First Place Writing – Opinion


The home front

For nine years, American forces have waged a distant war across the ocean. Now, as my brother prepares for his fourth deployment, that conflict never felt so close.
By Caitlin Johnston

Political science students love to spout off about Iraq and Afghanistan. I sit in the creaking chairs in Woodburn Hall, in another afternoon of Comparative Foreign Policy, bristling as the kid with the sweater vest and the too-loud voice pontificates on Bush’s mistake and Obama’s inheritance. Then he goes back to checking Facebook and sipping his grande caramel macchiato.

The war is costing thousands of American deaths. But we calmly discuss it between gossip from last week’s football game and Saturday’s parties. Here in Bloomington, the sacrifice in Fallujah and Marja doesn’t bear down upon us. Our daily lives remain the same. Our routines cycle on.

I listen as students around me pass every judgment and air every complaint about battles that will never touch them. Most of the time, I keep my mouth shut.

But for me, the war is not a political debate. It’s my big brother.


As I write this, Blake is a few days from deploying for his fourth tour with the Marines. At 28, he’s already served three times in Iraq. Now he’s on his way to Afghanistan. I don’t know where exactly he’ll be stationed. What he’ll be doing. Or if he’ll come home.

But I can count on one thing. Once my fear and frustration get to be too much, I’ll pop in another disc of “Gilmore Girls.” When Blake’s home, he and I sit on the couch watching and rewatching all seven seasons. My brother might be a combat-hardened jarhead, but he dances with me during the opening credits. He’ll tell you he likes the show because Lorelai and Rory Gilmore are hot. But that doesn’t explain why he had newly released seasons shipped to his barracks. He watches every episode, enduring the teasing from fellow Marines, as a reminder of his baby sister and as a break from bullets and IEDs. I watch it to feel like he’s still sitting beside me. And to avoid thinking of him riding in another convoy.

I’ve spent the last six years trying to preserve my brother. I hung photos from his wedding on my bedroom wall and saved a voicemail he left in 2006. If something happens, I want to press a button and hear him say he loves me.

Before his first deployment, I searched for something of his to keep with me. I found a silver ring on his dresser. It wasn’t really silver – just one of those knockoffs you buy at the mall – but from that point on, I wore it on the index finger of my left hand. One day, I was sitting in class when I noticed my finger was bare. I frantically retraced my steps through the halls, checking my locker and searching until I ended up in the school parking lot. My heart pounded so loudly it filled my ears as I scoured the pavement. There, under my car’s back tire, I found the ring. I slipped it back on my finger and breathed again.


During his tours, I pretend Blake’s in an office doing paperwork. Or playing basketball with his unit behind the blast wall. I picture him doing anything other than his job.

It’s harder to pretend when he brings home medals. They don’t give gold stars or commendations for valor to the guy behind the desk.

I didn’t know the explanations for why he received such honors until I visited him last summer. There, stashed away in the corner of the guest bedroom, was tangible proof of his duties. I sat down on the bed, poring over the certificates: he’d conducted 55 combat missions, amassing 12,000 miles and escorting 1,300 vehicles and 10,000 personnel. And then I read what happened on May 3, 2007:

When a vehicle was destroyed by an improvised explosive device, First Lieutenant Johnston established security, coordinated a ground casualty evacuation for the wounded Marines, and requested explosive ordinance disposal and vehicle recovery support.

As I tried to grasp the reality of my brother’s job, he opened the door.

“What are ya doin, Sweets?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing,” I said, now conscious of the tears streaming down my face.

He shrugged. “Come on, dinner’s done.”


Blake’s confidence reassures me. But sometimes my mind wanders, and I imagine ways I would react if he died. I see my mom showing up unexpectedly at my apartment. Sometimes I collapse like they do in the movies. Other times I’m silent, unable to comprehend what’s happening.

I know it’s morbid. Still, the scenes seep into my mind. It’s like my subconscious is trying to prepare me, as if the grief would be more manageable with a script to follow.

Being a journalist makes it worse. I know how the media would handle Blake’s death. Our local paper would run a memorial story: “Hometown hero dies in Afghanistan.” If it’s a slow news day, they might run his photo. Friends would share stories from Little League and lament his youth. And then the world would move on. Because soldiers die every day in the desert 7,000 miles away.


Most people talk about the war like the weather. I want to shake them and scream, “You have no idea.” As Blake prepares to ship out, I’m growing more defensive. My ability to listen passively is waning. My eyes go directly to headlines about the war.

Then I take a deep breath and remember Blake. Not the Marine. But the brother who taught me how to pitch a baseball and throw a punch without breaking my thumb. The brother who eats mountains of mint-chocolate chip ice cream with me and does a spot-on impersonation of Mickey Mouse.

I tell myself I’ll see him next summer when he comes home. Over and over, I touch the ring on my left forefinger, checking it’s still there.