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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Winter Turns to Spring

Managing deployment anxiety is, for me at least, a full time occupation.  Rather than “one day at a time,” I find myself living “one breath at a time.”  From the moment he left, it felt as though an elephant had become a permanent resident of my chest cavity.  I was determined that the deployment elephant wouldn’t win, though.

I practiced my Zen meditation, attempted mindfulness and tried being fully present.  I looked for the beauty in each moment, whether it was in the water flowing over my hands, the sting of snowflakes on my face, or the trees dancing in the wind.  Some moments were exquisite.  Most moments were a struggle.  It was a constant mental battle to choose peace over panic.

Part of my survive and thrive plan was to fill up the calendar with events.  In addition to the MWR’s monthly events for Blue Star Wives, I attended Operation Faithful Support meetings, went to the gym, attended FRG functions, and took the littles to Ballet and Gymnastics.  My goal was daily exhaustion so that I could get at least four hours of sleep before Ollie died in my nightmares.  Again.

January flew by with few incidents.  Birch’s party was a raging success.  The girls sang, danced, and made t-shirts way cooler than anything I planned.  Food was plentiful, laughter was abundant.  My Army sisters–Diane and her daughter, Tracy, Ayse, Mandi and Joanne–came through to help me with everything from setup to childcare to last minute supplies to clean up.

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Fearless, she is.

Even in the midst of the shrill chaos, I frequently found myself peering out the front door, searching for the official car.  They couldn’t come tonight.  I needed to catch them before they got to the door.  I considered making a sign that said, “Come back tomorrow.  Don’t ruin my daughter’s party.”  I decided that exceeded the threshold for totally fucking crazy, though, so I did iron-on transfers for the girls instead.

 

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The girls made me a headband out of t-shirts.

 

A week later the doorbell rang unexpectedly.  My friends and I never rang the doorbell for each other.  Even the UPS guy knocked a cheerful rhythm or rang the bell twice in succession.  My heart hit the floor (again), my ears rang, and time slowed down.  It was my neighbor. She was looking for her cat.  It took me over an hour to recover.

The deployment elephant perched on my lungs for days. My inability to reason myself out of the intense reaction to “ding-dong” made me feel weak and stupid.  My resolve to triumph over the deployment grew along with my anxiety.

I exuberantly practiced Ollie’s Law for Driveway Snow Removal.  Sometimes in the dark, wee hours, I attacked the driveway with my shovel and broom.  Ollie’s Law states that if you remove the snow while it is light and fluffy, it doesn’t stick to the driveway surface and turn to ice.  The cold air shocked my lungs into breathing, the activity caused me to break a sweat in the single digit temperatures.  I cleared the driveway in his honor, dammit.  It felt good.

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Ollie’s Law in action.

We took our first road trip in early February to surprise my eight year old son for his birthday.  We met up with him and his father at a ski resort in West Virginia. Before we left, I made sure the rear detachment commander had the address and room number for the resort, just in case they needed to find me.

Hank was pleasantly shocked to see us and delighted to eat his homemade key lime pie.  That night’s sleep was so good I still remember it–piled up on a king size bed with all four kids, watching silly movies until we crashed.

February crawled by.  Ollie was disappointed when I told him we did nothing for Valentine’s Day, so I made up for it a few days later.  Communication with him was intermittent at best.  I often stayed up most of the night, waiting by the computer just in case he came online.  When I slept, my phone was in my hand.

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Valentine’s goodies and my messy desk.

The Red Cross sponsored a “Mock Deployment” for the kids of deployed soldiers so they had an idea about what their dads were doing overseas.  They learned about Afghanistan, the terrain, the equipment, and MREs.  It was brilliantly done.  Birch had a blast.  She and a friend earned a 3-star General coin for singing the National Anthem for the whole crowd.  I was grateful that our kids were remembered, that they were cared for while their soldier parents were away.

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One Mock Deployment platoon.

February drew to a close and we were relieved to put it behind us.  March was one month closer to the end of this, but March was also one month closer to spring.  As the weather warms up in Afghanistan, so does the fighting.

