Change is in the Air

We have spent the last couple of months on a farewell tour of the grand republic of Texas.  With the kids out of school and the husband on terminal leave, I have had no quiet time to share our story here.  Here’s hoping that retirement, a cross-country move and a much larger home will allow for suitable writing conditions.

Eliesha and her family have moved to a facility where her husband is getting the treatment he needs.  They are doing well and are appreciative for all the support.

If you are visiting my blog for the first time:

Thank you for stopping by.  The blog is very raw and uses a lot of swear words.  It will break your heart a few times over.  I really don’t recommend reading it.  But if you decide to stick around anyway, start with the early entries.  I’m telling the story in (almost) chronological order, and it will make more sense if you start at the beginning.  Over on the right sidebar you can navigate the posts, subscribe to new posts and “like” the page on Facebook if you’re so inclined.

Wish me luck as we tread a totally new path!  Big, wonderful, fantastic things are happening for us.  And they are completely terrifying.

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We Interrupt this Blog

A big reason I am sharing our story is to educate the public about the struggles of combat families during wartime.  As the wars draw down and our veterans are returning home, we are still going to need decades of care to heal from these experiences.  My family  is well cared for because Ollie’s injuries are visible.  His rehab photos are inspiring and people can feel good about themselves for helping him.  There scores of returning combat veterans who are injured, but their injuries are invisible.  The lucky ones have family members who fight to get them the care they need.

The following letter is posted with permission from its author, Eliesha DelMastro.  Our families were part of the same unit when it deployed in 2011.  She wants you to know that her story is not unique.  There are thousands more veterans who are struggling to get basic care for their war injuries.  She wants other spouses to know that they are not alone, to keep up the good fight.  Here is her story, in the form of a letter sent to as many authorities within the Army as she can find:

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Eliesha DelMastro and I am writing in reference to my husband, SSG Travis DelMastro. We are currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan. My husband is in the process to being transferred to a Warriors In Transition Unit. We requested Fort Benning for a number of reasons, of which I will go into detail later in this letter. We were initially told it was approved, and were given a report date less than two months from now. Several days later, we were notified that his approval into the Fort Benning WTU was prematurely given and it was now denied and sent to Fort Gordon for approval.

My husband has deployed five times overseas. Each time he returns, his mental health/ PTSD gets worse and worse. Throughout his career, at various duty stations, he has been put through the ringer trying to get help. So many soldiers choose to avoid their issues and bury them away. It took my husband a lot to finally admit he had problems and to seek help. While stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, he sought out mental health treatment for PTSD upon returning from his fifth deployment in Afghanistan. This deployment for him was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” He lost two very good friends and missed the pregnancy and birth of his third child. The year prior to his deployment we lost our son, Lucas due to Trisomy 18. Needless to say, he was on edge throughout the deployment and felt helpless and guilty for not being home to support his family. My husband has always put the Army first. He has never hesitated to give the Army 100%, even if it means putting his family second. My husband made several attempts to get proper therapy at Fort Knox. Resources for him there were minimal to none. For a long time, all they offered him was treatment in the form of pills. When he was finally able to see an actual therapist, the appointments were constantly cancelled or rescheduled months out because of no availability. So many phone calls he would make to his therapist went unanswered and he was constantly being pushed to a back burner.

The time came to for us to start looking at PCS options. We made several requests, one of which was Fort Benning, Georgia. I was in the middle of nursing school, so we were looking for somewhere that I could finish school as well as get proper support from family and friends for both my husband and myself. After fighting with branch for several months trying to lock down our next duty station, we were blind-sided when we got orders to Okinawa, Japan. It was the complete opposite of everything we had requested. We had to quickly pack up our lives, with three kids in tow, and move across the world. I left behind nursing school and we left behind my husband’s entire support network. The moment we arrived to Okinawa, my husband immediately sought out mental health treatment. His PTSD symptoms were at an all time high. He never slept because of nightmares, he suffered from flashbacks and triggers at work constantly, and the crowded island of Okinawa made it to where he couldn’t even drive or leave the military base. He was finally seen by a mental health professional here who basically said we never should have been sent here in the condition that he was in. They by no means had the resources to care for him here. The only type of therapy they could offer him here was through VTC with a therapist in Hawaii. His therapist immediately recognized that his mental health needs far surpassed what she could offer him once every two weeks through a computer. In January, my husband was sent back to the states to a mental health rehab center in Texas to undergo intensive treatment for his PTSD. While the therapy was effective and useful, spending even MORE time away from his family often got in the way of his treatment. He was constantly distracted and worried because we were alone in Japan. When he got ready to return to Japan after his treatment, his doctors at the rehab center said that without proper follow up care, that the last 45 days were essentially a waste of time. When he returned to Japan, obviously they were still unable to cater to my husband’s mental health needs. The process of sending him to a WTU began and once again, I watched my husband’s mental health get worse and worse.

Both of my husband’s therapists have recommended long-term treatment care in a WTU. He requested Fort Benning, Georgia for multiple reasons. Number one: we did our research and the Fort Benning WTU is one of the best facilities there is. We also have a ton of family and friends in the area that would be there to offer their immediate support for both my husband and myself and kids. It’s not just mental health treatment that my husband needs; it’s being surrounded by fellow soldiers that he has deployed with in the past. They know him, they know his triggers, and he can open up and vent to them more than he can with just a therapist. Family means the world to the both of us and being near family also helps my husband tremendously.

In the 10 years that my husband and I have been together, I have never stopped worrying about him. That’s what a military spouse does. Every deployment, my husband comes home with a piece missing. I’ve watched my husband fade further and further into the dark because of his PTSD. He feels guilty about never being around for our kids and myself. When he is around, he isn’t himself. We don’t go to festivals or amusement parks. We don’t attend Fourth of July celebrations, or go to shopping malls. It’s a struggle even for my husband to go to my daughter’s dance recital. My husband took the first step in trying to get better, yet the Army keeps failing him. When we got the phone call that the Fort Benning WTU accepted us and we were finally going home in June I saw a side of my husband I hadn’t seen in years. He was happy. He was relieved. He was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief that he was going to get the treatment he needed and he would finally have an awesome support network. A few days later when we received word that it in fact wasn’t the case he was devastated. He’s gone back into his dark place and is giving up hope once again and as his wife, I don’t know what to say to him to make it better. There is nothing I can say at this point. He’s blaming himself. He feels he’s somehow failed his family and that it’s his fault we are not being sent to Fort Benning.

