Waking Up After Combat

I learned to wake him up by standing at the end of the bed and shaking his foot.  That’s how they did it in combat.  If he woke up swinging, I was out of range.  I also learned to announce my presence when I came into a room where he slept.  Sneaking into the room alerted him to danger.  Announcing myself let him know that he was in a safe place and he was able to stay asleep.  “Honey, I’m coming into the bedroom now! It’s me!”  He would groan a little at the interruption but keep on snoozing rather than springing from bed, wide awake.

A few experiments revealed the easiest ways for him to transition from sleep to awake.  It never felt like a big deal to either of us.  It was a normal response to being on high alert in a combat zone for a year.

Just once he had a waking nightmare.  I found myself unceremoniously dumped from the bed.  “What are you doing!?” I whined as he frantically tossed the pillows and blankets.

“Where is my rifle?  I can’t find my rifle!!” He was in a dead panic.

“Ollie.  Ollie!  OLLIE!  You’re home!  I’m Megan! There is no rifle! You’re HOME!” He finally heard me and stopped looking for his weapon.

“Why are you out of bed?” he asked, looking at me like I was a freak show.

After that I learned what his body felt like when he was having a nightmare.  Before he could wake up, I held him closer and whispered, “It’s ok, Ollie.  You’re home.  I’m here with you.  You’re home.”  His body relaxed with my words.  He squeezed me tight and whispered back, “I love you, Megan,” before his obnoxious snores resumed.

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BRAC is a Four Letter Word

Okay, BRAC is a four letter acronym, but for folks in my circle, it is typically uttered as an epithet.  In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission was formed in accordance with the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990.  The Commission was tasked to work with the Department of Defense to identify and close unnecessary military installations.  Part of the job was to create a more efficient system by moving or combining units between installations.  For example:  Fort Benning now conducts all Infantry and Armor training for the Army.  Fort Sam Houston now conducts all medical training for every branch of the military.  Those schools are no longer spread out at installations around the country.

On paper, it is a great idea.  Perhaps five years from now, the benefit will be worth the cost.  However, the planning and execution of BRAC was a nightmare for soldiers, families, units and installations.

As I mentioned before, our entire Brigade moved from one post to another.  It had already temporarily moved from overseas to a major Army post in the states.  Everyone was aware that the unit would be moving again to its permanent post at the end of our deployment.   Our unit was scheduled to replace a major school which was moving away from our new post.  They were scheduled to leave just before we arrived.

The housing office from the new post sent representatives to give information to the families.  They called it the “Road Show.”  They brought maps, school information, forms to fill out, pictures of all the new housing they were building “just for our unit.”  Before an auditorium of seasoned military wives, they fielded questions. “I have a five children and we need four or more bedrooms.  Do you have large homes available and how long do you project the wait will be?” The lady went on to explain that her family had the option of transferring to another unit and staying in their current home. Their decision was largely based on housing availability at the new post.  The speaker assured her that plenty of large homes were available and they did not expect any wait time when we arrived.  They reiterated that new housing was being built just for us.  The transition would be smooth.

My family was one of the first to arrive at the new post, as I described yesterday.  What we discovered was an entirely different situation than was promised by the Road Show.  As the housing representative informed me after we were already en route, the “waiting list” was not actually a waiting list.  “We can’t put you on a list before you arrive,” she admonished.  “This is just a courtesy list so we know how many families to expect!”

The day after we arrived at the campground, we went to the housing office.  We met with the representative and turned in the necessary paperwork to get ourselves on the real waiting list.  The wait for a four bedroom home would be six months to a year.  The wait for a three bedroom would be significantly shorter.  We could not be on both lists.  Before the move, I had already looked for off-post rentals that would suit our needs.  Everything within an hour of post exceeded our budget.  We decided to wait for a three bedroom.  The camper would be our temporary home for the foreseeable future.

I scheduled a meeting with the general housing manager.  I also sent an emergency message to every person of influence I knew who was still at the old post.  I informed them about the reality of the housing situation.  Hundreds of families were scheduled to move to this area in the next month or two months and they would have no place to live.  They needed to be warned.  The unit needed to slow down the move if possible.

My meeting with the manager revealed that the reason for the housing shortage was the unit which was scheduled to leave post hadn’t left yet.  Their BRAC move had been delayed for at least a year.  The planning for their move didn’t consider the weight of the vehicles they used.  The receiving post had to build new roads in order to support them.  Other similar delays meant that this unit was here to stay.  They were not vacating housing.  In fact, they were busy moving into the new homes that were built “just for us.”

