Published on Tuesday, June 20, 2006 by Newsday
Standing Up For A Daughter Scarred By War
by Joye Brown
Pride runs deep in military families. And Drew Mealing's family is no exception.
He gladly, at his daughter's request, signed on the dotted line that let her enter the Army Reserve straight out of North Babylon High School.
"I thought I was doing all of the things to make her life better," Mealing told me yesterday, recalling mornings they jogged together to help her lose weight. "I was happy to let her go in."
Mealing's father served in World War II. And Mealing, 55, said he was drafted and reported to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn during the latter days of the war in Vietnam. He was not shipped overseas.
"I understood that soldiers have a job to do," Mealing said. "But I made two mistakes. First, I thought of war only in terms of a big world war, which nobody would want because everybody would be destroyed. Second, I never thought girls would be placed in danger. I thought we came from a tradition where we protect our women."
The father of five stood out yesterday among more than 200 people protesting the war in Iraq, even as families celebrated at the Merchant Marine Academy nearby on graduation day. With President George W. Bush as the commencement speaker, protesters were sure to be nearby.
Mealing chose to protest apart from the crowd, taking up a spot on the opposite side of Bayview Road in Great Neck.
His sign bore the number "2,500," the approximate number of American deaths in Iraq, rather than the anti-Bush slogans so many others carried.
Mealing, to my eyes at least, appeared to be one of the few protesters present who knows what it is to send a child off to war.
That much showed in Mealing's face, and in his determination to find a spot where his sign would stand out.
It also showed in the tears Mealing fought as he spoke of his daughter, now 23 and suffering post-traumatic stress more than a year after spending eight hard months in Iraq.
Mealing remains proud of her achievement - and protective enough to ask that the name of his daughter, who is still in the Army Reserve, not be published in the newspaper.
But Mealing also has changed.
"I can't tell you how many nights I cried while she was away," he said. "I kept thinking, "Man, I really slipped up, letting her go into the service."
Things got worse when father and soldier began exchanging e-mails.
"I was telling her, 'Don't be afraid. You are part of the largest army in the world. You have the best weapons to protect yourself.'"
As time went on, however, Mealing realized that his soldier daughter was saying more to other members of the family, more to everyone, it seemed, than to him.
That's when he sought help and found a group called Military Families Speak Out. Members advised him not to talk, but to listen - because he had no concept of what his child was going through.
He took the advice, but also began to follow news of the war, and especially the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction, more closely.
"I had thought this county was using our young people in the service for protection, not aggression," he said.
Mealing attended his first peace march before his daughter returned home. Yesterday, he protested again, even as Bush spoke nearby.
He would eventually discover that while in Iraq, his daughter worked on a water purification project - and, to her horror, was on a detail to remove body parts from a bombed-out building.
She became so upset, so "freaked out" talking about it, that Mealing begged her to stop. And they've never talked about it again.
"I never thought I would be here," Mealing said yesterday. "But I'm glad I am."
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