On February 27, I suspected that communication was blacked out.  You can usually tell by the number of wives signed in on Facebook.  Here and there, a few casual messages are exchanged, “Hey, have you heard from your husband lately?”  Even if our own soldier didn’t call, it eased the mind when others did.  It meant communication lines were open.  Open communication lines meant no incidents–no one in the unit was hurt or killed.  Blackouts meant incidents.  Blackouts put everyone even more on edge, as we waited to know whether the incident involved our own soldier or someone else’s.

They called us to the chapel for a casualty brief on the last day of February.  Spring, and the hell that accompanies it, had come early in Afghanistan.

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Party Planning Paranoia

I am ready for this.  We will travel, host house guests, practice self-care, make fun and entertain as many distractions as I can muster.  My ukulele is sitting there ready to be learned.  You can cry into a guitar, but you can’t cry into a ukulele.  That’s why I bought it. There are birthdays to celebrate, Sunday Dinners to host with friends, and against my better judgement, an FRG to run.

I know, I know.  I said I would never do that again.  Last time was a fiasco by the end.  But Andrea was struggling with getting things set up.  I’m kind of a silent partner.  A consultant.  I’m not really in charge of anything.  I’m leaving in a few months, anyway, so I can’t really take it over completely.

Besides, Diane said she wouldn’t do it again, but she’s right there leading Echo Company FRG.  And Heather is leading Charlie Company.  The three of us survived the last deployment together, we can do this one, too, right?  This young group needs experienced leaders.  They need strong voices to advocate for them.

Damned Type A personality.  Why can’t I just let other people deal with this?

Birch’s tenth birthday party is next weekend.  “Why don’t you invite all the girls in the class?  Sure!  They can all sleep over!  Karaoke?  Heck yes!”  I am clearly out of my mind already and he’s only been gone for a week.

I google party ideas.  Guitar cake.  Taylor Swift posters.  Red curtain backdrop for karaoke machine.  Foam board guitars.  T-shirts with iron-on decals.  Party food. Afghanistan.  DOD casualty count.  How many casualties in his area in the past year?  Nationality?  Branch?  Rank?  MOS?  Lots of Polish losses.  The Polish are part of NATO forces?  Who knew?

Party planning, dammit.  This isn’t healthy.

Cake recipes.

Is he online yet?  Will he come online tonight?  Is he in his final destination?  Is he warm?

Guitars.  She could use a guitar.

Why hasn’t he contacted me yet?  I peer out the front door.  No official cars.

This is crazy.  Sit down and plan a party.

Concert ticket invitations!  I can photoshop it!  I’m a genius.

What time is it?  Is it too late for notifications?  It is too late.  If something is wrong they won’t come until tomorrow.

Shit.  What if they come in the morning?

Shut that voice up and plan a party.  You will have 13 ten year old girls here in a week.  Quit worrying about stuff that hasn’t happened.

Diane might help me with the party.  Diane’s daughter is a teenager–she will be great at the party or helping out with the little kids.  Maybe I should take her for a pedicure to thank her?

He’s probably cold. The box with the space heater hasn’t gotten there yet. I hate the idea of him being cold.

JoAnne is my “deployment wife” for several years.  We have spent more holidays and birthdays together than we have with our husbands.  Her teenage boys helped out with Birch’s Harry Potter party last year.  She will be here.

I am lucky to have friends who entertain my crazy-ass ideas.

I’m at the front door again, just to be sure.  A white car is coming up the road and I’m frozen for a moment but then the phone rings.  I stub my toe in my scramble to get it.  It is too late to be anyone else and it is an UNKNOWN number.

Breathless, hopeful, excited, “Hello!?”

“Hi, baby,” he said.  His voice is better than valium.  I think.  I’ve never had it.

“Hi, sweetheart.”  I’m probably blushing.  How does he give me butterflies from so far away?  What a pain in the ass.

“Honey, you didn’t already mail that box of stuff for me, did you?” he asks.  Something is off in his voice.