I would just like answers. All we have been told is that Fort Benning doesn’t have the resources to help him. This doesn’t make sense to us one single bit. It makes me wonder if my husband was really even looked at. Was he really even considered? Is my husband being looked at as a stack of paperwork or as a REAL person, with REAL problems? I feel like if he was looked at as an actual human being, then it would be seen that Fort Benning is the absolute BEST choice for my husband. I pray that whoever reads this please look at my husband’s file again. Forward this to whomever can help. Please reconsider and give my husband a chance. He deserves that. He is the best husband, father, and soldier I know, and all he wants is to get better. Be a better soldier. Be a better husband. Please.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I hope and pray it gets into the right hands and we can find some sort of resolution quickly.

v/r,

Eliesha DelMastro

Eliesha and Travis, thank you for sharing your struggles.  Thank you for having the courage to speak publicly about this–you will inspire others to be honest about their own experiences.  Keep up the good work.  You are not in this alone.

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The Next Day

The water streamed down my face, so hot it almost (but not quite) hurt.  I came out for air like a swimmer, then ducked back under the shower.  It was the morning after the notification.  I woke up early to call the casualty line, but they had no further information for me.  The kids were still in bed.  My friends hadn’t arrived yet.  For the last time in the foreseeable future, I was alone.

My meditation was interrupted when my eyes flickered open as I stepped out for air.  I saw my toes–my feet–brazenly (unabashedly even!) there in the tub, holding me up!  Well, they did until my knees faltered and I lay on the shower floor in a ball, my face on the place where his feet used to stand.

There on the floor of the shower I started to realize that he wouldn’t be coming to this home again.  We wouldn’t be living here all together as a family ever again.  Logistical questions popped up one after another.  Where will we live?  Where will the kids go to school?  Do we have any coffee?  Should I paint my toenails?  Does my husband know he is short a foot?  What should I wear today?  When I found myself list making as I stared up at the shower head, I decided it was time to get out and start the day.

“You can fall apart in the shower, that’s it.  Nowhere else.” I told my reflection.

“You’re talking to yourself,” she smirked at me.

“No, you’re talking to yourself,” I snapped back.

Amused with myself (ourselves?), I pulled my shit together. “Let’s do this,”  I said as I walked out to meet my new reality.

My memories for the rest of the day are foggy at best.  Diane, JoAnne, Ayse, Nicolle, Andrea, Tracy, and others came to the house. Some of them were there when I talked with the kids.  I think they all enjoyed the excitement of people in the house.  Plus, everyone was being extra nice.  This was better than late night ice cream.

Birch took the news well.  I told the kids that his legs were hurt, but waited to tell them about the amputation until he could talk to them.  They needed to hear his voice before they heard the scariest parts of it.  The little two were unfazed by Daddy’s “big ouchies” but were very excited to get to spend the day at Alana’s.  Someone drove them there.  I don’t think it was me.

JoAnne took me to the pharmacy and the commissary.  They were only a mile away, but I was kind of afraid we were going to die on the way.  I had forgotten that riding with her was a scary endeavor.  She was always the best at advocating in medical situations, though.  When I stared uncomprehendingly at the form I had to fill out to get my script, she filled it out for me.  She made light conversation and communicated with the pharmacists.  They let her come back to pick it up later when I no longer wanted to be in public.

I was unprepared for how the commissary would affect me.  Of all ridiculous places to start falling apart, why did the bulk aisle in the warehouse get to me?  Staring at a wall of family sized sugary cereals,  I was suddenly lost.  I had no idea what I was supposed to buy.  Why the fuck do all these people have two feet?  Fucking arrogant bipeds. 

I searched the aisles for anything that resembled things that my family eats, to no avail.  Just look at all those ketchups.  The condiments swam dangerously before my eyes.  I leaned on the cart to steady myself beside the vats of mayo.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing,” I looked at her blankly.  She guided me through the store.  I couldn’t stand any longer when we got to the check-out, so I handed her my card and waited for her on the baggers’ bench.  How can the commissary be so normal?  These people are all talking and shopping and scanning and bagging.  And fucking walking.  I hated them all that day.

My mouth tasted like metal, I was hot and the electric current was back in my veins.  I wondered if maybe there was a bag of frozen corn in one of our bags. She put me in the car, gave me a cold water bottle and headed back to the pharmacy.

“You should probably take one of these now,” she said.  She was probably right, so I did.  It made the harrowing drive back home much easier, if nothing else.

A Facebook message was waiting for me when I got back home.  It was from Randy, Ollie’s platoon sergeant.  He wrote in reply to a message I sent him in the middle of the night.  I knew they would be upset and I wanted him to know we were okay, to tell the platoon we would be fine.  “Don’t worry about us.”  His reply said that he was there when Ollie got hurt.  “Hughes was Hughes all the way up to us putting him on the bird.”  It was the first real information I had from someone who knew.  “He told me to hurry with the bird.  You know him.”  It made me smile to know he was bitching at them the whole time.  I learned that Mike and Jesse were there.  They had to pry him out of the truck.  Ollie was awake the whole time.  He told me that Kevin was Med-Evaced, too.  Ollie’s driver.  I often talk to his mother.  Randy and I chatted for a few minutes.  I told him to take care of the platoon.  I was very worried about our guys.

The to-do lists I made the night before came in handy.  “I can no longer think,” I told them.  I gave them my phone and my lists.  JoAnne took me to housing.  Diane took me to JAG and the Red Cross.  They took notes, asked pertinent questions, served as buffers for the nonstop phone calls and kept my binder together.  Diane printed out hundreds of pages of information from both Walter Reed and BAMC.

Skype pinged mid-afternoon.  It was Faith.  I apologized for not telling her the news the night before.  She dismissed my “sorry’s” and gave me a message from Mike.  “Mike wanted you to know that he was with Ollie from the time everything happened until he got on the bird.  And that he gave Mike a kiss and told him he loved him.”  My heart fell out.  Ollie was scared.  Faith said that she would arrive the next day to help out and was looking for hotel rooms.  I told her to stay with me.

My friends led me through more tasks, but I remember none of it.

My friend Amy, a former neighbor, was in town for a day.  We were supposed to make strawberry mojitos like we used to do and sit on the front porch for an exquisite belated birthday indulgence.  When she stopped by the house that evening, I was sitting in the floor of the kitchen, a little manic.  It seemed like the right place to be at the time.  I am being soooo normal! I handle stress AWEsome!  People around me were cooking and chatting.  The kids were home and I’d issued a moratorium on any scary talk.  Amy looked at me with a little fear in her eyes and exchanged looks with whoever owned the pair of legs standing next to me.

