By Daniel Silliman
Andrew Tucker took a shower when he got home from the war, and then he strapped on a little plastic guitar and challenged his mom to a game of "Guitar Hero."
"Oh, you're going down," she said.
Alicia Schneider and Tucker are playing a lot of video games this week, in their Ellenwood home. Tucker, a 21-year-old Army infantryman stationed in Sadr City, Iraq, is on a three-week leave.
Tucker's going back to his platoon on June 13, and he expects to be there, patrolling and fighting, until the spring of 2009. He was deployed on his mother's birthday, Nov. 28, when she turned 41.
"And the previous year, when I turned 40," Schneider said, "they got ambushed."
Tucker teases his mother: "I guess now I've learned your birthday is just bad luck," he said.
"Maybe for you," she said.
Mother and son laughed. Schneider has a service flag in the window, a yellow ribbon tied in the front yard, and a map of the Middle East on the wall. Pictures of Tucker and his platoon are prominently displayed on the walls. She laughed on Friday, and joked and teased her son easily, but that's because he's in the living room in Ellenwood. She's only cavalier because he's safe, he's here.
"He always tells me I worry too much," Schneider said. "But I have a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of bad feelings. He's had a couple of close calls, but that's not as bad as the stretches with no communications. When he came back, after my birthday, and told me they were attacked by the Taliban, I was like, 'Why are you telling me this? You're scaring me."
Tucker and his platoon, the 3rd Platoon of Delta Company, in the 2nd Battalion of the 30th Infantry, were stationed in Afghanistan, then. They "did a lot of driving around," according to Tucker, and "climbed a couple of mountains." That night, he said, the platoon was finishing a 10-hour drive, over a mountain, when they were attacked.
"It was pitch-black dark," he said. "I was driving -- in a Humvee that'd been up-armored -- and I saw muzzle flashes on my left and on my right ... They opened up fire with Rocket Propelled Grenades, two dozen of then coming over our heads and a couple of them bouncing around. It was about a 15-minute engagement. They shot my windshield. It's really thick, bullet-proof glass, so it bounced off, but that's when I got pissed. I took that kind of personal."
Schneider shook her head, listening to her son's story. She said the other platoon members, "a bunch of sweet, sweet guys," said that's the only time they ever saw Tucker get upset.
Tucker said that was the first combat he saw, but now in Iraq, in the area around Sadir City, he sees combat every time he ventures outside the American compound.
"I usually fall asleep to gunfire, and hear bombs go off at night," Tucker said. A gunner now, he proudly showed a picture of himself holding a .556-caliber machine gun, and tried to calculate the number of bullets he's fired, figuring it's probably around 2,000, in the three months he's been patrolling.
"When they had the cease fire," Schneider said, "things quieted down."
"'Cease fire,'" Tucker said, "just means they ran out of bullets."
Schneider kind of sighs. She said she doesn't watch TV anymore, but she closely follows the news from the Associated Press and calls the straightforward reports of battles "chilling."
"You kind of get used to it," Schneider said, "and you kind of, you know ..."
She trailed off, falling silent for a second. Her son, a ragged green baseball cap covering his Army-cut hair, watches his mom as she considers "worry," and tried to say how it was to read about a battle hours after it happened and wonder if that was her boy who was hurt.
"There are," she said, "waves of worry. I've had to accept the fact: Mama can't go over there. Mama can't spank their butts for trying to hurt her boy."
Tucker laughed, loving the image of his mom chasing Iraqi insurgents with a stick and loving, at least a little, the way she worried about him and the way she let him go do what he needed to do.
It's been like this since the beginning though -- this closeness. Tucker signed up with the Army when he was 17, when he graduated from Forest Park High School in 2004. When he told Schneider he wanted to join the Army, she didn't even question the decision, but just said, "Where do I sign?"
Together, this week and next, the mother and son laugh. He said he won an afternoon game of "Guitar Hero," because he hit every note correctly. But the video game awards the win to mom, perhaps recognizing some "rock star" quality.
Soon, though, Tucker will return to the "Ruff Ryders" in Iraq, snapping pictures of Iraqi children as they stare at American military patrols, and communicating with his mom through instant messenger.
Tucker said he had trouble, early in his first deployment, figuring out his place in the Army and in the war, his relationship to the people back home and to all the politics that seemed to surround everything.
Now, though, he thinks he's got it figured out:
"My weapons, my truck and my platoon, that's pretty much all I care about over there," he said. "And I think about how it will be good to be back home. I value my family, and it's always good to be back home."