In the midst of a genre filled with first-person experience, Marine mom and journalist RaeLynn Ricarte set out to write a book like no other — one that stretched the breadth of the military experience from green recruit to Gold Star Mother.
She set out to write “Living the Oath: Warriors Live it; Families Endure it,” because she felt angry that many Americans weren’t more supportive of the 1 percent of the population who serve in the military — half of them serving in theaters of war. Over the years since her son enlisted in the Marines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she saw warriors sent into war zones on as many as eight deployments. Her own son spent five tours in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“People needed to see what it is like to go to war, to understand what it’s like and to be compassionate,” Ricarte said.
She provides a look into what she and many in the military describe as America’s warrior culture, akin to the samurai and the Native American warrior caste.
Ricarte, a reporter with The Dalles Chronicle and formerly the Hood River News, interviewed people from all branches of the military service over several years, on the front lines, in the skies and behind the lines, and warriors tackling the worst war has to hand out: rape, lost limbs, traumatic brain injuries and lingering mental and emotional trauma.
She interviewed mothers who had sent multiple family members to war and those whose sons never came home. She interviewed wives left to care for children and manage households while their husbands were at war — and those whose husbands came home wrestling with the demons of combat.
“I’d get up some weekends and have to fight with myself — I was telling people I go to war every weekend,” Ricarte said. “It would be sunny outside and I would be writing some grim thing involving death and destruction. Sometimes I’d take a couple of shots just to be able to sit down and focus, but once I started, the work day would go by pretty quickly.”
The book is a tribute to her son, U.S. Marine Corps Captain Jesse Atay, and many of Ricarte’s experiences and interactions with Atay are woven through its chapters.
Asked what the book says about their relationship throughout his military career, Atay said, “I don’t think the book says anything different from what she’s always done. She’s always been there in that respect. It illuminates new aspects of our relationship, but she’s always been there for my guys, since my first deployment. It’s not a surprise that she’d do something like that.”
Ricarte often talks about “my Marines” or “one of my soldiers” military personnel looked after by the group she formed, the Gorge Heroes Club, or by herself. These men and women received regular shipments of basic necessities like socks, toothpaste, foot powder and mouthwash, as well as snacks, cards and other items meant to let them know people cared about them at home.
Ricarte incorporates quite a bit of statistical information and research into “Living the Oath.”
“There are four sections and after I did an introduction of Jesse and myself, I felt I needed to set the stage about my credibility to talk about (the war).”
Ricarte got a glimpse of the daunting task she had set herself during her first interview, with Army soldier Cody Standiford, who spoke frankly about the demons that killing during wartime left behind to haunt his dreams.
“He said, ‘If you don’t take a pass on telling the truth about the ugliness of war, I’m in,’” Ricarte said.
From that day forward, Ricarte felt obligated to complete the book. And the 25 military men and women, and four family members who are profiled in the book made their own commitment to tell their unvarnished stories of the realities of war, Ricarte said.
“I think it’s a humbling thing to have them all — every one of them — break down and cry,” Ricarte said.
Despite the raw nature of the subject matter, Ricarte said she did not rely on descriptions of gore.
“The purpose isn’t to be a blood bath of gore, although there are some scenes in there like that,” she said.
The subject matter of war and its aftermath is graphic enough.
She and her subjects made a pact not to give their opinions about the post-9/11 wars.
“We felt it would detract,” she said. “We didn’t want to make it political,” although she does offer a few comments about U.S. foreign policy and leaders at the end of the book, along with a substantial list of suggestions on how to help and support military personnel.
Ricarte says her own attitudes have changed some in recent months as her responsibilities toward warriors have changed. She has begun working more with veterans than with active military personnel.
“Veterans can be difficult,” she said. “They are going through different things … That’s where the rubber hits the road. They can be in crisis, messy.”
She also finds herself looking at war differently from other people, particularly since talk of intervention in Syria began. While others are looking at whether America should intervene, Ricarte and fellow members of the warrior culture are asking “Is it my kid going back to war? Are we going to be able to pull it off after 12 years of war? Some warriors are on their eighth or ninth deployment.”
Ricarte urges everyone to be supportive of the 1 percent of the population who agree to serve on behalf of the nation’s defense and to consider contributing to causes like the Wounded Warriors and or those that take care of families who have someone deployed.
“We all need to do something,” she said. “We don’t get away having with all this protection and do nothing.”