“Yeah, I mailed it at the beginning of the week to the address you gave me.”

“Oh.  Ok.  I hope it can find me,” he is disappointed.

I’m pissed.  “Are you serious?  They couldn’t give us the right address?  Do you have any idea how many packages have already been mailed to you guys?”

“Well, it’s not really everybody.  Just our platoon.”  He rattles off a new address, including an acronym that catapults my stomach right through the floor.

I repeat it.

He confirms.

He can’t tell me what it means over the phone, but he doesn’t have to tell me.  A few weeks ago my friend Shannon told me about this platoon.  It is comprised of an elite group of scouts who have been training for months to be the most forward platoon in the battalion, possibly the brigade.  Her husband was selected for it.  Its missions will be high risk, high exposure, high speed.  She and other wives in that platoon bonded long before the deployment because it would be a much different experience for them than for the rest of us.  She spoke of it lightly, but I was privately afraid for her and the others in that platoon.

Now Ollie and his men are that platoon.

I can barely speak.  “But… I thought…they were…you are…this…how did this happen?”  I might puke.

He says evenly, “It’s okay.  We have more resources now.  We will be okay.”

“No!  This isn’t supposed to be this way!  Two days ago you said you were building shit on the FOB?  What the fuck??  Did you fucking volunteer for this!?”  Hot, angry tears pour down my face.

He recoils at my accusation.  His words get a little hot as he tells me how they were pulled from their original mission and put on this one.  “I did not fucking volunteer for this shit!” he half-yells at me.  I relent.  He apologizes.  He promises me that he won’t get hurt, he promises me that he will come home.

“You can’t promise that,” I gently admonish him.  “Just… be smart.  Stay safe.  Kick some Taliban ass.”

Our fifteen minutes are up.

It is the time of night that most people go to sleep, so I go to bed.  Sleep does not come easy.  When I finally drift off, I am jolted awake by a doorbell in my nightmares.

I throw open the front door.  No one is here.  No cars in the drive.  No cars on the street.  Maybe they will cruise by the house to see if I’m here.  I wait.  I watch.  I listen.

My heart slows down, my wits return.  I collapse in front of the computer.  Sleep isn’t worth it.  Not if he dies over and over again in my dreams.

For the party we will need a veggie tray, a fruit tray, chips and dip, and drinks.  She wants to feed everyone spaghetti for dinner.  It is three in the morning.  I make my shopping list.

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Trash Cans, Photographs and Farewells

“We don’t lick trash cans,” I say to my youngest child. For good measure, I add, “We definitely don’t lick infantry trash cans.”

If the trash can germs don’t end up killing him, his immune system will be stronger, right?   At least I’m not pulling him from the staircase of doom again.

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I am done.  I’m ready to get the hell out of here.  My emotions are spent, there is nothing left to say.  The kids are closing themselves in lockers, running in circles, and apparently licking trash cans.

I wander around taking photos of other couples.  I’m still wearing the smoky leather coat the soldier’s father wrapped around me.  I take a picture of his young daughter with her husband, huddled together on the concrete.  I take shots of the baby and his parents, cuddling on a folding chair.  The engaged couple flashes me a big smile.  Two little girls ham it up for me while their daddy rubs their mama’s back in the background. I resist the urge to say, “You guys want one (last) photo?”

I take a few more photos of Ollie, but I am really done.  I love him, I don’t want him to leave, but this is excruciating.  I’ve already said goodbye.

A few hours of this and they announce it is time to go back to the buses.  I can’t repeat that scene.  It is windier now, colder and darker.

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“Can we do it here?” I ask.

“Yeah, that’s best,” he says as he scoops up the kids.  This time it is short.  We embrace, kiss quickly.  “See you in a few months!” We say it as easily as if we were just running to the store for a few minutes.

He grabs his gear and heads for the door.  I see him standing there, framed against the night, holding it open for us.  We walk together a short distance before going our separate ways.

I pause to watch as he easily trots away from us on two good legs for the last time.

