Those who serve, and those who wait

A number of recent articles have looked at the growing military/civilian divide, the reality that even though the United States has been at war since just after Sept. 11, 2001, the vast majority of Americans don’t know anyone in the military and have very little understanding of the lives of those who serve and those who love them.

This debut novel could by a gifted author could help bridge that divide, as it takes a look at one small family – a young Navy SEAL and the single mother who raised him – at a time of great stress.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ELEVEN DAYS. By Lea Carpenter. Alfred A. Knopf. 270 pages. $24.95.

When we meet Sara, she’s just become the focus of intense interest in rural Pennsylvania, where she lives, and, to some extent, in the national spotlight as well. It is May 2011, and her son, Jason, a Navy SEAL, has been missing for nine days, having disappeared during a mission on the same night that SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden.

As we read this tautly written, thoughtful, deeply moving novel, we come to know a great deal about Sara and her son, and about their relationship. We see through the eyes of both of these intelligent, complex characters, learning how they came to this crucial moment.

This is not a war novel filled with blood, gore, suspense and action. This is the other kind of war novel – the kind that looks primarily at the toll that military service, and especially warfare, take on those who fight and those who love them. Far from an over-simplified tale of good guys vs. bad, this is a story of the honorable warrior’s life, a life with doubts, fears and ambiguities as well as a compelling sense of duty and dedication to one’s country.

Sara, we learn, fell in love with Jason’s father when she was an impressionable college student working a summer job at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. He was older and far more worldly, a CIA officer posing as a writer. They never married, though he proudly acknowledged Jason as his son and recruited several friends as “godfathers.” He disappeared from Sara and Jason’s lives when Jason was 6, and she moved to Pennsylvania to give her son a more “normal” life than what she experienced in the D.C. area. She worked from home as a free-lance editor for inside-the-beltway types, and told David that his father had worked at an embassy and served his country.

Sara hoped her bright, talented son would go to an Ivy League school and become some sort of professional, maybe using the family connections on Capitol Hill. But when the Twin Towers went down in September of his senior year in high school, Jason charted a different course for himself. He decided to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and find his own way to serve his country.

The life of a military officer was far from what Sara had in mind for Jason, but, a good mother, she set out to understand what he was experiencing and why. And she learned to be flexible and strong, to display a positive and supportive attitude, and not to burden him with her fears or her desire to see more of him.

Her story is of adapting to be a good mother, and to survive emotionally, when her son chooses an unexpected and difficult path. His is of how an intelligent, sensitive young man deals with rigorous training and missions that require great discipline – and great abilities to compartmentalize his emotions.

Both Sara and Jason are put to the ultimate test when Jason heads out on that mission in May 2011.

Lea Carpenter’s writing is spare, polished and thoughtful. It is laced with literary and historical allusions, which seem appropriate given these two characters: Sara is a word person, an editor with training in the arts, and Jason is both well educated and an only child who grew up very close emotionally to his single mother.

This is an important novel that could help bridge the well documented, growing divide between the military and the civilian in America. Despite our nation’s constant state of war for more than a decade, at any given time, less than 1 percent of Americans are serving in the military. That means that the number of families dealing with people who serve is also proportionally small. Few people whose lives are not touched by military service understand the sacrifices made by those who serve and those who love them.

This novel also rightly dispels stereotypes of military people as hard-charging, gung-ho, shallow individuals who live only for action and even violence.

Eleven Days, Carpenter’s first novel, is not without its flaws, however. She says in the introduction to her bibliography that the book was in part inspired by her learning that 11 other special forces raids were conducted on the same night as the one that found Bin Laden, raids that most of us know nothing about. But in the context of the novel, the date becomes confusing. Are we supposed to think that she’s giving an alternative telling of the Bin Laden raid, one in which one SEAL is left behind? If it’s really a separate raid, why does Sara seem unaware of the huge news story surrounding that other SEAL raid that night?

And, though her bibliography and her detailed depictions of Jason’s training and service indicate that she did extensive research, her understanding of the Naval Academy is incomplete. In her story, Jason could have decided after completing his four years of undergraduate studies there to walk away from the military and take a job in D.C., when in reality graduates owe at least five years service, usually in the Navy or the Marines. And she writes that he was offered a chance to try out for SEALs as he was about to graduate, though the service selection of firsties (seniors) at the academy is decided months ahead of their commissioning, and those interested in small, highly competitive assignments such as SEALs start working toward that goal before the firstie year.

Such errors of detail could have been easily avoided with a little research. They are not crucially important in the overall impact of the book, but they do make the reader who is familiar with the academy question the accuracy of other details in the book.

Then too, a little more attention to Jason’s four years in Annapolis would have strengthened the story, because those who have been through the experience of having a child at USNA often find that their child’s time there was also valuable training for the parent – training in letting go, in adjusting to not knowing what’s happening, in understanding that the Navy comes first, in being flexible and in managing fears and disappointments quietly and with dignity – all lessons that Sara obviously had learned well before Jason went missing.



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