shaved heads, brutal marches, moral tutelage, killing techniques, the proper way to dress himself, make his bed, walk, speak, think. He feels reborn.
"I've always had ambition and great ideas, but I didn't have the drive and organization to actually do it," he says. "The Marines basically taught me how to do everything all over again. I've always been an outsider. I never really fit in at school. People liked me, but I got picked on for being different. It was the same in the Marines in the beginning."
The drill instructors single Jordan out as a weakling. During one grueling session, he shouts, "Yes, sir" and "No, sir," so forcefully that blood vessels burst in his eyes. Afterward, he breaks down and cries.
But the senior drill instructor looks out for him, tells him: You're not a dumb ass, are you, Sherwood? Jordan repays the kindness by giving him chocolate chip cookies.
Jordan comes to see the Marine Corps values -- honor, courage, commitment -- not as a recruiting poster cliche but as a road map to direct his life. In August 2003, he completes boot camp with a new confidence.
"I'd gone from s--t bag to most-improved recruit, and I came out real squared away," he says.
Jordan, who has always been interested in photography, passes the test to become a combat cameraman. A Marine tradition since World War II, combat cameramen are a small group of riflemen who take photos and videotape for intelligence, planning, historical documentation and other purposes.
That fall, Jordan and some Marine friends visit New York City for a few days of relaxation. A storefront psychic predicts their futures with tarot cards. She tells Jordan he will be traumatized in Iraq, overcome it and live a long, happy life. Goose bumps rise on his arms.
A few months later, he gets deployment orders for Iraq, where the insurgency is burgeoning. It is February 2004, and Ginger starts a diary.
Feb. 18, 2004: "He was going to be leaving for Iraq the next day. I felt like I was going to throw up ..."
Feb. 19, 2004: "Today is possibly the worst day of my life. Jordan leaves for Iraq. ... I call him and call him. Finally, he answers. I try to control my weeping. 'I'm being issued my weapon,' he says. My God, my 21-year-old son is being given a gun to protect himself and others in a country that I don't give two s--ts about. I want to be his protector. I would go to save him, from the horrors he is about to see ..."
Feb. 20, 2004: "I just can't take all the sad eyes, people looking at me, feeling sorry for the mom whose kid is at war. I want to scream: 'It's your war, too ...'"
Feb. 21, 2004: "I know my purpose in life is to be a loving mom and nurturer and to have faith my son will come home a better man and not changed by war ..."
Feb. 22, 2004: "I've turned into one of those crazy old women, kissing his pictures whenever I walk by one of them in the house ..."
After five days, Ginger stops writing the diary -- it's too emotionally draining -- but she keeps praying, little entreaties that pop into her head, night, day, anytime, for God and St. Christopher to watch over him.
Jordan's father, Rob, who lives in Arizona, tries to avoid news coverage of the war.
"Every time you hear so many Marines were killed, your heart jumps into your throat," he says. "In your mind, you only see your son and the guy on his left and his right -- it's got to be one of them."
For Jordan, who has never been overseas, who knows nothing of Islam and the Middle East, it is a dizzying time, skipping across the globe to a country he can't find on a map, the adrenaline and monotony and time zones all jumbled together like the indecipherable Arabic he hears on the streets. He wonders at the lilting calls to prayer from the mosques, wonders at the mystery of it. What is that? he asks, fresh off the plane, when a muezzin's voice carries hauntingly over the rooftops, marking his first nightfall in Iraq.
He wonders, too, at death, which he has not seen before, the brutality of it, which he comes to decide isn't the result of man or God but of an ugly randomness. He tries to make sense of things, and can't.
In this strange place, he finds comfort in what he knows -- the smooth metallic feel of his M16A4 rifle, the shutter click of his Canon 10D digital camera, the familiar orders from his superiors, the camaraderie of his buddies.
As time passes, he sees hope and despair among Iraqis, the good the Americans are doing, the rebirth of a nation, one school and clinic and road at a time.
After a while, the regimented days and nights run together: He patrols, shoots photos, cleans his weapon, eats, sleeps, wakes up, does it again. He learns a few Arabic words, bears the hot days, cold nights, dust storms, the sewage in the streets. He finds some Iraqis friendly, some stern, the children curious. He frequently phones and e-mails his family, but he doesn't mention the close calls with insurgents. He doesn't want his mother to worry.
It's a crucial time in Iraq, where many are seeing U.S. forces no longer as liberators but as occupiers.
Death and hope
One day, shrapnel from a roadside bomb hits Jordan in the face, neck and shoulder, but he returns to duty the same day. He finds the experience surreal -- a little closer and he might have been vaporized, but all he gets are some stitches. It shakes him. He feels lucky, scared, but mostly angry. He still hands out candy to the ragged children when he patrols the streets, but it's different now. He has a new outlook, feels hardened.
Despite the constant patrols, he never fires his rifle, using his camera instead to capture what's happening around him, from mundane life on base to the scarred cityscape. Once, he grabs a fleeing insurgent, orders him to stop resisting, but then he remembers his camera and starts taking photos instead, pushing the struggling guerrilla into the arms of another Marine.
In one house-to-house search, he photographs a fellow Marine shooting an insurgent, the body falling just outside his camera's viewfinder, the rifle clattering to the ground. It's the first combat death Jordan sees.
"I don't know what I expected," he says. "I was upset, but relieved, too, you know?"
When a Marine friend's skull is split open by a roadside bomb, a life reduced to a dark spot on the road, Jordan is further confounded by the randomness of death. His friend does everything right and still ends up in a body bag just before his tour ends. Jordan thinks: Everything is out of your control. You can fight the insurgents, whenever they stand and fight, but not randomness. He tries to block it out, this bewildering finality, so he can do his job, so he won't go insane.
As time passes, he photographs other insurgents, civilians, Marines, alive and dead. He's shaken when, as part of an investigation, he has to photograph a fellow Marine who killed himself.
Still, Jordan loves his job, recording the rough draft of history on a digital disc, trusting his instinct on whether to raise his rifle or camera, trusting his fellow Marines to cover him. Other leathernecks envy his job, saying they didn't know the Marines even had combat cameramen.
Jordan takes some of his best photos when guerrillas fire mortars at a Marine position to try to lure them into an ambush. But Jordan's patrol rushes in and captures them before they can finish setting up the kill zone. He records it all and rushes his photos back to Marine headquarters.
Some of his favorite photos are of Iraqi children giving a thumbs-up sign to his lens, which he takes as a sign of hope. Another favorite photo is of an Iraqi man caught selling weapons to insurgents. For Jordan, his photograph of the man -- who is blindfolded, handcuffed, kneeling in the dirt, his body sagging as if resigned to his fate -- embodies the good work American troops are doing.
In October 2004, when Jordan's first tour ends, his unit returns to Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, where his family greets him.
"I cried and cried," Ginger says. "I can't ever explain it. It was like giving birth again."
In February 2005, his unit is ordered back to Iraq, where the insurgency is raging.
"My heart just sunk," Ginger says. "I knew something bad was going to happen, but then I thought: What are the chances, really, of his getting hurt twice in a row?"