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Departure Day

The alarm goes off way too early. We pummel the snooze button as long as possible.  He holds me close and I breathe in his chest, trying to make this one of the eternal moments.

“It’s time,” he says.

“I know.”

For one second longer we embrace, clinging to each other in slight desperation.

Then without another word, we let go with a quick, tight lipped kiss.  By the time we are standing, the protective barriers which will allow us to say goodbye are back in place.  In a way, we’ve just said our goodbyes.  Conversation turns to the impossible to-do list.  He rebuffs my attempts to assist him in any way.  I turn my attention to the kids.  When he is out of the room, I slip little love notes in different parts of his gear.  When he is in the room, I pretend to ignore him.

The last day goes as expected:  Lots of shoving things into bags, cussing, running to the store, last-minute instructions.  I already have the care package boxes, so he fills up two with the stuff that won’t fit in his bags.  Our tempers are short and most of our interactions are bickering.  I manage to convince myself that I’m looking forward to him leaving.  Get him out of my hair.  I can run the household however I want while he’s gone.  It’s going to be nice.

We go to bed in the wee hours, but the barriers keep us from melting together again.  We hold hands in a rather platonic way.  When the alarm sounds on Departure Day, we don’t need the snooze button.  We’ve been awake for a while anyway.

He is to report at the COF (company operations facility) around midday.  He will be there for six hours or so before loading the buses.  We are allowed to be with him.  The little kids, ages 2 and 4, can’t manage that much time in the austere COF.  It is a giant warehouse type building with concrete floors, tons of lockers, and some staircases of imminent doom.  It will be cold and full of infantrymen.  I arrange for them to go to a family child care run by my friend Alana at her home.  I will pick them up when we have an hour or so left with Daddy.

We load the kids in the car and do our requisite last sweep of the house.  I watch him walking through and hope that one day he will walk here again.  He checks every room, pops open the freezer, slurps down a big spoon of ice cream with a manic smile, and heads to the door.

I hate what comes next.  With a peck on the cheek, he hands me his house key.  I act like it’s no big deal and turn my head so he can’t see the tears.

Alana hugs me tight when I drop off the littles.  Her eyes are brimming.  I have to break away before the flood starts.  I have too much to do before I can let that mess go.

The COF is complete chaos.  Soldiers drawing weapons, wives herding small children, parents of young men standing awkwardly along the edge of the room.  Travis, the platoon leader who insisted that Ollie stay in his platoon, came up to me.  “You know how much this school means to us,” I tell him again. “You know because you were enlisted and are now an officer.  My family’s future depends on him coming back safely from this.”  I want him to relent, to let Ollie out of the platoon, to keep him safe.  Travis offered some words of assurance, but no one can predict what is going to happen.  No one can promise me that he will come home.

Things calm down and the boys–the men I should say–are hungry.  Their fresh faces are etched with fear, covered poorly with bravado.  I offer to go to Subway.  We still have several hours left and the soldiers aren’t allowed to leave.  I write down their orders, collect some cash, and take our 9 year old with me to the Subway just down the street.

Eight transactions later, our arms laden with sandwiches and huge drinks, we head back to the car.  I discover that I left my phone there and I missed a text from Ollie, as well as several phone calls.  Someone probably wanted a sandwich and didn’t get their order to me in time.

“Come back.  We are leaving now.  You might not make it.”  My heart bottoms out in my stomach.

I speed back to the COF where I find them standing outside.  They are behind the barriers in formation next to the buses.  My daughter and I sprint to them.  He leaves the group to tell us that things changed and they will be boarding the buses immediately.  I lose my shit.  “You CAN’T go without saying goodbye to the littles!  You CAN’T!  I swear I will stand in front of the bus until they can get here!”  I call Alana in near hysterics and ask her to bring the kids.  My friend Ayse has already jumped into a car to go get them.

“We’re going to load any minute,” he said.

“You will NOT!” I half-scream. “They have taken too much already and they will  NOT take your goodbye from the littles.”  The sun is setting and it is cold.  I give our daughter my coat.