Maybe sitting on the couch is more normal.  I non-chalantly pulled myself up off the floor and moseyed to the living room. 

“Has she eaten anything?” I heard a whisper behind me.  It might have been Marlena, who arrived sometime during the day.

“Not that I know of…”

Eating.  That’s novel.  I fell asleep.  Different people were there when I woke up.

“I put snacks out on the counter.  Maybe she’ll eat,” I heard them talking in the kitchen.

Uh-oh.  They’re talking in hushed tones about me.  That can’t be good.  I ate a few bites of something to prove just how a-okay I was.

They divvied up the remaining items on my list and assigned duties for the next day.  I was grateful for this amazing group of strong, capable, compassionate women who could run my life while I checked out for a bit.

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Gone.

My memories after the notification phone call are like a strobe light.  Single moments standing still, broken up by dark gaps in between.  This is sort of what that looks like.

am on the phone with the people at the 800 number.  They are rude, indifferent, and have no information.  “Try again at shift change,” they are saying, like I interrupted their snack time. Fuck you, too, then.

Ayse is sitting at the table.   She is watching me pull a three ring binder off the desk, strip its contents, and insert dividers, business card holders.  I am grabbing the hole punch to put some blank paper into the binder.  It only punches two holes.  What the hell?  Two holes?  Who the fuck only wants two holes?  Oh, I grabbed it from his desk.  Where’s mine?  It’s on my desk.  Three holes.  Good.  We have ‘his’ and ‘hers’ hole punchers?  God, we’re nerds.

I am calling Heather.  She knows something is wrong before I speak.  I never call this late.  “I have no more information than what I’m about to tell you.  I’m not able to talk afterward.  Do not react.  I have work to do.”  She knows me, she knows my heart, she knows before I say anything what has happened.  “Ollie’s vehicle was hit by an IED.  They’ve applied tourniquets to his lower extremities.  I think he’s probably unconscious still.  That’s all I know.”  We let it hang in the air for a moment.  “I’m going to need you,” I say the same way I would say, “I need you to pick up some milk.”  “Okay,” she says.  “Okay,” I say.  We hang up.

I’m pacing the back patio.  It’s a little chilly.  The fresh air delightfully burns my lungs.  I call my brother.  “Ollie was hurt.  I don’t know any details.  I’m just letting you know because I might need you.”  He asks if I am going to call mom and dad.  I can’t.  I don’t want to hear their fear, their grief.  “Will you do it for me?” I ask.

Page protectorsHow could I forget page protectors?  Ayse’s still at the table watching.  I am so glad she is here.  She texts Brian sometimes to let him know how I’m doing.  I don’t really know how I’m doing.

I am talking to Aunt Marlena.   I am on the patio again, pacing so that the ball of my foot falls on each line of the concrete.  I make patterns with my feet as I call.   Right foot on the lines, left foot in between.  Two steps in between.  No steps in between.  I weave between furniture and the grill and toys, make a game of it.  “Um, Marlena?  Remember our conversation two weeks ago when I asked if you could come be with the children if something happens to Ollie?  I’m going to need you….”  She can come now.  I tell her to wait for more information.  She will get ready.

Skype pings.  It’s Faith.  Ayse looks concerned.  “I’m not telling her tonight,” I say.  I have carefully avoided calling any of the other wives.  They need to hear from their husbands before they hear from me.  I am guessing the black out will be lifted in the morning.  Unless there’s another incident.  I ignore Faith for now.  My heart breaks just thinking about saying a single word to her.

I call the 800 number again.  I’m going to keep calling until they get some information.  They still know nothing until shift change.  “We only check their condition once every six hours,” she says like I’m stupid.  He might be dead in 6 hours, asshole.

I am making lists.  People to call, things to do.  My friends will arrive tomorrow.  The adrenaline won’t last that long.  They will need instructions.  I write them out now.

Thursday, 14 April.  Children to Alana.  Include address and phone number.  I might not know my name tomorrow.  Call Marlena with update.  Go to the pharmacy and fill the godforsaken prescription.  JAG–find healthcare power of attorney, and Ollie’s Living Will.  I have the Last Will and Testament along with the other powers of attorney in my binder of important documents.  I check through it for birth certificates, marriage certificate, social security cards and other necessary paperwork.  Pack bags for me and for Ollie.  Commissary to stock up for Marlena.  Call the MFLC, call the therapist.  Pay all bills and set them to auto-pay.  Catch up all the laundry. 

I am talking to my son’s father while I play my patio pacing game.  His voice, usually hard and a little cruel, is soft.  “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” he says.  “Keep me informed.”  I ask him to let me tell my son tomorrow, but I wanted him to be aware first.  He agrees.  I’m shaking when I hang up the phone.

Faith is trying to initiate a Skype video call.  I deny the call but can’t ignore her any longer.  I send her a few chats, asking about her day, making lame jokes.  She can’t know anything is wrong.  Not tonight.  Not until she hears from Mike.

I am talking to my mother-in-law.  Her voice is strained.  We are being strong for each other.  I tell her I will call when I have more information.  Brian called her after he called me earlier.  We have nothing to say.

On the patio, I keep catching his kayak in my peripheral vision.  It’s laying there upside down on saw horses next to the shed.  Just enough light from my bedroom window makes it visible.  It punches me in the gut every time I see it.  Will he ever use it again?  It’s his lifeline.  Two steps per square.  Ball of right foot on the line.  Turn the corner. 

I’m talking with Shane, the rear detachment commander from the previous deployment.  He has good information and a calming voice.  He promises to make phone calls to find out as much as he can.  Tracy’s husband is downrange and he can look in on Ollie.  She calls a few minutes later, crying.  She was my beloved FRG Advisor from the first deployment. We’ve gone through so much together already.  She will tell her husband as soon as he is in touch with her.

The notebook is made.  The phone calls are done.  Ayse is still at my table.  We’re making small talk.  She made some of my lists for me.  It is long after midnight.

The phone rings.

For some reason I’m sitting in the floor in the tiny space between the table and his desk.

I answer the phone.  My face is hot.

“Uh…..Mrs. Hughes?  I am from the….uh….. casualty assistance line?  I am…. uh….calling to inform you about…. SSG Hughes’s injuries?”

My heart is racing, I am shaking, I can barely speak.  This man on the phone is the slowest talker I’ve ever heard.  He doesn’t enunciate.  I want to throttle him.

“I’m…uh….going to….uh…read you the medical….uh…..report?”  he says everything like a question.

“Yes, please,” I whisper.  Ayse is sitting beside me on the floor.  I have a pen and paper ready.

