Monday, January 26, 2015

*Companion Post* The Good Soldiers - Life of a Wife

I was twenty-two when I met my future husband in Manhattan, Kansas. I worked as a waitress at a local buffet restaurant and he was a soldier in the Army stationed at Ft. Riley, twenty miles away. In Kansas, 20 miles is nothing. We met at a club. According to him, he'd spent half the night watching me turn down guy after guy that tried to dance with me (I did frequently turn down guys when I was out dancing with my friends, so I can believe it). Eventually he said to his buddy, "You wanna see something funny?" and headed my way, fully believing that I would turn him down too. I didn't. We were married three months later at the courthouse on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. By Thanksgiving we knew when he was going to deploy.

We got up early one Tuesday morning in early February to head to base. I spent the morning sitting in his "office" which was just a small space inside a cage, while my husband made sure he had all the equipment he needed. My husband was communications support in an infantry unit. It was his job to help make sure the radios were working before missions. I wanted to believe that meant he would never leave the base, but he was also a humvee driver. In the end, he spent more time off the base than he did on it.

Before the soldiers even got on the buses to head to the gym for a final briefing, I ended up in my car, bawling my eyes out because I couldn't hold the tears back anymore. At that point, I was pretty sure I was going to be one of the unlucky spouses that never saw her husband alive again. I cried most of the way home too, until the tears dried up. I don't remember what I did for the rest of the day, but I think I went back to bed and slept until I just couldn't sleep any more.

After my husband left, I threw myself into work, putting in sixty hour weeks, pulling doubles most days, rarely ever taking a day off, because I couldn't bear to be home alone. I slept on the couch for the entire fourteen months that he was gone, with the t.v. on all night, so the apartment would never be quiet. I sent my husband a Myspace message every night, a letter every week, and a package twice every month. I was lucky to hear from him once a week, usually via a Myspace message, but sometimes we would be able to chat on Yahoo Messenger or he would have the chance to call me. He could text my phone from Yahoo Messenger, so I took to walking around with my hand in my apron pocket at work whenever I could, so I would feel it vibrate if he got online. If he called while I was at work I'd sneak into the store room to talk to him for a couple minutes before I got back to work. Sometimes I was lucky and he'd call while I was in the back doing my side work. I'd immediately go clock out and then finish my work while talking to my husband. Sometimes my manager would catch me talking on the phone while doing my side work and he'd gripe even though I'd already clocked out, but I didn't care. I was not missing the chance to talk to my husband. I missed a lot of phone calls too, because I couldn't always get back to the store room in time to answer.

I avoided base like the plague while my husband was gone, although I'd basically avoided it before he left too, so that wasn't really a big change. I just didn't really have a reason to go there, because there wasn't much that I could buy on base that I couldn't get at Wal-Mart, Target or Dillons. I did go to base one time, though, to buy some new PT shirts for my husband. The soldiers could buy PT shirts at their PX in Iraq, but the size selection wasn't always very diverse, and my husbands size was one of the ones that they basically never had.

The day my husband was supposed to be home for his R&R, I was woken up by a phone call at about 9 a.m. It was my husband telling me he'd be in Kansas City in an hour. He wasn't supposed to be getting in until about 4 that afternoon, but they'd gotten bumped up to an earlier flight in Dallas. The plan had been for me to pick him up at 4 at the Manhattan airport, and I could still do that, or I could get my butt in the car and pick him up in KC, six hours earlier. The only problem is that the KC airport was a 2 hour and 15 minute drive away from our apartment. Somehow I managed to get dressed, do my make-up and get to the airport in an hour and forty minutes because I was the idiot on the interstate doing 90. My husbands flight had just landed when I got there and I got to see him walk off the plane. That had been my goal. I think putting him on the plane to go back after his leave was even harder than watching him get on the bus to leave back in February. I even had strangers at the airport hugging me because I couldn't contain my tears.