I leave her with him and walk to the car.  The boys are still hungry, they need their sandwiches.  As I turn my back, the emotions spill over.  Hot, angry tears accompanied by vicious words pour out of me.   I am shivering.  A tall man, a father, walks over and wraps his huge leather coat around me.  It smells like cigarettes.  He tries to comfort me as I spew all sorts of venom.  He helps me deliver the food.

Miraculously, Alana arrives with my littles before the guys get on the bus.  My friend goes with me to grab them from the van and we run back  to the barriers.  “It is time  to say your goodbyes,” they said.

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His hands clutching their coats kills me.

The kids slide under the rail and run to their Daddy.  He embraces each one and whispers in their ears.  He comes to me last and hands me his cell phone.  I am no longer able to control myself.  Typically I stonewall my emotions so he doesn’t have to deal with them.  This time I sob on his shoulder.  I know it is unfair but I can’t stop.  “Please come home to me,” I beg.  “Please come home.”

He kisses my forehead and says, “I promise… I will never die.”  We giggle a little.  I pull it together.  We look into one another’s eyes for a moment, stand a little taller, and give a short nod.  We release, give a final, “Bye Daddy!” and turn to walk away.  It is cold.  We don’t need to draw this out any further.

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With my jaw set, I herd the kids back to the car.

“WAIT!” Ayse calls to us.  “Wait!  They were wrong!  These aren’t the guys who are supposed to be loading up!  They get to stay longer!”

I don’t want more time.  Rip off the band-aid, get in the car, go home, eat chocolate, put the kids to bed.

The kids want more time.

We meet up with Ollie and trudge back to the COF.

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The (Last) Everything

The (last) three weeks have been awful.  You’d think that we would enjoy every (last) moment we have together.  We don’t acknowledge the (lasts), but they hang heavy in the air until everything reeks with meaning.  Even the mundane is dripping with it:  the (last) time he takes out the trash, the (last) time he scrapes my windshield, the (last) time he shovels snow from the driveway, the (last) time he goes fishing, the (last) time he checks the air in my tires.  With each of his (last) household duties, he gives me instructions.

“If you shovel the drive while it’s still snowing, it won’t freeze.  Make sure you get it off the driveway while it’s still fluffy.”

“Don’t forget to drive both vehicles.  Check your tires before you drive.  Don’t let the gas get below a quarter tank.”

I already know these things, but he reminds me anyway.

With every (last), the tension builds until we can barely tolerate one another.  We argue over stupid things.  His mind turns from us and towards war.  I panic a little over his withdrawing from me.  He is home, but not really.

We have our (last) Thanksgiving.  We celebrate our (last) Christmas.  On our (last) New Year’s Eve, he signs in from pre-deployment leave.  We have our (last) family dinner.

Tonight is our (last) night together.  It isn’t really our last night, though.  We’ve gone through enough of these that we know that the last last night is a loss.  Last minute packing consumes that night. It involves a lot of cussing, sitting on bags, panicking over forgotten comfort items, more cussing, a few runs to the store, and items that can’t be coaxed into the bags thrown into a box labeled “Mail to Ollie in Afghanistan.”  So our (last) night is the night before the real (last) night.  As with all the other (lasts), we don’t talk about it, we just know.

We scrub the frustrations of the (last) few weeks off of each other in that awful little shower with the 1950s-era puke-colored tile.  I try to memorize every last detail about him.  His hair gets all mussed up when it’s wet, his Barney Rubble toes gripping the floor, his odd drying ritual where he squeegees off the water with his hands before reaching for the towel.  I do not follow any particular religion but I try to infuse him with every blessing I can muster, whispering protection over his mind and body.  I hope that somehow my love is strong enough to keep him safe, to shield him from those who will attempt to do him harm.

I massage his feet–each little toe–for the (last) time.

We collapse together as always, my head on his chest, his arm holding me close, our legs tangled together.  He snores within seconds.  I lay awake as long as I can, memorizing all of this: the sound of his heartbeat, his breath tickling the top of my head, his hand cradling my waist, our skin all mashed up together, the smell of his neck crack, his feet keeping mine warm.

