An Image of Hope, Half a World Away

An Image of Hope, Half a World Away

Photo of American soldier in Afghanistan lifts a father's heart

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Boston College Electrician John Robishaw first saw it on the magazine rack at Maddie's Market, across the street from the Chestnut Hill Campus.

Boston College Electrician John Robishaw has collected numerous articles and materials on the war in Afghanistan since his son, Erik, was sent there with the 101st Airborne Division. At left is the Time magazine cover which Robishaw believes is a photo of Erik. (Photo by Justin Knight)
There on the cover of Time magazine was a photo of a soldier in full combat gear, seated in front of a boulder and clutching his rifle. An olive drab scarf partially covered the soldier's face, revealing his eyes as they gazed skyward.

"As soon as I saw those eyes I knew it was my son," said Robishaw, whose wife had tipped him off about the magazine cover.

John Robishaw is certain the soldier shown on the March 18 edition of Time is his son, Erik, a specialist serving with the 1st battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.

The photo was taken in the Shah-e-kot Valley in Afghanistan where a week earlier US Army and Special Forces units had engaged in a fierce gun battle with al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. The action came during Operation Anaconda, one of the bloodiest chapters in the United States' war on terrorism.

"We knew through his letters that he was over there, but we never expected this," said Robishaw, who bought a stack of the magazines from Maddie's and other stores that afternoon.

Citing security concerns, officials from the Pentagon's press office and the 101st Airborne's public affairs department have been unable to confirm the identity of the soldier in the photo.

But don't tell that to John Robishaw, who has dedicated himself to following news of the war.

Three weeks ago, Robishaw said, his daughter called him at work, ecstatic because she thought Erik and another soldier were depicted in a wire service photo published in the March 8 issue of the Boston Herald.

While the caption did not identify the soldiers by name, it did note their unit: the 101st Airborne's 1st Battalion.

"As soon as I saw it I said to my wife, 'My God, he's in combat,'" recalled Robishaw.

That weekend Robishaw began to search through military World Wide Web sites for other photos and to learn more about the 101st Airborne's operations.

On the following Tuesday, Time published a larger, color version of the photo on its cover. The magazine cropped the image so as to offer an up-close look into the eyes of a soldier in combat - a soldier who may indeed be the son of John Robishaw.

"If he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after winning the Heisman Trophy, I would not be as proud of him as I am now," said Robishaw.

The Defense Department has termed Operation Anaconda a success. Eight Americans and an estimated 800 Taliban and al-Qaeda lost their lives in the battle, according to reports.

Robishaw said that after leaving with his unit for the region last fall, Erik had been calling home every two weeks via satellite phone. Since Operation Anaconda began, however, the Robishaw family has not heard from him.
"We know there was more fighting there recently, but all we can do is hope and pray for the best."

Robishaw, who works the 3:30-11 p.m. shift in the Boston College Electrical Shop, maintains a nightly ritual of watching the cable news channels for reports from the front lines and scours the newspapers for all the information he can find on the war.

The best reporting he's heard so far has come from his own son's pen, however.

"He wrote that he was getting bored over there filling sand bags and pulling guard duty," said Robishaw. "I wrote back and told him to be careful what he wishes for - and look what happened."

Robishaw has also exchanged correspondence with the family of another soldier who was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in October.

"It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," said Robishaw. "I kept imagining that it was Erik and I was overcome with emotion."

Robishaw said his son's interest in enlisting in the Army came after seeing the film "Saving Private Ryan" three years ago.

"After that experience he told me he wanted to enlist," said Robishaw, laughing at the memory. "Here I had shelled out the money for him to take an SAT-prep course and he tells me he wants to join the army.

"At 5-foot-6 and about 150 pounds he was always the smallest kid, but probably the toughest kid on his football and rugby teams," said Robishaw. "When he was a kid we had to pull him off telephone poles. He has no fear."

Robishaw, a Dorchester native and 1959 graduate of Boston's Cathedral High School, said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and his son's role in the American response have sparked a flame in him he hasn't felt for some years.

"I felt this way in the late 1960's and early 70's when I saw all the things this country was going through," said Robishaw, who dealt with his emotions then by writing poetry. "It was a healthy way of getting it all out," said Robishaw.

In recent months, the electrician-poet has returned to writing, having penned a piece about his son called "Where Eagles Dare" that he dedicates to the soldiers of the 101st Airborne.

Poetry may be a source of comfort, but only one thing would make Robishaw's mind rest easy: "I'm just praying for his phone call now."  

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