I learned from the manager that hundreds of homes on post were scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt.  They were older townhomes in need of renovation and/or replacement, but they were functional.  Considering the hundreds of families that would be arriving soon to homelessness, they were downright attractive.  The Common Sense Fairy suggested that they delay the destruction of those homes until the post was no longer double occupied.  The manager explained that it would take a literal Act of Congress to change the scheduled destruction.  They were bound by contract to tear them down within a certain period of time.  An Act of Congress was not feasible.

So let’s summarize:  BRAC dictated that a large unit leave the new post so that our unit could move in.  The large unit was unable to move on schedule because BRAC failed to account for their particular needs.  Our unit was unable to stay at the old post, because we were being shoved out by another unit.  Hundreds of families were moving within 60 days and would have no homes.  Hundreds of old homes were vacant on the new post, but the private housing office was contracted by Congress to tear them down.  Local off-post housing exceeded the housing allowance for an E5 with dependents.

I looked into the housing manager’s eyes and asked, “If a sergeant’s family can’t afford housing here, where are the private’s families going to live?”

“In some terrible places,” he answered as he shook his head.

I met with him several times over the course of the month.  He was a retired sergeant major and had true concern for our families.  He managed to fix up some of the old townhouses to be used temporarily.  Everyone in the area who had signed in at the office was offered temporary housing.  They brought us all in as a group, gave us the forms and the keys.  Two weeks in the camper were enough “vacation” for my family and we were grateful to have a little more space until our names came up for a permanent home.

It didn’t occur to me that I would need to examine the temporary quarters before signing for them.  The Army is meticulous with move-out policy–everything has to be pristine before a soldier is allowed to vacate.  I was understandably tired.  I was relieved to have a bedroom with a door.  Layout and location were irrelevant.  Basic furnishings were provided.  It would have a real bathroom.  Sweet.

I should have known better.  When I arrived at the home, I discovered urine in the toilet, broken glass on the floor and a thick layer of muck on the bottom of the bathtub.  Food remnants were on the stove, in the refrigerator and on the counters.  I immediately called my housing representative.  Her response was, “Well, you wanted to move as quickly as possible.  I guess I can have a cleaning crew come out next week.”

“No, that is not acceptable.  I will clean this house and you will pay me to do it.  Now transfer my call to the manager.”  He was duly obsequious and cut a check to pay me for cleaning the house before I could allow my family to set one foot in it.

Sharing our experiences helped our unit set up systems to take care of our soldiers and their families.  A unit liaison was given space in the housing office.  They assisted incoming families in procuring acceptable temporary and permanent housing.  The housing office had several staff turnovers until they had the right people in the right positions.  Our early intervention helped, but didn’t completely solve, the issue.  With everyone working together we were able to help our families avoid the worst of the available places to live.

Telling you about this today is not a call to action.  Phone calls don’t need to be made, letters don’t need to be written.  This is an old story and all of its issues have been addressed.  My point is that this is what homecoming looks like.  This story is specific to my experience, but every military family is faced with bizarre hurdles to overcome during the time they are supposed to be pulling together to heal.  Movies, commercials, “reality” shows and heartwarming news stories show only snippets of what we experience.  In those, the happy ending is the reunion photo, when the family embraces and before they walk out of the frame.  Homecoming doesn’t end there, though.  Not only are we dealing with reintegration, we are often moving across the country, trying to find a decent home and a good school for the kids.  We are fighting battles with huge, incompetent entities to make sure our comrades have what they need. And within a month of their boots being parked outside our front door again, our soldiers are training up again for the next deployment.

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“Let’s do a DITY!” she said. “We’ll make money!”

So there was this one time when Ollie came home from a year at war to a wife of two and a half years, with whom he had only shared the same roof for six months.  He also returned to an eight year old daughter, a six year old step-son, a two and a half year old daughter, and an almost one year old son who he met during R&R.

He was blessed with newlywed bliss (learning to live together), new baby bliss (getting to know this demanding little stranger), and reintegration bliss (remembering how to be civilized after a year of combat) all at the same time.  It’s a miracle he didn’t run away from all that joy.

Because he didn’t have enough on his plate, his entire brigade was scheduled to move to a post across the country just 90 days after the soldiers came home, as dictated by BRAC.  (Sidenotes:  Army installations are called “posts.”  Other military installations are called bases.  Base Realignment and Closure was a plan from Congress and the DOD to shut down some installations and move units around in order to improve efficiency and decrease spending. More about that on a different day.)  Although the Army would move Ollie’s family for free, his darling wife exuberantly suggested that his family move themselves.  “We can make money!” she exclaimed.  A former real estate broker and daughter of an accomplished used car salesman, she closed the deal.

It was then decided with and/or without Ollie’s input that the family should not wait through the entire 90 day stabilization period before moving, because school started so early at the new post.  Although he really just wanted to go fishing and relax since he had just spent 300+ days working in the desert with no days off, he agreed with his insistent wife that the family should move barely more than a month after he returned home.