As I begin to drift off, he does that thing where he squeezes me just a little closer and whispers, “I looove you, Megan…”

“I love you, Ollie…”

I fall asleep hoping that is enough to bring him safely home.

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The Campaign

For months we didn’t know whether to prepare for the deployment or prepare for a cross country move.  Waiting for the IPAP announcement was excruciating.  He trained with his unit, but his entire chain of command knew that he might be selected.  One important document in the submission packet was a release signed by command–if he was selected, they would let him go.

He was at the National Training Center when we received news of his selection.  NTC is a month long training exercise for entire units.  The whole brigade went to test their training in a simulated combat environment.  It’s an opportunity for systems checks for the deploying unit and for the families staying behind.  Part of the training is a long period of field time during which the soldier has no communication with home.  Unsurprisingly, that’s when I got the email from IPAP so I had to wait more than a week to tell him.

We were ecstatic.  He immediately let his command know.  He was scheduled to report to Fort Sam Houston on August 8, 2011.  The Army was required to give him a 90 day stabilization period before the move, so he had to be home May 8, 2011.  The unit was scheduled to deploy in January.  It only made sense for them to put him on Rear Detachment.  He would stay home, assist the Rear D Commander and be ready to leave in July, 2011.

One requirement of the IPAP selection is that the servicemember must have a service term commitment that covers the two years of school plus three extra years after licensing.  Translated:  Ollie had to re-enlist for six years.  If he failed the school or was unable to attend, he would owe the Army another six years as an infantryman.  High stakes.  We didn’t flinch.  Ollie has an incredible intellect–we both knew that if he was selected, he would pass.

Command issued a policy that anyone who was PCSing (moving) or ETSing (leaving the Army for good), by August 1, 2011, would not deploy.

Our PCS date was August 8, 2011.  Ollie was put on the deployment roster.

We launched a campaign.

He started with Travis, his platoon leader (a lieutenant). Travis needed Ollie, a seasoned, smart NCO (non-commissioned officer) whose leadership shone at NTC.  He had good instincts and although he was frequently deemed “marginally insubordinate” for his candor, Travis felt that he was mission critical.   “Are you really scared that you’re going to get hurt?” he asked, insulting Ollie’s manhood in an effort to make him agree to deploy. Ollie didn’t take the bait.

We moved up the chain to the company commander (a captain).  We sat down together with him and presented our case. “Please consider our point of view.  The risks are too high.  He has been selected for this school, which will positively impact the rest of our lives.  As a result, he had to commit 6 more years to the Army–if he fails or is unable to attend, he will owe those years in the infantry.  That is not part of our career plan.  This is the hardest school in the Army, even a mild TBI can ruin his chances and destroy our path.  Please.  It’s just a week.  Please place him on Rear D.”

He said he would take it into consideration.  I don’t remember if it was that day or days later, but the answer came back down, “We understand what you’re asking, but we are short on E6’s to deploy.  We need you.  You have to go.  We will try to assign you to a major FOB (Forward Operating Base) as an LNO (Liaison Officer), helping process soldiers coming in and out of the company.  We’ll keep you inside the wire.”

I immediately told Ollie it was bullshit.  Not the part about him having to go (that was kind of bullshit, too), but the part about him staying on a FOB, away from the rest of the unit.  “If you’re going to work at the battalion level, why are you still a squad leader in a line platoon?”  They were blowing smoke up our ass.

We exhausted all other avenues of keeping his boots on the ground stateside.  Our campaign failed miserably.  Ollie would leave for Afghanistan within a few short weeks, in the beginning of January, 2011.  We took solace in the fact that he would only be there until the end of April.  He had to be on a flight by May 1, 2011, in order to report for school in Texas on time.  Three and a half months?  We’d spent years apart.  This wouldn’t be so bad.

One last short deployment and we would be done with the infantry.