“Your husband has…..a…..laceration?  On his chin?  And…uh…it has been sutured.”

He pauses.

“His…uh…neck is…uh…stabilized…. and he is sedated….and intub…intubated.”

Another excruciating pause.

“And….uh….he has a…. ing….inguin….I think it is inguinal hemia?”

“Can you spell that please?”

“Uh….H…E…M….I….A…?”

It doesn’t look right as I write it on the paper.

“His left leg is traumatically amputated below the knee,” he speeds through that part.  “And his right leg…..is….uh…. well….I don’t really….I’m not sure what….I don’t know what this word is…it says…uh…ex….  ex….fix….  I can’t really….uh….read this?  It says…. uh….”

After minutes of listening to him stumble over this report, I finally spit out, “Does he have a right leg or not?”  

Suddenly I am floating above us, watching as Ayse tries to control her reaction to what I’ve written on the page, watching as the person who looks like me just uttered a phrase that was kind of hilarious but kind of just broke my brain in half.  Is this really my life?

“Yes, yes, ma’am, he still has a right leg,” the asshole on the phone says triumphantly.

I am back to myself, my words are sharp now.  “Is that the end of the medical report?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says.  “I will call your husband’s mother now.”

“You will do no such thing.”  She will not have to listen to this moron give her this information.  We hang up.  I don’t look at Ayse.

I have one task left.

“Hi.  I just got the medical report.  I’m going to read it to you and then I’m going to hang up, okay?  We will talk tomorrow.”  Neither of us wants to feel the impact of this on the phone.  She agrees.

I’m back up above myself as I read words that sound like someone else’s story.  “Ollie is sedated and intubated.  He has some sort of neck stabilizer on.  His left leg is amputated below the knee.  His right leg is very injured but he still has it.   He has a few other minor injuries. I’m going to go now.”

“Thank you,” she says.

I hang up the phone.

I am crashing, crashing back down into my body. Feeling has returned.  I am sobbing, curled into a ball on the floor, Ayse is stroking my hair, rubbing my back.  My world, my entire world has turned inside out and upside down.  It is swaying, coming in and out of focus.  She anchors me to the floor as she bears witness to my grief.  Without her I might float away into the abyss.

His leg is gone.  Gone, gone, gone.  Gone.  Does he know?  Will he learn about it when he wakes up?  Will he wake up?  His leg is gone.

I lay quietly with Ayse sitting at my head.  I have spent every tear, every emotion.  My body is limp.  The tile feels good on my face, but it is not enough.  “I need something cold,” I whisper, as the room starts to spin and go black.  She comes back with frozen corn.

This is the beginning of a new life and here I am laying in the floor with a bag of frozen corn on my face.

We’re not off to a great start.

The absurdity catapults my emotions in the opposite direction.  I laugh maniacally as I mop the snot and tears off my face.

I am okay now.  I send Ayse home to rest.  She will be back in the morning.  I research “inguinal hemia” and decide the term is “inguinal hernia.”  I try to figure out what “ex…fix…” means but come up dry.

I am tired.  I fall asleep thinking about the last time we were in this bed together.  The last time our legs were tangled up, our feet touching under the sheets.

I sleep soundly for the first time in months.  There is not much left to fear.

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Eternal Moments

There are moments in my life that I refer to as “eternal.”  Some of them are trivial, like brushing my teeth.  Every time I stand there staring in the mirror with a soapy stick in my mouth, I feel like I have been there, doing that, for every moment of my entire life.  Some of them are significant, like the moment between when Brian asked, “When is the last time you heard from your husband?” and when he spoke again.

That moment, sitting on the side of the bed, staring at the dog crate in the corner with my toes clinging to the bed frame for dear life–that moment  is eternal.  For me, it was the bridge between the old life and this new one.  I probably answered him quickly–“I talked with him about 48 hours ago”–but that fraction of a second is eternal.  If I close my eyes, I am there in the dim lamplight, my ears roaring from the blood racing through my veins, my breath threatening never to return, willing him not to utter another single word.

“Megan, I have to read you a statement now,” he said in a dreadful monotone.

“Ok, go ahead,” I tried to encourage him.  I knew this was horrific for him and I refused to make it worse by allowing my voice to crack.

“This evening, while on mounted patrol, your husband’s vehicle was struck by an IED.  He was seriously injured.  Tourniquets have been applied to his lower extremities.”

“Okay,” I managed to say in a voice that didn’t sound like my own.

“Now I need you to get a pen and paper,” he calmly instructed.

My pen was already poised over the paper I brought with me to the bedroom.  “Got it,” I replied.

He gave me a casualty assistance number where I could get more information about Ollie’s medical condition.  Brian couldn’t tell me much more than his official notification, but there were many things I could infer.  I knew that if Ollie had been conscious, he would have been allowed to call me to let me know.  If his injuries were life threatening enough, the commander would have been on my doorstep.  So he wasn’t conscious, but he wasn’t so horribly injured that I got a knock on the door.  That was good, right?

Suddenly I realized that there were other men in the truck with Ollie when it was hit.  My heart froze.  “Brian?  I know you might not be able to tell me, but how many other notifications had to be made about this incident?”  My thoughts raced through images of Kevin, Mike, Jesse, Chad, Travis, Randy and the others.

“Just one.  Just one other one and it was a phone call, too,” he answered.  I let that sink in for a moment–no one was dead.  They were hurt, and there were tourniquets, but no one was dead.  Not this time.  I shut out the words, “Not yet.”

I needed Ayse.  “Is your wife available?  I could use her company,” it was getting harder to speak.

“She’s already on your front porch,” he answered.

My eyes stung.  “Please send her in,” I asked.

“Let me know if there’s anything else I can do,” he said softly.

I thanked him and said goodbye.  Neither of us could stand much more of that conversation.

Ayse’s beautiful voice rang out from the kitchen. The children were ecstatic to see her as always, and Rosie barked for attention.  I took a couple of minutes to gather myself.  My legs were weak at first, but eventually held me as I stood by the door with a hand on the dresser for balance.  I took several deep breaths, forced myself to smile, squared my shoulders and finally popped open the bedroom door.

“Who wants ice cream?” I trilled as I walked (or oozed or floated or marched) back toward the children.  It was imperative that I appeared strong, normal, and in control.  I wouldn’t tell them anything about Ollie until I had more information.  I had no answers to the questions they would ask.  There was no need for them to worry all night when we didn’t even know what Dad’s injuries were.  When we don’t know if he will live, I tried not to think.  I needed them in bed, quiet, asleep, so I could get everything organized.  Too much work was to be done.