She worked feverishly, making lists and binders, packing boxes, nagging him to do more, procuring paperwork and feeding everyone the scary back-of-the-freezer food and weird cans of stuff so that nothing went to waste.  He went fishing and played with his babies.  She was angry.  He was exhausted.

They were better at living apart while married than they were at living together while married.  She wondered, “Who is this strange man who thinks he has the right to touch things in the kitchen?”  He was befuddled by this crazy woman who made a list for every damn thing. Regardless of conflict, they were relieved to fall into bed together each night.  They slept tangled in a mess of arms and legs, often losing track of whose feet were whose.

Megan’s planning paid off for the do-it-yourself move.  She got the house packed, the truck loaded (she paid workers to do that because she was sure divorce was imminent if they tried to move furniture together), the utilities stopped, the paperwork done, the house cleared.  She arranged hotels for the first and second night of the move.  She was on fire.

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Just call us the Clampetts.

Moving day finally arrived but Army finance complications delayed their departure by about eight hours.  It was late afternoon before they got the circus caravan on the road.  The kids had already been in the van for most of the day.  They decided to make the first leg of the journey very short, just a couple of hours, to test out the system and make sure everything was working while friends were close enough to help if there was a problem.  They gratefully pulled into the first hotel parking lot, ready for dinner and bed.

That’s when Megan discovered that she had left her wallet in a shoppette bathroom back on the post they had just left.  All of their cash from closing their bank account was in it–a whopping $950.  A few tense moments later, Megan was back on the road.  The shoppette confirmed that the wallet was in their possession.  To her great relief, the cash was still there.  Ollie stayed with the kids at the hotel and considered how his wife could pull off such an epic move with extraordinary organization and then be so flighty as to leave nine hundred and fifty dollars cash in a gas station bathroom.

He was beginning to doubt her competency but it was far too late to change the plan at this time.  Perhaps he should have paid more attention when she explained that they would book their hotels through Hotwire while they were on the road.  “That way, we can just stop wherever we want to stop for the night.  And, we’ll save money!”  She didn’t go into detail about how Hotwire works–you choose a general area and the “niceness” of the place you stay, but you don’t actually know the name and location of the hotel until after you have paid for the room.  Megan thought it was a great opportunity to stay in shwanky hotels for cheap.  Megan wasn’t driving the big-ass U-haul.

The first night, the hotel was great.  It was new, clean, had friendly service and a big parking lot.  It was right off the interstate.  After a good night’s sleep, Ollie’s faith in his wife’s planning was somewhat restored. The second night, the “four-star” hotel in Little Rock was old and musty.  They arrived late and departed early.  It was a little hard to find, but still had ample parking.  The third night on the road, Ollie knew for certain that he’d married a crazy person.

She booked a hotel in downtown Nashville.  The rate was incredible for a five star hotel where the country music stars stay when they are in town. She called the hotel, explained their circus rig and inquired about parking.  “Most of our guests use the valet and the parking garage, but your truck won’t fit.  Just pull up on the street and park where the tour buses usually go.”

And that’s how they ended up with a U-haul pulling a trailer with a car and kayak on top and an old conversion van parked in the place usually occupied by Miley Cyrus’s tour bus.

Ollie was unimpressed with the accommodations after several close calls in downtown traffic.  Megan thought he was a party-pooper who needed to lighten up and enjoy the adventure.   She prowled the common areas of the hotel with the eight year old, hoping to catch a glimpse of Miley around each corner.  Besides, the view was amazing! (Again, Megan wasn’t the one driving the big-ass U-Haul.)

During the drive, Megan called the housing office at the destination to confirm what she had been told by phone for the previous few weeks.  “We are driving to you now and will arrive in two days.  I was told that we are on the waiting list and that you should have a home available when we arrive.”

The lady on the phone chuckled.  “No, ma’am, we have no homes available.  You are on the courtesy list, not the actual waiting list.  You’re going to have to find somewhere else to stay, but all the hotels are full right now so I’m not sure where you can go.”

On Day Four of the DITY, the caravan pulled up to a camper trailer at the MWR campground near post–the only available, affordable temporary housing in the area.

“It’ll be fun?” Megan said hopefully to her weary family. “It’ll be like a vacation!”

Posted in DITY, Lovebirds, PCS, Reintegration | 4 Comments

The Guilt of Dodging the Bullet

This is Part Two of the story of Jessica and LeRoy.

“You’re here about LeRoy!  He has 3 daughters!  Jessica is my friend!”  My voice sounded like it was coming from a stranger’s mouth.

Their eyes told me the truth even though they were unable to confirm.  My knees finally gave out completely. The Chaplain caught me and held me in a tight hug until I could stand on my own again.

