MY WIFE and I took our four grandchildren to the Broad Street run on Sunday so they could watch their mothers cross the finish line. As we were walking back to our car with our family, I noticed my wife had her arm draped around one of my daughters, trying to keep her sweaty body warm from the crisp breeze.

"Essie," I asked my wife, "how old is she?"

I knew the answer, of course. She is 36. I was really saying, "How long are you going to baby her?"

My wife looked at me as if to say, "It doesn't matter how old she is, she's still my baby." Actually, I feel the same way. I worry about my children and grandchildren, too, though I just don't show it like my wife does.

I thought of this exchange because a few days earlier a former secretary of mine, Debbie, had dropped me an e-mail, telling me her son, Tony, was headed back to Iraq for his second tour of duty.

This time, it would be for 15 months.

How painful it must be for mothers and fathers of our American soldiers to worry about their sons and, yes, daughters as they are doing our bidding in this forsaken and endless war.

Tony, a Frankford High School graduate, is now 23 years old. I remember him when he was 14 years old and in the school's ROTC. He is now married and has a two-year-old daughter.

Debbie recalls that he always wanted to be a soldier. "Ever since he was in diapers he always seemed to be playing with soldiers and airplanes, having his own private wars," she said.

But then, they were imaginary. Now, it is real.

Debbie is opposed to our involvement in Iraq. "They've been at war for 1,000 years," she said, referring to the Sunnis and Shias. "We won't be able to change anything or bring democracy."

"It's not Vietnam but it sure feels like it," Debbie said.

Debbie talks without anger. I don't listen nearly as well. I feel my face flush as I think how badly we have bungled this misplaced, mistimed, poorly executed war. I think how our commander in chief hailed as a "great leader" his deposed secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who left our armed forces undermanned and under- equipped, and bestowed a Medal of Freedom to his former CIA chief George Tenet, who kept his mouth shut until after the president's re-election. Tenet is now hawking his tell-all book on national television.

But I keep my strong thoughts to myself as I talk with Debbie. There is no reason to agitate her. Besides, my concerns are intellectual; hers are a matter of life and death. And as she rightfully says, "Our young soldiers are going through experiences most of us could never really understand, and I think they are often forgotten in all of the finger pointing."

Tony signed up for four years after being in the reserves for two years. He is now in his third year, and Debbie thinks he might sign up again because he is concerned he might not be able to get a job when he is discharged. He needs health coverage because his daughter has a serious health condition known as Turner syndrome, which can affect a female's height. Imagine that - you fight for your country and then need to worry about obtaining health coverage for your child.

Tony served his first tour of duty in a communications unit. He was, for the most part, out of harm's way. But when he returns in July, it might be different. His unit is being divided into three groups: escorting convoys, performing patrols or handling communications. He doesn't know which group he will be in. Or, at least, he isn't saying.

Although Tony didn't see extensive combat on his first tour, he has told his parents he has seen things "I will never talk about."

"They have taken his heart and youth away," Debbie says.

When he was in Iraq, Debbie said she would dream about it. "It's always on your mind. It would make me sick to my stomach. I know how I feel as his mother now; I can't imagine how the mothers who have lost their sons feel."

Now that his July departure is approaching, Debbie says, "I can feel my chest tighten. He may be 23 years old, but he's still my baby."

On Mother's Day, my heart and prayers will be with Debbie and all the other moms whose "babies" are in harms way - or, worse yet, failed to return. *

Phil Goldsmith has served in senior positions in the private and public sectors, most recently as the city's managing director. You can read more about his article on his blog at