“Ooh, ice cream!” Ayse exclaimed.  We avoided eye contact with one another as we focused on the bright faces of the most beautiful children in the world.

Before we could even get the container from the freezer, Birch demanded to know, “What’s wrong?”  Apparently offering ice cream when it’s time for bed was a big tip off that something was amiss.  Oops.

I looked at her huge, trusting eyes and saw a hint of fear.  I considered telling her what little I knew, but that would only cause more stress.  Looking at her worried, inquisitive face, trying to figure out the “right” answer, is another of those eternal moments.

“Well…there’s been another incident,” I said, hoping not to give away more than I already had.

“It’s close to Daddy, isn’t it?” my little empath asked knowingly.

I paused again, weighing our options.  “Yes,” I answered.

“It’s someone we know?  Did they die?  Is it Mr. Mike?”

I took a deep breath.  “Yes, someone we know is injured.  It is not Mr. Mike.  No one is dead.  We really don’t have much information right now but I promise I will tell you what I am able to find out tonight when you get up in the morning.  Is that okay?”

She reached for her ice cream.  “Alright,” she shrugged.

“Hey, I’ve told you this before, but I don’t want you to worry until I tell you we have something to worry about.  For tonight, I just need you guys to go to bed because I have a lot of phone calls to make like I usually do when we have an incident.  Can you help me get the little kids in bed?  Can we do this?”  I hoped my desperation wasn’t shining through every word.

She nodded with more understanding than any ten year old should ever have.  Ayse helped with the ice cream dishes and we got everyone tucked in to bed.  I thought maybe Birch was more worried than she let on, but she was mostly asleep when I visited her room.  She trusted me.

I hoped she would still trust me in the morning.

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Unexpected Calm and The Phone Call

The anxiety felt like an unrelenting electric current coursing through the air, through my lungs, all the way into my fingertips.  My mouth tasted like metal; sometimes I spat to try to get rid of it.  My lips were numb most of the time and there was no sleep.  Ollie looked more and more manic every time I saw him on Skype, bobbing back and forth, looking over his shoulder, with a wild look in his eyes.  He couldn’t tell me much, but he didn’t have to.  I could see it.  I could feel it.

The kids and I took a week long road trip over Spring Break to see their grandparents, friends and other family members.  We had a lovely time in the Blue Ridge mountains: hiking, horse back riding, picking flowers.  My brother stayed with us in a cabin on a small lake.  I spent a lot of time on the porch, watching the road for official cars.  Every time an unexpected visitor stopped by, my heart dropped to the floor.

I received two phone calls from Rear D while we were there.  One of them was about an incident when LT Robert Welch was killed.  Another was about more injuries within the company.  Andrea handled the calldowns while I was on vacation.

I paced the porch and watched water pour over the dam.

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A hike cleared the air for a little while.

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Yoga on Big Glassy

I felt a bit better.

Then Clown happened while we were at lunch.

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The little kids liked the balloons.

Aside from my personal anxiety hell, we had a great time with friends and family.

My friend Jamie, a former Army wife and FRG leader, stayed at our house while we were gone.  It was great to come home to a lively household with her daughters running around.  We spent the rest of Spring Break taking the kids to waterfalls and the zoo.

I was convinced that I was managing things pretty well.  Ollie would be home in three weeks.  The deployment was almost over.  No more infantry deployments, no more worrying about him, no more of this crazy-making.  Three weeks?  No problem.

Jamie’s ex-husband was part of the rear detachment.  One day he texted her to find out where she was so that he could pick up their daughters.  It was completely innocuous and had nothing to do with me.

I shattered.

I sat on the front porch waiting for the official car in tears.  I knew, I just knew, that this was it.  He wasn’t texting about the girls, he was texting to make sure I was home so they could find me.  Jamie eventually figured out what was happening.

“Megan?” she said, gently.  “I think you need to get some help.  You should probably go to the doctor and get some Xanax or something.”

For years I successfully avoided anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds.  Through therapy, yoga, self-care, meditation–I managed.  I was three weeks from being scott free.  I didn’t want to do it, but I could see the concern all over her face.  She would be leaving the next day and didn’t want to leave me like this.  I reluctantly made two appointments.  I would meet with my doctor on my birthday and my therapist the day after.

At my doctor’s office, my carefully constructed emotional barrier evaporated. Through tears, I explained that I just needed help for two and a half weeks.  “As soon as his boots leave the ground in Afghanistan, I will be okay.”  I explained about all the casualties and the change I could see in his face–he was scared.  She made sure I was seeing a mental health person and wrote the script.

Just holding the written prescription made me feel better.  I got mad for a little bit and decided that I didn’t need to fill it.  It was two and a half weeks–two weeks if you squinted and did some funny math–and I wasn’t going to go down like this.  I was stronger than this.  I don’t cry in front of people.  What the hell?

I called Heather and told her about the prescription.  She cackled as she said, “You gave yourself Xanax for your 32nd birthday!”  We laughed and laughed.  Feeling better, I took myself clothes shopping.  I got some smokin’ hot heels and a few new outfits.  Wearing my power shoes out of the store, I defiantly told my anxiety to go fuck itself.  “I have no time for you,” I told it.

Ollie didn’t call that day.  Or that evening.  Or even late that night.

Although I knew this meant he was out on a mission, I held the anxiety at bay.  At this point, I told myself, it would be a day by day wrestling match with worry.  My energy felt renewed for this battle.  I could complete this marathon without the meds and without being a nervous wreck.

I fell asleep, as always, with my phone in my hand.

On the morning of April 13, 2011, I woke up with an unusual sense of calm.  There was no word from Ollie.  I mowed the lawn the way he liked it–at a diagonal 90 degrees from the last time I mowed it (“The yard looks bigger if you do diagonals instead of horizontals!”).  Afterwards, I dressed in my new sexy clothes and power shoes.

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This was supposed to be a photo to show him my new birthday clothes, but you can see the worried acceptance etched all over my face. I found out later that I was taking this picture at around the same time he was getting hurt.

I sat across from Sarah, my therapist, and told her about the prescription and how I hadn’t filled it yet.  “I don’t think I need it now,” I said.  “The air has shifted.  I have a very deep sense of peace about whatever has happened.”

“You think something has happened to him?” she asked.

“Yeah, I really do.  And it’s not like the other times when I was terrified and anxious.  This time I feel like I can handle it.  Whatever it is.”

We talked for a while and she encouraged me to fill the prescription in case I had another anxiety attack.  “It won’t hurt to have it on hand,” she said.  “You don’t have to take it if you don’t need it.”