In cases of high emotion, I quickly go into “we have shit to do, no time for crying” mode.    “You have to find her.  You have to go to her now.”  They didn’t have her correct address. I assumed her unit lost the paperwork she submitted before she left.  Her oldest daughter mailed me a letter, which I put “somewhere safe” so I could write back to her.  With the officers watching, I tore apart my house to find it so these messengers of death could track her down.

“Please don’t tell her,” they said. “There are procedures that have to be followed.”

“Your procedures have gone really well so far, haven’t they?” I snapped, “I won’t call her.  She doesn’t need to hear this from me.”

One of the Gold Star wives from Care Team training received a botched notification.  It prolonged the agony, offered her false hope (“maybe my friend is wrong”), and it made a horrible situation even worse. I couldn’t do that to Jessica, even if she never forgave me for it.  I knew that her husband was dead before she did, and I didn’t tell her.

With the officers still there, I considered texting her to ask for her address.  It was an innocuous question and wouldn’t alarm  her.  They asked me not to contact her, though. I wasn’t sure I trusted myself to do it anyway. I regret listening to them.  The CNOs in her small town managed to botch the notification there, too.  I didn’t find the letter before the officers left my home.  The only information I could provide them was the name of the small town where she lived and her phone number.

Shane, our unit’s rear detachment commander, was used to getting the weird calls from me.  “I’m across the country in pre-term labor in the ER of a small town civilian hospital.  Oh, no, don’t worry about me, I’m calling about a problem one of the wives is having.  Can you help her out?”  “Sorry it’s the middle of the night, but one of the wives just witnessed the accidental suicide of a close family friend who just returned from Afghanistan. There’s nothing in the handbook about what I’m supposed to do with this.”  “So, um, I’ve landed in the ER again and they don’t know what’s wrong.  Also, another of the wives is having an issue with pay.  Can you send somebody over for me and help her out, too?”  “A wife has disappeared after dumping her kids off on another one of the women. We think she might be in Vegas.”   “One of the wives is having serious heart problems and was rushed to the hospital.  A Red Cross message is being sent.”

And now, “The notification team came to my house by mistake.  My friend is dead and his wife doesn’t know.”

Shane still has the comforting presence of the funeral director he was in his pre-Army life, but in this case it took him a minute to find his voice.  He calmly made sure I was okay, instructed me not to contact her and reaffirmed that it was best for her to learn the news through official channels. He urged me to go to a friend’s house for the night.

The senior FRG advisor called me in tears to make sure I was okay.  I wasn’t.  This was never going to be okay.  My friend tended me as I sat, unseeing, in her living room.  She kept our children busy and listened when I needed to speak.  Each moment I wondered if this was the one where Jessica’s knees fell out.  Jessica’s moment was real.  Hers was forever.

I felt like someone was trying to shoot me but I ducked, so they shot her instead.  It doesn’t make logical sense, really.  The guys were in two different countries, fighting two different wars.  It was an administrative mistake that they came to my house at all.  Survivor guilt bears no logic.  I couldn’t, and still can’t, shake the feeling that my dodge somehow created her loss.  My elation to hear “not my name” was her anguish. My emotions betrayed her.  Part of me will always believe that it was supposed to be me–the bullet was meant for me.

In a unit that experiences a lot of casualties, family members go through a vicious cycle of emotions.  When communication from downrange shuts down, we know that they are on “black out.”  Something happened.  Someone is dead.  Someone is hurt.  Our soldiers won’t be calling us again until the family is notified.  We sit there hoping they aren’t coming for us.  We sit there hoping they are coming for someone else, for anyone else…even though we know the only other “someones” are our friends.  Every single one of us has breathed a sigh of relief when it was “not me” and we will forever bear the guilt of wishing that pain on people we love.

The doorbell ring is an eternal moment.  It still lives, suspended in time.  I am still standing in the living room, looking through the window at the two men in Class A’s.  My husband is dead, and all I can do is plead, “No.”

Nearly four years later, with Ollie safely at home and in no danger of deploying, the doorbell still brings me to my knees.  My heart races, my ears buzz, I have tunnel vision.  In the moments after it rings I have lost my whole world, it has vanished from under me and I am plunged into darkness.  It is a little better if I’m expecting a visitor or delivery, but even then I open the door with trepidation.  After twenty minutes or so I am able to breathe freely and put everything back into its proper place.  Sometimes I still go touch my husband just to make sure he is really home.

Jessica wishes I had called, but she forgives me.  We stay in contact, seeing each other when we travel. The girls are growing and thriving.  Their lives are moving forward, they are healing.  Jessica approved my writing this and one day she may share the story of her journey where my telling of it leaves off.  She is strong, resilient and courageous.  Her path is not what she’d hoped, but she fucking rocks it.