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These are the Salad Days

The thing about the salad days is that you typically don’t recognize when you’re in them.  You usually look back at a joyful time and say, “Those were the salad days.”  Somehow, I was fortunate enough to savor the summer of 2010, knowing that those sweet, easy days were coming to a close.

Our future contained many unconfirmed options–Will he be accepted to IPAP?  Will he deploy with his unit if he isn’t selected?  Will we be living in our home for six months or two years?  Should I start looking for a job or go back to school or find a home outside the military?  Overwhelmed with unknown variables, I turned my attention to absorbing every beautiful moment of that summer.

Ollie teases me and says I run family recreation like a Girl Scout troop leader.  I’ll own it.  I typically have a running list of fun things to visit–local attractions, historical sites, zoos, parks, and gardens.  I also have lists of fun things to do at home–craft projects, learning to cook, making a garden, playing in the sprinkler, having a water balloon fight, putting on a puppet show to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, or doing a Hughes family “Mahna Mahna” video. (The last two haven’t happened yet, but they will.  Oh, they will.)

My enthusiasm for activities often exceeds my family’s collective excitement.  That summer was no exception, but I refused to sit around watching movies and playing video games when it was beautiful outside.  I chased them out to do something almost every day; I took hundreds of photos.  On Saturdays Ollie got up early, sneaked out of the house and hit the lake with his kayak to go fishing.  Our puppy, Rosie, enjoyed those early morning excursions on the lake, too.  He got the respite he needed to deal with the chaos of life for the rest of the week.  When he returned, I insisted that we all go play outside somewhere together.

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I was met with a lot of eye rolls, heavy sighs, and surly looks from the rest of them.  I didn’t care; I could feel the clock ticking.  Time was running short, but I didn’t know what was going to happen when it ran out.   Despite themselves, they enjoyed searching for geocaches, seeing the new baby elephant, and playing in the waterfall.

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The photos they protested are now treasures, reminders of a time when we could load everyone up in the van to go climb a mountain on a whim.   “Soak this up, store it away to provide light in whatever darkness lies ahead,” I told myself.  “These are the salad days.”

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Life Changer

Our initial agreement was that he would leave the Army when his first term of enlistment expired.  Five years of service was a reasonable sacrifice.  We both had careers on the outside before–I was a real estate broker and he owned his own business as a general contractor.  We kicked around the idea of flipping properties–buy foreclosures, fix them up, sell them for a decent profit.  Everything was groovy until the housing market crashed.  The economy tanked soon after and we were scared about trying to support the family on the outside.  We actively searched for alternate plans.

His enlistment expired during his first deployment in 2008.  He was given the choice to re-enlist for a bonus or be retained by the Army under stop-loss provisions.  The obvious choice was re-enlistment.  He gave the Army just enough time to complete the deployment and apply for a change of MOS (Military Operation Specialty–your job description).  Although I loved our infantry family, I was unwilling to endure another deployment like his first.

We searched all of the options, but switching MOS from infantry to any other career path was nearly impossible.  At that time, the Army needed more folks on the front line.  Once they got their hooks into an infantryman, they were loathe to let him switch to any other job.  After months of searching for alternatives, we finally stumbled upon the Interservice Physican Assistant Program. It was perfect.

Long before he joined the Army, my husband was a volunteer fireman and paramedic.  He enjoyed treating people in crisis.  Although he was funneled into the infantry, he had enlisted with the hope of becoming a medic.  The PA program covered everything we needed–he would become an officer, no longer be infantry, get to practice medicine and  have a PA license that he could use outside of the military for a lucrative career.  If selected, we would owe the Army five or six more years, which included time for the school.

It. Was. Perfect.

I started hounding him to get his application together as soon as his boots hit US soil.  Applications for the program are accepted only once a year, by March 1.  It is one of the most difficult schools in the military, requires the largest application packet, and just a few of the applicants are selected to attend.  We worked on the packet together; it took several months to assemble all of its necessary components.  He submitted it in March, 2010.  The IPAP selection board convened in June that year.

In September, the long-awaited announcement was made.

He was selected.  School started in August, 2011.  Our lives were about to change.

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