In December portions of Riley and Geary counties were covered in ice, including Manhattan and Ft. Riley. The ice hung heavy on the trees, breaking off branches and pulling down power lines. My apartment was without power for almost 4 whole days. I got a call from Rear D on the second day, asking if I had power. I said no. They told me I should come to post because they had cots set up for families without power. I lied and said I was staying at my brothers place that still had power. My brothers apartment did still have power, but I wasn't staying there. I did go there to shower and recharge my phone a couple times while my power was out though. On the other two nights that I wasn't at my brother's apartment when the power was out, I took a book to Village Inn to eat and read in the warmth and light until I figured I was tired enough to fall asleep at home. Then I'd huddle up on the couch under seven blankets until I fell asleep. On the 14th, my birthday, I still didn't have power when I left the apartment to go to the bars with my brother to celebrate. When I got home, I had power. The next day I left for a week to spend time with my in-laws before the holidays.

In early April I finally got the call I'd been waiting for. The one to tell me that my husband was going to be home at 3 pm in two days, less than 48 hours after receiving the call, because that's all the notice we were allowed. The next day at work I was lucky to have the section of the restaurant where most of the regular customers always sat. I spent my day in a cloud telling them all that my husband was coming home tomorrow. I had just over 24 hours left until I would see him. I was talking to one table of regulars when I felt my phone vibrate. I glanced in my pocket and didn't recognize the number. "I think I need to answer this," I said to them as I crouched down between them so hopefully if my boss came out of his office he wouldn't notice me talking on my phone. I was right and I did need to answer it. It was Rear D calling to tell me that the return ceremony had been moved up to 3 am instead of 3 pm. I literally squealed. I had another table that wasn't composed of regular customers and they had just seen me answer my phone while I was supposed to be working. I was not expecting a tip from them, because they had not received very good service. They had however, overheard me telling my other tables that my husband was coming home and tipped me anyway. One of them even congratulated me on getting my husband home. I'm glad they understood my distraction.

I didn't go to sleep that night. I was far too excited to even think about getting a few hours of sleep before heading to the ceremony. Instead, at 1 am, I was dress, with my hair and make-up done, just waiting for my mother-in-law and her boyfriend to get to my place so we could go to the ceremony together. We wanted to get there early to get good seats, and we were in the front row of the bleachers with at least an hour until the guys would arrive. They were playing a slideshow of pictures of the guys from the deployment to keep us entertained while we waited. Then the soldiers filed in. Once I saw my husband I kept my eyes trained on him. We'd chosen our seats exceptionally well because he was basically straight in front of us, a few rows back in the formation for the brief fifteen minute ceremony that still felt like it took way too long. Then he was in my arms and everything was alright again, well mostly.

And that's most of my deployment experience, and I probably had it easier than most. My brother lived in the same town as me, and I was only 2 hours away from my parents. I had friends at work so I could avoid base without feeling completely isolated. I had some bad days at work when the National Guard and Reserve soldiers would come in to eat during drill weekend. If I'd heard from my husband recently, seeing them wasn't a problem. If it had been days since the last time we talked, I just wanted to hide in the back until they were gone. One evening when I wasn't working, my next door neighbor scared me. I'd heard a knock on my door and I basically never got visitors that knocked (my brother would just walk right in, because that's what family does). I looked through the peephole to see a soldier in ACU's. My heart dropped into my stomach as I opened the door, expecting bad news. Instead I got a package that UPS had left with him because I wasn't home when they'd tried to deliver it. I vaguely remembered the slip they'd left stuck to my door four days before, but I always got home from work so late that I wasn't about to knock on a soldiers door just to get a package. I wish he would have changed out of his uniform before knocking on mine though.

I had regular Monday night dinner dates at Chipotle with my brother. I'd go out to the bars or parties anytime my brother or friends invited me. I worked a lot. Basically, I did everything I could to take my mind off the fact that my husband was possibly being shot at. I spent 14 months trying to pretend that I wasn't terrified that my husband would be one of the unfortunate ones to come home in a box. Does my experience even begin to compare to his? Not in the least. My experience doesn't even begin to compare with that of the spouses that did receive those horrible phone calls, but I can't write about their experiences, because I didn't live them. This is what I lived, and these are the memories that reading The Good Soldiers brought back to my mind.

 Photos from top to bottom:
My husband on the right and the buddy he was trying to make laugh the night we met.
My husband and I shortly before he got on a bus to head to his final briefing before leaving.
A photo from shortly after the ice storm hit. All the trees in town were coated like this.
My husband sitting on the door of a humvee eating beef jerky in Iraq.

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