I agreed, but decided to put it off for the next day.  I went home and did laundry, cleaned my desk, and got my affairs in order.  There was no more pacing, no more electric current, no more waiting at the front door.  The kids were just finishing dinner when my phone rang.  I could see it was the Rear D commander.

“Birch, I’m going to take this call in my bedroom,” I told her as I left the room.  “You guys can watch a little TV.”

I answered the phone as I walked back the hallway, “Brian!  It’s never good to hear from you at this time of night!”  I spoke lightly, knowing full well that I would hate anything that came out of his mouth next.  This time he didn’t give me an obligatory chuckle or make small talk.

“Megan,” he said in the most controlled voice I’ve ever heard.  “When is the last time you heard from your husband?”

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Closer to Home

Here we go again.

JoAnne and Kellie aren’t available to watch the kids until later.  Andrea, my FRG co-leader, says she can go to the brief and will bring the information back to me.  Hopefully someone can help if we have to do another calldown.

I text Andrea way more than I should when she’s sitting in a casualty brief but I want to know.  I need to know.  Was it Delta Company?  Which platoon?  Did they give us names?

She doesn’t answer.  She finally calls when she’s on the way.  “I’ll tell you everything when I get there in five minutes.”

I set the kids up with a movie.  “Anybody want popcorn?” I say in my best singsong “everything in the world is a-ok” mom voice.  I tell Birch I will be standing right outside in the lawn if they need anything.

Andrea slides into the driveway in their sedan with all the stickers on the back.  My heart is pounding in my ears and I see the sorrow on her face.

“Austin and Eric were hurt,” she says flatly.

My knees falter and I lean on the side of the house for support.  “Those are…” I start but then I can no longer make sounds without letting out the sob that I’ve kept so carefully contained for months now.

“….Ollie’s guys,” she finishes.

I close my eyes and I see Liz sitting in Austin’s lap the night the guys left, their baby snoozing in his carrier nearby.  Eric is the one that I nearly shorted $10 after the ill-fated Subway run.  I talk with his young wife Molly sometimes, who lives in a civilian community and needs some military support to get through this thing.

Liz.

Molly.

I reach for my phone and Andrea recites, as though reading from a script she hated, “Rear D says we can’t call the families.”

My knees are under me again, the tunnel vision and roaring in my ears fade, my voice returns and I cuss a blue streak.  “FUCK REAR D!  I’m not going to build these fucking relationships with these families just to fucking abandon them the moment their soldier gets fucking hurt!  FUCK!  THAT!”

She backs up a couple of steps.  “I know, I just told them I would pass on the message.  I don’t care what you do.  I would call my families, too.”

While I send a short text to Liz and Molly, she retrieves some cigarettes from the car.  Apparently I need to calm the fuck down.  “I just wanted you to know that I am here to talk or help you pull together anything you need.  Let me know, anything at all, and I am there.”  I wish they lived locally, I’d camp on their couches for the night with wine and chocolate.

I pace.  I cuss.  I wonder if Ollie was there and how he’s doing.  Before they deployed, he talked to the parents of some of these kids and promised he’d take care of them, that he’d bring them home safe.  It was a dangerous promise and now I wonder if he’s okay.  He doesn’t break promises.

After a few minutes of this, Andrea says, “We have to make a call down.  I can do it if you’re not up to it.  They aren’t going to lift the blackout until we make the calls though.”

I will call my families.  We are a close-knit group, even spread out across the country as we are.  They will hear this from me.

The kids are still engrossed in their movie.  I hope they can’t smell the smoke, but if they do I will blame it on Andrea.  Birch knows something is wrong.  “Somebody hurt?” she asks.

“Yeah, but nothing to worry about.  I have to go make some phone calls and then I’ll be back home.  You guys good?”

“Yep,” her eyes are back on the television.

Kellie arrives and I go down the street to Andrea’s house.  It helps to do this shit together.

We have a script.  I set up with my roster in her living room while she takes the dining room.  Her floor is cleaner than mine.  I love her pictures.  I do not want to do this.  I do not want to think about this.

I hear Andrea making her first call and realize I have to get started, too.  I pull up the first name on the roster.  Liz.  I don’t need to call and notify her of anything.  I ignore the icy knife in my stomach and call the next name.

“Hi, Mrs. Kennedy?  This is Megan Hughes with Delta Company Family Readiness Group.”

The mother on the other end manages a choked, “Yes?”  We’ve been through this a few times so she knows my voice.

“There has been another incident which caused some injuries–your soldier is not the one I am calling to inform you about.  I have to read you a statement about the incident.  Remember, I am not calling you about your soldier.”

“Okay…” she breathes.

“On the afternoon of March 17, two Delta company soldiers were injured when an RPG struck their mounted patrol.  They were med-evaced to a hospital where they are receiving care.”

“….are you sure it’s not about my son?” she whispers, like they always do.

My voice breaks a bit when I tell her I am sure, that I know the names of the injured and they are not her son.

“Is my son okay?” she pleads.  “Was he there?  Did he see anything?”

I don’t know the answer to this.  I want to know the same thing about my husband.  “I have the same questions, ma’am.  I don’t have any of the answers we need.”

She is in the car with her husband.  I hear her relaying the information to him.    She is not one to whom I explained the casualty notification process to the first time.  I ask if it would help her worry less if she knew how information relating to her soldier would be given to her.  “Yes, please,” she asks quietly.  “It would help to know.”

I explain that when a soldier is injured, the family is notified by phone call from the rear detachment commander.  When a soldier is killed in action, a chaplain and officer in dress uniforms come to the door.  I reiterate that I will never call her with official information about her soldier.  The entire time I speak, I make sure I don’t say, “If your soldier is injured” or “if your soldier is killed.”  I wonder if I’m helping or harming by telling her the process.  She thanks me.  Thanks me for volunteering, for answering her questions, for calling her to tell her about the incident.  I don’t feel like I should be thanked for any of this.

I know I’m harming by calling everyone multiple times a week to tell them about incidents.  They don’t need to know.  We’re all going to lose our minds and we’re not even 90 days in yet.  Andrea and I pause as we make our calls to agree that this is wrong.  We’re not doing this again.  I start asking folks if they want to keep getting incident calls.  Most of them say no, unless the incident is within our platoon.  I agree.

I finish the goddamn calls.  We text the commander so they can lift the blackout.  God, I just want to hear Ollie’s voice.

Liz texts me back and says she is okay for now.  She has tons of family support and she’s just waiting for information.  Molly wants to talk.

