It wasn’t the romantic scene I had envisioned.
It was chilly that March morning in Texas, with a steady drizzle that made you feel the cold in your bones. It was 2 a.m. as we said our hurried goodbyes, our breath visible in the early morning air. Nearby, soldiers began to form up, talking loudly and hauling rucksacks and other equipment to loading areas. Someone knocked into me on the way to formation, and the rain started to drip down my back.
I had imagined a much more tender scene when I sent my husband off to war. Maybe I had watched Cold Mountain one too many times. When Inman marches, quite literally, off to war, there were fevered kisses and an exchange of photos. The music swelled and his sweetheart stared after him as he marched away into the trees.
Our goodbye kiss was more like a peck. We had an audience. Our four-year-old son was sitting in the backseat, and a young medical officer we had given a ride was repacking her belongings at the back of our car. It was as if she was heading off on a shopping trip to New York instead of a war zone in Iraq. She briefly looked toward us and waved her hand saying, “go ahead and say goodbye. Don’t mind me.”
It wasn’t like we had not prepared for this. There were deployment briefings and information packets with checklists, well-meaning spouses with stories to share and advice to give. We made up a new will, and had filled out a Power of Attorney for several eventualities. We had months of preparation and discussion, but the actual goodbye was fast.
I didn’t watch him until he marched out of sight. It was 2 a.m. and I had to get our child home and into bed. I watched him in the rearview mirror as I drove away, but only for a minute. The drizzle turned into a downpour and I couldn’t see him in the darkness anymore.
As I drove away, I was afraid for the first time. I had heard stories, knew a friend of a friend who had not returned from a deployment. Being stationed at Fort Hood, death was something that touched us all. More than 500 soldiers from our base died in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had all seen the military processions to the cemetery and the gold stars in the windows. Fort Hood has one of the largest groups of Gold Star spouses of any base in the United States, but it really never occurred to me that I could become one until that morning.
I knew he would mostly be on the FOB (the Forward Operating Base) and not out in the streets of the cities. A Fobbit. That is what he jokingly called himself. Still, I couldn’t shake the thought that I had quickly said goodbye to my partner, and I wasn’t completely certain I would see him again.
As the weeks went by, my anxiety eased a bit. He fell into a rhythm and described most of his days as quiet and uneventful. There were close calls on the base that he didn’t mention to me until he was safely home. But there were some I knew of. Once we were on the phone and I heard a siren sound. He quickly said goodbye, but not before I heard what I thought might be explosions. Several weeks after their arrival in Iraq, their FOB was mortared repeatedly for days. A stray mortar killed a soldier. Wrong place and wrong time for someone’s son, husband or brother. It stayed on my mind for weeks.
By the time Memorial Day arrived I had an underlying anger I could not explain. We joined some friends for dinner at a local restaurant. There were several of us whose husbands were deployed and our children. The restaurant was loud and laughter rang around us. I remember being unreasonably angry at the people around us who were enjoying themselves on a day off from work.
Didn’t they know our husbands were at war? Didn’t they understand that soldiers, airmen and marines were dying? How could they smile and laugh? Why didn’t they care that a mortar had killed a young man just a few weeks ago? He would never see another sunset, attend a barbecue with friends, or celebrate Memorial Day ever again. He was Memorial Day.
My plate sat untouched until my son pulled me out of my anger with his smile. As the deployment wore on, my anger faded and was replaced with determination and a dozen other emotions spouses feel while their partner is away.
I think about that Memorial Day every year at this time. How angry I was. How unreasonable I was. How I had finally focused on the real reason for the holiday.
Even though I come from a career military family and married a service member, I too had overlooked the importance of Memorial Day. I knew what the day was set aside for, but I only fleetingly thought about the faceless men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice. That all changed that year. It became much more personal.
We can not know each and every one though. Those who have given all. Unfortunately, there are far too many. I once tried to go through the Iraq/Afghanistan casualty list online. I wanted to look at their faces and remember. I didn’t get through even a portion of the list. I don’t know all their names or faces. But on Memorial Day, I think of them as a group and am filled with a sense of gratitude that they volunteered to serve the country I live in. I thank them in my own way, even if it is not at a parade or ceremony.
And you know what? Maybe that is all they would have wanted. Their sacrifice allows me to eat hot dogs and chips on a humid May day in the backyard with some friends, as we watch our kids running pell mell through the sprinklers. Their sacrifice allows me to lift my face to the sun and say thank you, thank you, thank you.