The botched notification was a serious deal.   I spoke with the division commander for LeRoy’s unit and made very strong suggestions about keeping accurate contact information for their families.  The Casualty Assistance Office provided further training for their officers about the bizarre idiosyncrasies of on-post housing numbers.  Soon after the incident, every home was provided with a name plate to attach to the front of the house.  It included the soldier’s name and rank.  If anything improved because of the mistake, if anyone else was spared this horror, I am grateful it happened to me.

It was two weeks before Ollie was back from a mission and able to call home.  I didn’t truly believe he was alive until I heard his voice.  We did our verbal mourning dance when I told him about LeRoy.  We lightly reminisced about the time their middle daughter broke her arm on our porch and how Ollie set it with a George Foreman spatula while LeRoy cuddled her.  We chuckled about his big round eyes popping up over the fence, the cheap beers he like to drink and his excellent barbecue.  My husband grew quiet when I told him about the patrol, the sniper who found the only vulnerable spot in the armor.  We shared mutual disbelief.  LeRoy’s deployment was supposed to be easy.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  None of us had even been worried.

LeRoy Otis Webster, you are loved.  You will never be forgotten.  Rest easy, brother.

Posted in Casualties, Deployment, PTSD, Survivor Guilt | 3 Comments

Jessica and LeRoy

Our back yards were so close that when we both fired up the grill for dinner, the smoke joined into one cloud above the privacy fence.  I don’t remember the first time we finally spoke to each other;  we sized each other up for a long time before saying hello.  Things can get awkward quickly if you’re too friendly with the people who share your walls, especially if they turn out to be asshats.

My spying revealed that their three daughters appeared to be similar ages to our kids.  They were well-behaved.  Their family seemed to enjoy one another and when they had friends over, they weren’t rowdy.  Plus, the stuff they barbecued always smelled really, really good. They passed the cursory asshat test with flying colors.

When we finally broke the ice, we usually only talked over the fence.  We always ended up grilling at the same time and we’d stand out there and shoot the shit.  LeRoy was like Wilson from Home Improvement.  For the longest time I had no idea what his whole face looked like.  The top of his head and eyes bobbed over the top of the fence as we talked.  Jessica was too short to see over the fence so we stood on our porch stairs and chatted across the yard.  In time we learned that they were high school sweethearts.  They were only in their mid-twenties but had been married for longer than us;  they had already spent years apart due to deployments.  Our youngest daughters were born on the exact same day.  Our kids made friends and played together in one yard or the other.  The adults mostly stayed in our own spaces at first; we took the adage, “good fences make good neighbors,” to heart.

While Ollie was preparing for his first Afghan deployment, I often found him out at the fence talking with LeRoy about what to expect.  A proud cavalry NCO, LeRoy freely shared his experiences.  He had been home for about six months and was preparing for an Iraq deployment in another six months.  Iraq was calming down and he wasn’t too worried about this one; it was billed to be an easy deployment without the constant enemy engagement like he experienced before.  Afghanistan was heating up and  I was scared for Ollie to go,  but we were all glad that LeRoy was “just” going to Iraq.  Their family deserved an easy one after the others.

It was my first experience in post housing, living among other military families.  Jessica was an inspiration and mentor to me, whether she knew it or not.  She ran her household efficiently, was a stellar mother, exercised every evening and resiliently rolled with the Army punches. She spoke of maddening Army moments with a shrug and amused raise of her eyebrow. One day she got bored and decided to paint her kitchen.  I asked her how she could do that in on-post housing and she answered, “I’ll just paint it white again when we leave!”  Her industriousness impressed me.  I was pregnant, had little energy, and felt paralyzed by Ollie’s impending deployment.  She was the Energizer Bunny who let nothing get her down.

When I accidentally got stuck out of town for two months with my very premature baby, Jessica cleaned the house, mowed the lawn, and fed the cat.  When we came home, she helped me get settled in.  She answered questions like, “Does that look like a rash to you?” and “Do you think he has a fever?”  She invited me over for dinner all the time so that I didn’t have to eat alone with the kids every night.  LeRoy was one of the few males I would allow near my littlest guy before Ollie could get home to meet his son.  My boy seemed relieved to have a  male counterpart.  So did LeRoy–he was a father of three daughters.  He and Jessica frequently apologized to my baby for his first name, promising to only call him by his more acceptable middle name.  They launched a hilarious but doomed campaign to convince me to change his name altogether.  One evening when I found my back door standing open when I came home, LeRoy cleared the house before letting us go inside.  They watched out for me.  They were family.

