How the Moultons Made Peace with the War
Seth Moulton’s G.I. Joe looks, Harvard degree, and courageous Marine service would make most parents proud. His own needed a little help coming to terms with the warrior they’ve raised.
Seth was one of three students chosen to speak at his class’s graduation. On June 7, 2001, from the south porch of the Memorial Church (which is dedicated to the memory of Harvard alumni who lost their lives in World War I), he looked out on an audience of 30,000 elated parents, friends, and fellow graduates, and decried the complacency and selfishness of his peers. “Many of our fathers and mothers stood steadfast in the midst of Vietnam, fighting their own battles of duty and protest. But what is the cause for our generation? Where is our fight?” he asked. “We live in a Western world dominated by contentment, and threatened by mediocrity. The great challenge for us now is to make lives that are good, lives that are great. We have the capacity, but do we have the will, and the ambition, to achieve greatness?”
Ten months later, in March 2002, Lynn and Tom attended another commencement, this one in Quantico, Virginia, for Seth’s graduation from Officer Candidate School, where he received his commission as a second lieutenant. “Tom and I had to be proud of him for successfully completing something that was so different from any challenge he had met before,” says Lynn. “On the other hand, these accomplishments were not achievements we had ever valued. I hated the haircut and the concept of walking in straight lines, changing direction when everyone else did.” During the ceremony, a guest speaker, a general, told the audience how proud he was of the “group of trained killers” before him. Hearing those words, Lynn recalls, “I actually felt the room spin.”
Tom and Lynn Moulton’s house is modest, especially by tony Marblehead’s standards. The two-story beige Colonial was built in the 1960s for Tom’s parents, and it feels warm and lived-in. Until he retired seven years ago, Tom spent 30 years commuting into Boston for his job as a real estate lawyer; today he works contentedly at the pro shop at the nearby Tedesco Country Club. For 13 years, Lynn has been a secretary in the endocrine department at Mass General. A petite woman, she favors clothing she has worn for years—clothes that, in some cases, she now has had trouble fitting into. “I look at chocolate, and think that I deserve to eat it. After all, my son is in Iraq,” she says. In addition to the extra pounds, she has also acquired new wrinkles and bags under her eyes, along with rheumatoid arthritis, the active symptoms of which were brought on, she’s convinced, by the strain of Seth’s service.
In April 2003, Seth’s unit—the 2nd Platoon of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines—rolled into Baghdad. When it did, his parents had to figure out how to process the near-constant coverage of the war, knowing their son was at the forefront of the fighting. Lynn could not consume enough news. “I don’t like the idea that anybody on earth should know more about my son than I do,” she says. And so she read and read and watched and watched, in case he or his platoon was pictured or mentioned. As the stream of news from Iraq abated, she established a routine: After waking up, she’d check the Internet, then read the Globe, then listen to NPR; over her lunch hour, she’d scan the websites of CNN and MSNBC. Tom, on the other hand, preferred to take in as little coverage as possible. When he read the paper in the morning, he turned the pages gingerly, hoping to avoid catching sight of any stories on the war, relying instead on Lynn to vet the news. “At the beginning,” he says, “I wouldn’t watch TV at all. But Lynn would watch TV and read e-mails, and say, ‘It’s okay. You can read this or watch this.'”
For Tom, who had always been a light sleeper, the nights grew long. He woke up frequently, and would have trouble drifting off again. Lynn, meanwhile, slept well, a luxury made possible with the aid of medication for her arthritis pain, as well as an increased dose of the prescription antidepressants she started taking when Seth went overseas.
In February 2006, at the end of his third tour, Seth officially came off active duty. He had been accepted to a joint graduate program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School for the fall of 2007, and the plan was that until then, he would move back in with his parents in Marblehead and work on a book while also doing consulting for the Marines in California. Lynn and Tom believed he was home for good. Then, in January 2007, Seth received an e-mail from General Petraeus, asking him to serve in the southern Iraqi town of Qadisiyah alongside two other Marines, Ann Gildroy and Alex Lemons, forging ties with Shi’ite tribal leaders. The assignment was scheduled to last through July 2008. To Seth it was too important an opportunity to pass up.
His decision meant the coping methods Lynn and Tom developed have had to be pressed back into service. For Lynn, that means talking with other people about her son as often as possible. For Tom, it means the opposite: He finds it difficult to discuss Seth’s situation, even with well-meaning acquaintances. This fall, when several members of the community learned about Seth’s service and asked Tom about it, the attention made him uncomfortable; he appreciates the concern but prefers to keep the matter private. As they did during Seth’s previous deployments, the couple also keeps an electric candle lighted in his bedroom. “If it ever goes out,” says Lynn, “I go nuts.” And once again she finds herself trying to stay home as much as possible on weekends, fearful she’ll miss one of Seth’s calls.
On the rare occasions when they do get to speak to their son, the Moultons are careful not to mention the extent of their worry. “I can’t let him know he’s causing us pain,” Lynn says. “My son had options other than the military. I feel there is more pain for those families who couldn’t offer those options.” Seth’s siblings, however, have not been so spared. “As soon as he told us he was going back, it was like a literal weight was put on my shoulders,” says his sister, Eliza, 24, a pretty, slender redhead who lives in Brookline and teaches history at Norwood High. “That weight will be there until he returns home.” Among the family, she is the most reluctant to criticize Seth or his choices. Last year she set up a website that updates friends and relatives on his whereabouts, and she also organizes shipments of care packages. She is acutely aware of her parents’ stress. “I remember when Seth was fighting in Najaf it was incredibly tense in my house,” she says. “Every time a dark-colored car drove by, we all kind of held our breath and prayed that it did not stop in front of our house.”