Catherine Whiteside is flipping through an old photo album, looking for a newspaper clipping of her eldest son, Marquette, winning a 4-H honor as a teenager. She stops to laugh at a picture of him in his "bushy" phase, when his hair was pretty much standing on end. Mother and son are close. People often think they're a couple because she looks so young at 42, with her taut muscles and sleek pageboy. "You know what he did while he was with the Army in Germany?" she asks mischievously. "He was dancing, stripping, under the name Scissor."
She dubbed him Sizzle instead, just to rib him, and the nickname stuck. That's how he signed his letters home from Baghdad. His early missives have the tone of a jokester writing to a friend, not to a worried mom back in Pine Bluff, Ark. They open with "Dear Chocolate"--his name for her--and include macho tales of his refusal to duck while under fire, followed by admonitions not to worry. He cracks jokes about how insurgents once lobbed rockets at his unit's base as the soldiers lay in bed. "My son," says Catherine, "has a weird sense of humor."
Marquette's correspondence took a more sober tone in November after a humvee in which he was riding was hit by a roadside bomb; his revered platoon leader lay mortally wounded in his arms. Now he e-mails home almost daily, often to confide about his nightmares. He keeps replaying the image of his dead lieutenant with a bloody gash where an eye should have been. Catherine knows about fear. She is a beat cop in a town of 55,000 where the crime rate is double the national average. "I know I could get shot at, but he's living it every day."
Marquette was scheduled to come home in early 2004. Catherine thought it would be for good, that he would pursue his plan to become a nurse. But without telling his mother, he signed up for an additional three-year Army stint. He has been promised a six-month break between tours of duty, but his mother is worried his luck will run out before he can get home. After U.S. troops arrested Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13, a bullet narrowly missed Marquette's head while he was on patrol in Baghdad. "He says it's worse now. They've gotten really wild," says Catherine.
Asked how she's holding up, Catherine picks up a prescription bottle of Zoloft from the coffee table and checks the date. September. That's when she found out that Marquette had re-upped and that the youngest of her three children, Shamario, 18, also a soldier, would be going to Iraq early in the new year. Then she saw a picture of Marquette in Baghdad that was posted on an online site for African Americans. The photo--of a thinner, older-looking Marquette--scared her. "I had to take a stress leave. He usually smiles all the time. He looked so sad." For two weeks she lay in bed, watching TV, unable to turn off coverage of the war.
She is angry now, angry that the war might claim two of her children. "I don't worry too much about Marquette because of how crazy he is. But my 18-year-old? He's not ready," she says. "Every time I see the President, I turn from him. There's nothing he can say unless he says he's bringing all the kids home."