When I had to run out to emergency FRG meetings, Jessica watched my babies.  We never really talked about the memorials, but she was witness to my unraveling.  She encouraged me to join her for her multi-mile speed walk evening excursions from Hades.  We pushed strollers full of babies while the big kids road bikes or scooters.  The activity helped burn off a lot of anxiety.  On nights when I had to call families to inform them of unit casualties, I sat outside and breathed in the smoke from LeRoy’s cigarettes.  After a while, I started bumming smokes from him.  We didn’t really talk much those nights.  We smoked on either side of the fence, silently reflecting on the fuckedupedness of it all.

We were supposed to trade babysitting, but Jessica ended up watching my kids way more than I watched hers.  I was glad when I was able to take care of her girls the night she and LeRoy went to their pre-deployment Ball.  She was gorgeous as always, he looked distinguished in his Class A’s.  They came home laughing and telling stories about the night’s events.

As LeRoy’s deployment grew closer, they decided that she and the girls would move home while he was gone.  They would have family support and the kids could spend time with their grandparents.  I was devastated for them to leave, but glad that they would have time with family.  They packed up and moved during the two weeks that Ollie was home for R&R near Christmas.  She did as promised–the kitchen was painted white again when she pulled out of the driveway for the last time.  We waved to them as they were packing the truck, but we missed saying real goodbyes by about 20 minutes.  Most military families avoid the goodbyes anyway.

We stayed in contact as time allowed, but life was busy for both of us.  I volunteered, dealt with memorials, my health suffered, my friendships were strained and with every unit casualty my paranoia increased.  One day in April, the panic beast raged and I had no hope of taming it.   I paced through the house from the front door to the back door, looking outside, watching for the official vehicle I thought must be coming for me.  Through the front window, I caught a glimpse of a military police car cruising slowly down my street.  Our eyes met as he looked at my house.   When I walked to the back door, I saw him again.  He was cruising down the alley behind the house, pausing to look at me through the back door.  Panicked, I called my best friend Heather to talk me down.  There were a million reasons that an MP could have been driving by the house.  She distracted me until  I was feeling almost well enough to hang up the phone.

Then the doorbell rang.

The doorbell rang.

The doorbell.

Time stopped.  My ears buzzed. I had tunnel vision.  “Stay with me,” I whispered to Heather.

I walked toward the front door.  It might have taken me 5 seconds or 5 years to get there.  As I approached, I saw papers.  Papers held by a man.  Papers held by a man in Class A’s.  Two men in Class A’s with papers.  “They’re here,” I whispered.  “They’re here.”  She was silent.

My knees somehow supported me all the way to the door.  I opened it slowly, pleading, begging, whimpering, “No.”  A simple word, the only word.  I knew what it meant for them to be there.  I begged for it not to be true even though I knew that my beloved husband had to be dead.  Ollie was gone.

They gathered themselves for a moment, looked directly into my tear-filled eyes and said, “Hello, ma’am.  Are you Jessica Webster?”

All I heard was that it was the wrong name.  It wasn’t my name.  “It’s not my name, Heather, it’s not my name!!”  I hung up on her.  “That’s not my name!  You have the wrong house, that’s not me!”  They were horrified. I felt, for just a flash, like I’d won the lottery.

But then I understood.

They were looking for Jessica.

LeRoy Webster was dead.

Posted in Casualties, Deployment | 3 Comments

Don’t come in the house with mud on your boots!

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The best thing to see on the front porch. It means they’re home!

My story involves a lot of other people’s stories.  In order to share our experiences in a real and honest way, I need to include those stories as well.  Before I publish them here, I contact the folks I’ve written about and ask for their permission.  In some cases I will be changing names, dates and locations.  Once I write a draft, I allow the people I’ve written about to look over it before I share it here.  Because the subject matter is so difficult, it may take time before certain parts of our story can be shared.

While I’m waiting for a draft to be reviewed, I figured I would address you friends and readers.  If you have a story to share and would like it to be here, I will do my best to accommodate you.   We can alter it so it is anonymous or we can share with your real name.  Our stories are important.  People who are insulated from the wars need to hear them.  Those who want to support military families but don’t know how, need to first understand our experiences.  Your story is important and I am happy to help you tell it.

Please be careful when you read.  I will likewise be careful when I write.  We need to share, we need to connect, we need to remember, but we also need to protect our minds and hearts when we are struggling.  These pages will contain difficult material that could act as triggers for servicemembers, spouses, parents, siblings, and caregivers–especially for those who have experienced these things alongside me.

Other housekeeping:  I will be working on a crisis page and a general resources page.  Comments are moderated so it might take some time before you see them published.  I might start a FB page for the blog so it’s easier to share.  I think I will get an email that is dedicated to this space. WordPress and I are just getting to know each other. For now we are a little at odds.  We are seeking counseling to resolve our issues, but if you receive 5 emails about the same damn post just realize that we’re having yet another squabble.  Sorry about that.

