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Arms and the boy

The kid in the photo is 4 years old. He's dressed in a suit and tie, he's staring into the camera _ and his hair looks like it was the victim of an industrial accident.

The boy in the picture is my little brother. The rest of us are grouped around him in standard family portrait mode, but Matt's hair is clearly the star of this show. It's chopped off raggedly in front, as if some barber had come back from a five-beer lunch and run his clippers at random over the kid's head.

Matt, left alone with our dad for the afternoon, had inflicted the haircut on himself, shearing his bangs off even with his hairline. It's one of my favorite photos, guaranteed to make me laugh every time I see it.

Fast forward 13 or 14 years to another photo. In this one, Matt is dressed in Army fatigues, military-issued weapons in his hands.

Lately, I'm thinking a lot about those two images, but I'm having a harder time smiling at the second one.

Today, Matt is sitting in an Army camp somewhere on the border of Iraq, waiting for the order that could send him and others in his unit into battle, where the bullets and missiles are real and death might be waiting at the top of the next sand dune.

My little brother, a soldier?

A different drummer

Sitting across the dinner table from the boy, you'd never have guessed he'd grow up to be one.

Actually, you'd never have guessed he'd grow up to be employed.

He was a bright, witty kid, but he didn't have a lot of interest in academics. School was just something to fill the time between video games.

So when he told me wanted to join the Army, I admit I was a tad skeptical.

"The U.S. Army?" I remember asking him. "Um, you might not know this, but they're kind of big on discipline. And I suspect they'll want you to wake up before noon."

As the nine-years-older big brother, I often found him maddening. Growing up in Selma, Ala., in a family of University of Alabama alumni and supporters, Matt decided at an early age that he'd be a fan of our hated rival, Auburn University. If we decided to go to out as a family for pizza, you could just about count on Matt wanting hamburgers.

And yet I gained a grudging respect for the kid. He could be annoying, but he was always his own person.

I just didn't think that would make him a successful soldier. I thought my little brother wouldn't make it through boot camp.

And in a way he didn't. Because the young man who came back from six weeks of boot camp at Fort Knox, Ky., wasn't the boy who'd signed up.

The new Matt was organized, thoughtful, motivated. Mature, even.

Today he's a leader in his unit. When my parents visited him at Fort Hood, Texas, a few years ago, one of his commanding officers sought out my father.

"I just wanted to tell you what a fine soldier your son is," the officer told him.

The obnoxious kid had grown up.

Deployment

I talked to Matt the day before he was scheduled to leave for the Middle East. He told me he was going to Kuwait, to a camp near the Iraqi border. He said he couldn't tell me more than that. I didn't press him.

I wanted to use that conversation to tell him how proud I am of him and how much I admire and respect what he's doing. I wanted us both to say how we felt.

Instead, we did what we always do to show affection: We made jokes at each other's expense.

"You know that real men don't need to stay in the tent when a sandstorm kicks up, right?" I told him. "And they don't complain just because they have to squeeze their food out of a tube."

He laughed. "Clearly, I'm not a real man," he said.

Around the banter, we talked about the situation he was heading into, about the ramifications of another war with Iraq, about what it feels like to know you're heading into danger.

I asked if he was afraid.

"A little," he said. "But there's some excitement, too. This is what we're here for. This is what they train us to do."

I was quiet for a moment while I digested that.

"If I had a choice, I wouldn't want to have to fight," he said.

Then he paused, and when he spoke again, it was in a new voice. Very much a not-my-kid-brother voice.

"But if we have to fight," he said, "I know this: We're ready."

I don't remember much of what I said after that. I'm pretty sure I tried to remind him that we were behind him. And I did have barely enough sense to tell him that I loved him.

I told him that I knew everything would work out for the best.

And I told him that I'd see him soon.

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