In 2007, Mary Jo Hammond was sometimes asked which person she worried about most: her husband or her son.
Both were Army combat infantrymen, separated by about 60 miles, and in the worst fighting this side of Baghdad.
Though Hammond considered it a rude question, the answer was obvious: her son, Shawn Pittman.
“I’ve been protecting him since I knew he was coming,” Hammond said. “Your husband is a grown man. But I still see my son as my little boy ... and I couldn’t be there to protect him.”
Pittman joined the Army in 2005, right out of high school, knowing that his enlistment would take him to war. He arrived in Iraq in 2006 and took an assignment as his squad’s heavy machine gunner. He was in the heart of the fight, engaging insurgents, seizing weapons caches, raiding houses.
His stepfather, Shawn Hammond, was transferred from fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan and incorporated into the the Iraq troop “surge” of 2007. Before his deployment to Afghanistan, Hammond was a 40-year-old divorce lawyer in Evans on inactive reserve. He resisted the deployment until he was told he would otherwise be dishonorably discharged.
Hammond, an infantry captain, was also placed in the thick of Iraq’s combat, which was much different from what he experienced in Afghanistan. The biggest threat in Afghanistan was mortars and bullets, which body armor is designed to resist. The roadside bombs in Iraq, however, were frequently filled with copper, which sliced through thick steel plates and shredded soldiers inside the vehicle, he said.
He compares the convoys to a herd of antelopes passing before a pride of lions.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “Someone died every day.”
Back home, Mary Jo Hammond was alternately avoiding the nightly news and trying to find out through her husband how her son was doing. Having a military family background, she knew all of the worst-case scenarios.
Each missed phone call sparked her imagination.
“I would just freak out,” she said.
Pittman was randomly selected as part of the Army’s “stop loss” measures, and his deployment was extended for a year. Between Iraq and Afghanistan, Hammond’s deployment lasted 21 months.
Both men returned home physically uninjured, but there was still a price to pay for the family.
Shawn Hammond’s immediate concern was putting food on his family’s table. As an attorney, he had to build his client list up practically from scratch after nearly two years away from home. He coped with the after-effects of war by immersing himself in work and eating unhealthful amounts of Chunky Monkey ice cream.
Pittman doesn’t speak much about the war, and his mother knows that sleep is hard for him.
“I think he has nightmares,” she said. “That’s a great concern to me.”
As both men work through their issues, Mary Jo Hammond is just glad she can put her arms around them whenever she wants. Having both of them gone from home was an ordeal.
“The whole time was a dark period,” she said.