Any other thoughts and suggestions are welcomed, but may not be heeded.

And, as always, don’t come in the house with mud on your boots.

Posted in Housekeeping | Leave a comment

The Exquisite Beginning

We bound through the trails of a local state park, sail over logs and rip around corners.  His face is lit with mischief and amusement at my slow pace.  He tears off down the trail and bounces gleefully back to me.  I am terrified that I will break myself on the rocks or spectacularly fall in front of him.  He lifts me over a gate at the end, probably so he can steal a kiss.  (Not that he has to steal any of them.)

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How he sees me.

I take him to the holler.  We hike up in those sacred woods where I still feel the spirits of loved ones past.  I am befuddled by this man who walks straight into the creek wearing his shoes as I carefully remove mine and carry them to the other side. He chats cheerfully with my aunt. He lays on his stomach in the dirt to take pictures of mushrooms.  My aunt tells me how much she likes him.  She says he smells like a man.

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Holler Fungi

We dance in the street at a small town festival. We sneak out for nighttime strolls in our little neighborhood.  We climb mountains and hike trails in four different states with babies strapped to us.

When the drops start falling, we run outside to play in the rain.

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Searching for the perfect river rock.

Our early days are sunshine streaming through trees, creeks laughing, breezes carrying the echoes of flowers, dirt and sweat.  He gallops ahead, pausing frequently to make sure I haven’t lost my footing along the way.

Posted in Lovebirds | 1 Comment

Hell on the Homefront

When writing about difficult things, I generally try to include humor or funny anecdotes.  In this case, I could find neither.  I share this mainly to provide the background of my story and to educate those who do not have firsthand experience with deployment.  For those of you who went through this with me, this post is about our experiences with FRG, Care Team, and memorial services during the 2008-2009 deployment.  I am not sharing anything you haven’t experienced.  You may want to skip this if you still struggle with that time period.

During his first deployment I was his company’s Family Readiness Group leader.  I coordinated contact information for the family members of each soldier, held meetings, fundraisers and events for the local families, and passed along important information from command.  A lot of my work was done remotely, since I accidentally gave birth two months early, 1000 miles from home, four days after he deployed.  That’s a story for another day, though.

As part of our leadership education, we attended a Care Team¹ training course.  The Care Team is set up to support a family in the immediate aftermath of a casualty notification.  Much like extended family, they come to the home of the bereaved and help cook, clean, arrange childcare, help organize visitors, make phone calls, and anything else the family needs.  They have strict guidelines, are bound by confidentiality, and are taught how to deal with a family in crisis.

Until the training, I was afraid of Gold Star families (Gold Star families have lost a loved one in combat).  In some small way I wondered if they were contagious.  I didn’t even park next to the Gold Star parking spot at the commissary no matter the distance to the next open spot. The first time I came face to face with war widows was during the training.  They came to share their stories, how they were notified, how they felt immediately after the notification, what was helpful and what was harmful.  Compassion finally outweighed my fear and I was able to embrace them by the end.

I wanted to believe that they were different than me somehow.  I wanted to believe that we had nothing in common.  I wanted to believe that there was no way that I could one day sit on the other side of that room, sharing my story, training people how to deal with my life.  The realization that we were not different in any way was particularly harsh.

The casualty notification process is tightly controlled².  The team consists of a chaplain and a casualty notification officer.  The goal is to notify a family in person within 4 hours of the death of their servicemember.  They work hard to make sure that the family does not hear rumors before the official notification.  The FRG leaders were responsible for keeping correct contact information for each family, including their travel information.  We needed to know where they were at all times so we could find them if their soldier was killed in action.  It was a sick and necessary part of our jobs.

To help us understand what a family has just gone through when a Care Team arrives, a casualty notification was acted out in front of us.  We gathered at the home of one of the senior leaders.  A casualty notification officer in training and a chaplain rang the doorbell.  A woman (who was single in real life) portrayed the wife of the home.  She answered the door with a laundry basket in hand, welcomed the officers and sat on the couch.  We listened to the CNO stumble over the words caught in his throat to inform her of the casualty.  It may have started with “I regret to inform you…” but I was working so hard to keep my emotions in check that I didn’t hear the rest of his speech.  Afterward, we discussed notifications with the chaplain.  We talked about the various reactions of family members he had seen. We huddled together and ate hors d’oeuvres, hoping we were never the person on the couch, hoping we never needed any of this training.

We were as prepared as we could possibly be, but nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced.