I know next to nothing about this.  Last deployment was rough, but we didn’t have injuries close enough to have resources, know the process, or anything else on hand to help her.  I listen, offer some sort of understanding, and try to give her a safe place to talk about it.  She doesn’t have much information.  I have no more to offer her.  I stay with her until she is ready to go.

I cannot imagine the powerlessness a family member must feel when they know their soldier is hurting and they can’t do anything to help.  It must be crazymaking.  How can these girls do this?  How can they move forward?  How do you possibly manage the anxiety?

I hope Ollie calls soon.  I need to hear his voice.

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A Brief Respite

I sped towards Ohio, leaving behind Fort Knox, the memorial service, the FRG, everything.  Earlier that morning I laid in bed texting Diane, “I can’t do it.  I just can’t go to this one.”  As I drove, I could hear echoes of roll calls, rifle volleys, and bugles from past services.  I felt like an asshole for not attending Gould’s memorial.  I was afraid it would  break me into a million pieces.

The kids and I were on our way to visit Uncle Bobby and Aunt Marlena.  I hadn’t seen them since Grandpa’s funeral in 2005.  We had been in touch recently and I decided that our March roadtrip would be to visit them.  It didn’t take long before we pulled up to their beautiful farmhouse with all the barn cats.  Ben immediately took to Uncle Bobby.  The poor kid had only been around a handful of males since the men deployed.

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I got some much needed respite that weekend.  Marlena read to the kids, Bobby took them out to see the barn, Birch sat on the porch swing and strummed her guitar.  I played with my camera and took long showers and ate food I didn’t have to cook.  It was glorious.

One afternoon we took a stroll through a tiny town to visit a quaint toy store.  Panic threatened to win when we were out; it was more manageable when we were at their home.  Before we left for our trip, I gave Bobby and Marlena’s address to the rear detachment commander.  If they needed to find me, they would come to the house, not to the toy store.

It was good to see Uncle Bobby getting around so well after having his leg broken in a car accident a few years ago.  I wasn’t there for the recovery, but they described the device that saved the leg.  It kinda made me want to pass out, what with all the screws and rings and whatnot.  We also discussed politics, our crazy family, and life in general.  Adult conversation was delicious.  I left that weekend feeling loved and renewed.  I felt strong again.

The crocuses and daffodils were in bloom when we got back.  I loved and hated them.  The end of winter in Kentucky was welcome, but I hoped it could continue a bit longer in Afghanistan.

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Not long after we returned, my phone rang.

“There’s been another incident.  We will have a briefing in a few hours.”

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The First Pup

The story of our first pup, who arrived in our lives in February 2010, almost a year before he deployed the last time.  This is just a bit of history before we continue the tale. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I needed a few puppy pictures before delving into the rest of the story.

“We need a puppy,” I said with grave resolve.

He looked at me like I was crazy, as he is wont to do.  I knew that he was considering our little 900 square foot home which was wedged as tight as possible with furniture, toys and people and wondering where we would stash a canine.

“We have a big yard,” I countered his imaginary argument.

His eyes wandered to the open back yard.  A couple hundred feet of woods separated us from a major highway.

“We can get a fence!”  He hadn’t said “no,” yet, so I was hopeful.

“No,” he said with what he imagined to be finality.

I persisted.  He’s not the only stubborn mule in this relationship.

“Hear me out,” I demanded.  His eyes got a little glassy so I kept talking.  “You see, this is the only time that it makes sense to get a puppy. You’re going to be home for an entire year!  You can help train it and walk it and bond with it!  Also, we would be safer with a dog in the house.  It’s like a built in alarm system!  And seriously, what are some of your best childhood memories?  Dogs.  Mine, too.  We’re going to deny our children that?  Should we wait until you are out of the military?  They will be grown.  We can’t do that to them.  It’s practically neglect.  Where would you have been without Sasha?  Wile E?”

That last bit was a low but effective blow.  “I’ll think about it,” he conceded.

The kids and I immediately declared victory and launched a puppy search.  We kept the house unusually clean, constantly reminding ourselves, “If it’s on the floor, the puppy will chew it!”  I went online to all the rescues in the area and found all sorts of shepherds.  Somehow the photos were always mysteriously displayed on my computer screen when Ollie got home from work.

He was not impressed.  A few times he gave me an obligatory, “It’s cute,” but he never let up the resistance.  Then one day as I was searching the pet finder site, I found her.

She was this little fluffy white ball of helplessly adorable goodness.  Birch and I simultaneously squealed when her face popped up.  The littles were equally enthralled.  We found our pookie.  I fired off an email to find out her story.  She was the puppy of a rescued mama.  The foster family couldn’t handle the whole litter and they needed homes as soon as they could be separated from their mom.  She was born the day after Christmas, 2009.  Her name was Wednesday.

“I found her.  We have to get her.  She NEEDS us,” I texted him.

He gave us all a stern talking-to about pet responsibility, about walking, training, feeding, socializing the dog.  We kept nodding until he stopped talking.  I had no idea what we agreed to, but we were getting a puppy!  My only requirement was that the kids clean up the poop in the yard.  “I’ve wiped enough butts and cleaned enough poop for a lifetime,” I declared.  They nodded at me, with eyes bright from puppy wonder.

“Her name is Wednesday!  That’s so awesome!” I announced.

“Wednesday is a dumb name.  Changing it was one of the requirements for getting her.  Weren’t you listening?”  He scowled at me.  I didn’t buy his tough act for a second.  This was the man who “doesn’t like cats” but made sure our Stella had treats in her bowl every morning.  He took her outside and taught her how to hunt moles when she was a kitten.  She slept on his feet every night.  He even had a puppy in Afghanistan for several months before he came home.  I told him we could change the name but secretly planned to call her Wednesday as much as possible so it stuck.  He got to name our youngest kid.  Fair’s fair.

In early February, 2010, the kids and I drove several hours to pick her up.  When I stepped out of the van and saw her, my first thought was, “She’s short!”  She was adorable, perfect, and very much our pookie, despite her surprisingly stubby limbs.  Birch wrapped her up in a blanket and cuddled with her all the way home.

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She’s short.

Ollie was working a 24 hour shift so he only got to meet her for a few minutes in the parking outside the office.  That man stuffed his nose right down in her scruff and inhaled her puppy dog scent.  Hardened warrior who didn’t want a dog, my ass.

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“She’s never going to be allowed on the furniture.”

I texted him updates throughout the day, including such gems as, “She pooped in the yard!”, “She likes smelling butts!” and “Stella seems to like her!”

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Stella totally loved her.