Our first brigade casualty occurred while I was away.  I sat on my cot in the NICU in Asheville, North Carolina, wondering if my husband would ever meet his tiny son.  It was within days, maybe a week or two, of our guys’ boots hitting the ground.  In the same time period, a battle in Eastern Afghanistan left nine American troops killed and twenty-seven wounded.  It was the first thing I saw when I turned on the television–I wasn’t even intentionally watching the news.  I watched in horror and wished that we were close to our military family.  The community I was in was supportive but had little understanding of the depth of my struggle.  The phone rang and I answered with a cracking voice.  A member of my family asked what was wrong so I told her what I had seen on the news.  She replied, “Well, you knew what you were getting into when you married him.”  We didn’t talk much after that.

Unfortunately, the casualties didn’t slow down.  In the beginning the brigade planned to have individual memorial services for each fallen soldier, but there were so many that they combined them into monthly services.  When there was a casualty in the unit, the FRG leaders were called to a closed door meeting.  They gave us information and instructions about what to tell our families.  Then we would go and call each spouse and notify her about our loss.  I explained repeatedly that I was not calling about their soldier, that I would never notify them about anything directly related to their husbands.  After the first couple of calls, some of my spouses asked me not to tell them any more.  I respected their wishes and only called them regarding meetings, resources, and welfare checks.  Some of my spouses wanted to hear the bad news from me before they heard it through the rumor mill.  Some of the spouses didn’t want to hear from me at all.

At memorial services the leaders sat together behind the bereaved family.  We held hands during roll call, the rifle volley, and Taps.  We witnessed one of the commanders who was home for R&R break down as he eulogized one of his men. Silent tears rolled down our cheeks as one mother wailed loudly and collapsed in the chapel.  We stood outside and watched the ambulance take her away.

We gathered in support of the family of a young soldier who, rather than face more months of deployment, took his own life in Afghanistan.  I will never forget his official photograph, which was obviously out of regulations. He was sporting a huge goofy smile instead of the usual military grimace.  He told the photographer that if he was killed over there, he wanted his mama to see his smile.

When we walked outside after his memorial, we were pulled to the side by one of the senior leaders.  “Get ready,” she said, through tightly controlled emotions. “We’ve had a mass casualty.”

By the end of the deployment, even the strongest among us was emotionally, mentally, and in my case, physically shattered from the stress.  We each volunteered 20-30 hours a week (often more), supporting the unit, supporting the families, supporting each other.

We didn’t need to go to war to know it was Hell.  Hell came home to us.

¹The official Army Care Team Handbook can be found here in .pdf form.
²The Army released this to inform family members about the casualty notification process.
Posted in Casualties, Deployment | 14 Comments

The Legacy

Before his first deployment, we undertook the gruesome task of filling out his Legacy Book.  He brought it home one day and left it on his desk, unopened.  We both knew what it contained and we saved it for an evening when we could both handle its contents.  Sitting in the living room with babies roaming around, we planned his funeral.  We chose pall bearers, music, ceremonies, what I should do with his body, and how I should spend the life insurance money.

It wasn’t nearly as dreary as it may sound.  Our first plan for his body was to stuff it and stand it at the front door and dress him up for the seasons:  A Santa Claus suit, an Easter Bunny suit (ok, I just made that one up), a kilt for St. Patrick’s Day.  Then he came up with the extraordinary plan of picking the world’s most annoying places and asking that I spread a teaspoon of his ashes in each place so he could annoy me from beyond the grave.  That’s when I told him I’d be getting a boob job with the life insurance money and started scribbling furiously in the Legacy Book.

We eventually came up with less extravagant plans.  Those weren’t nearly as fun to discuss.

He deployed to Afghanistan in June of 2008.  While he was gone I sent weekly care packages, including handwritten letters, pictures, favorite foods, and necessities.  One day I was writing his letter and I wanted to convey that no matter how he came home, no matter what state his body or mind was in, I would be waiting.  I would care for him for the remainder of our days.  It wasn’t our style to just say sappy things outright like that, so I drew him a picture.

I drew him missing a leg, an arm, and an eye.  I gave him a peg leg, a hook, and an eyepatch.  At the bottom, I wrote, “I will love you even if you come home looking like this!”  I labelled various parts (probably indecently) and paused for just a moment  to reconsider before sealing it up and dropping it in the mail.

Several weeks later he called me, laughing.  He told me that earlier in the day he received my letter and he was holding it, still sealed, talking with a buddy.  They were discussing the possibilities of getting injured.  He declared, “If I end up getting hurt, I don’t want to lose more than an arm, a leg, and an eye.  Then I can wear a hook, a peg leg and an eye patch and be a pirate!  Yarrrr!”  They had a good giggle and then he opened my letter.  There was the picture.  He held it up for his friend and said, “Just like this!”

We are soulmates, for better or worse.

Posted in Morbid Humor, Pre-Deployment | 6 Comments