At bedtime I let him know I was putting her in her crate, which was beside our bed.

“You can’t put her in the crate!” He was aghast.

“What do you mean, I can’t put her in the crate?  We’re crate training.  I thought we agreed on this,” I said.

“We’ve co-slept with all of our babies and we will co-sleep with her, too!” he announced passionately.  “She will sleep in our bed.  That’s how she bonds!”

I was completely caught off guard.  At no time had I considered us to be the sort of people who let a dog sleep on the bed.  The cat was one thing, but a dog?  I argued half-heartedly for a few minutes but he won.  She snuggled in the covers and fell asleep for the whole night.

When he came home the next morning, they were fast friends.  It was as though she knew he was responsible for her cushy sleeping accommodations.

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Photographic evidence of how much he hated having a dog.

He named her Rose, to be called Rosie until she grew into her adult name.  For a couple of weeks I tried to keep Wednesday going, but it just didn’t fit anymore.  Dagnabbit.

For months he referred to her as his “shepherd.”  He insisted that she would get taller, even when I watched a neighbor’s (real) shepherd grow at an alarmingly fast rate compared to her.  We waited in vain for her ears to stand up tall.  He often took her running, as if to encourage her legs to grow long enough to keep up with him.  It never worked.  She was short just like the rest of us.

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Rosie and Etta, conspiring to explore the world beyond our front door.

Rosie, with her stumpy little legs and a passel of bad puppy habits, was the perfect addition to our family.

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The Bell Tolls

Somehow the information leaked through unofficial channels.  Rumors were flying.  His name was on our lips before we knew for sure that he was dead.  We messaged one another frantically for more information, but all we had was his name.

I remembered him from my FRG roster from the first deployment.  My husband’s friend was dead.  I showered in an attempt to scrub off the guilty relief I felt because it was his friend, not him.  Would this be the combat event which would irrevocably change him?  How was he handling this?  I wanted to hold him close, to comfort him, to tell him it would be okay.  The blackout wouldn’t be lifted until after the official casualty brief.  Comfort had to wait.

Alana watched the kids while I went to the brief.  The look in her eyes let me know that she had been where I was, that she understood.  I couldn’t maintain eye contact for long.  “Take as long as you need,” she said as I walked out the door.

I considered driving past the chapel and going to Tracy’s house instead.  Or maybe going out to dinner.  Or going home for some precious alone time.  The last place I wanted to be was the chapel.  The last thing I wanted to hear was his name, the official announcement of his passing.

Women were milling around outside the chapel when I passed by.  Diane’s car was parked out front.  I couldn’t let her do this alone.  I parked the car.

The air was cold and bitter.  My emotions were barely contained as I approached my friends.  “Don’t hug me,” I was glad my voice didn’t betray me when I spoke.  “I’m sick.”  I had been sick for a few days so it wasn’t a stretch.

“I won’t hug you, darlin’!” Diane assured me.  We walked slowly towards the chapel and paused in the vestibule where Ayse greeted us.

“Don’t hug me,” I insisted.

“I am going to hug you, and you will just have to deal with it!” she announced in her beautiful Turkish accent.  “I do not care if you give me your germs!”

I held myself together and made my way into the main chapel area.  Heather was sitting with her Charlie company wives. I squeezed her shoulder as I passed.  I was grateful that we had mended the fences we’d broken a few months previously.

Diane joined her group of Echo wives. I sat down with Andrea and our Delta wives.  This was her first casualty brief, her first FRG leader experience.  I tried to give her an idea of what to expect and what our responsibilities would be afterwards.  The majority of the wives in the chapel were from Bravo company; the casualties were theirs.  Babies cried here and there; toddlers were shushed.  The room buzzed with anxious energy.

After what seemed like an eternity, the rear detachment commander got up to speak.  In that moment he probably would have preferred facing a storm of bullets rather than a chapel full of terrified families.  He collected himself, drew a deep breath, and then read a statement.

My ears buzzed, my heart raced, and my saliva turned to metal as he said something similar to this:

“On February 27, 2011, while on mounted patrol in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, SGT Kristopher J. Gould was killed in action by an improvised explosive device.”

All of the air was sucked from the chapel.  A baby cried somewhere.  Muted sniffles came from all parts of the room.  I closed my eyes as the commander continued to read the statement, detailing the names and injuries of the three men who were with SGT Gould.  My stomach turned upside as I hear their names and remembered the stories Ollie had told me about them.

When he was done, he called the FRG leaders to the front.  He handed out scripts for us to use for our roster call down to inform the other families about our loss.  There is no adequate description for the resolve, panic, grief, worry, sadness and determination that flares up in the eyes of my Army sisters when we are tasked with this duty.  We do it because we would rather our families hear it from us than from a stranger, the news, or through the rumor mill.

Andrea and I met at her house to make the calls.  I started each one with, “Hi, this is Megan Hughes.  I’m really sorry, but I need to inform you about an incident in the unit.  This is not regarding your soldier.  Again, I am not informing you about your soldier.  I am going to read a statement now, alright?”

I read each wife, parent, or sibling the casualty statement.  When I was done, every single one asked in a cracked whisper, “Are you sure my soldier is okay?”

I wanted to say, “Yes, your soldier is okay.”  The truth is, I didn’t know.  Another incident could have already happened and we weren’t informed yet.  So I just reiterated that the families of these soldiers had been officially informed by the Army.  If there was something wrong with their own soldier, the Army would contact them first, not me.  I explained the casualty notification process over and over.  I did my best to give each one some peace before calling the next one.  My voice only cracked a couple of times.  The families needed me to be strong.

When I tucked Birch into bed later, she knew something was wrong.  I figured she would be more worried if she thought I was not honest with her, so I told her the truth.  A brave soldier was killed that day, and some others wounded.  He was close to Daddy, but not close enough for Daddy to be hurt.  I told her that she did not need to worry–if anything was ever wrong or if I was really scared, I would tell her.  She accepted my words without question.

By the time the kids were asleep, I was too spent, too empty, to feel anything.  I rocked in my chair on the front porch, taking slow drags on the cigarette I bummed from Andrea.  Ollie would call as soon as he was allowed.  Together we would remember SGT Gould.

I have not shared SGT Gould’s personal story here because I have not yet requested or received permission from his family to share it.  The details I have included are easily accessible on the web.  I intend no disrespect to him or his memory by sharing only our reactions on the homefront.  If you would like to know more about SGT Gould, a truly extraordinary young man, you can read about him here or here.  He is deeply missed by his friends and family, who are remembering him on this second anniversary of his passing.

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