Category Archives: Military Deployment

Walk With Me: Our Story, Part XIV

Hiking helped pass the summer during the Iraq deployment and by August, my boyfriend and I were planning for two weeks of leave.

Read Our Story from the beginning.

By some fortunate coincidence, the R&R for K’s husband and my boyfriend overlapped by a week. K and I were ecstatically happy over this. It meant that neither of us would be without the support of the other for two full weeks. It meant that each of us would be spared the longing and envy that would come from knowing the other was spending those two weeks in the blissful arms of their significant other while one of us sat in a loneliness intensified by that very knowledge.

We also got to fully enjoy the planning and the excitement leading up to leave instead of trying to temper it to spare the other’s feelings, We knew, too, that we would be mopping up our broken pieces together once they were gone again. Even better, we could plan something for all of us during that overlapping week. For once, things seem to be working out perfectly.

Joe was due home in the middle of August and K spent the first half of the month frantically preparing. I was so excited for her when she left for the airport and I was busy enough preparing for – and worrying about – the imminent arrival of my own love that I didn’t dwell on it. I could just be happy.

I focused on cleaning my apartment – and myself – from top to bottom. I counted and recounted the days until my period was due. (Never very regular, I had narrowed it down: it could come before, during or after T’s leave.)

I wondered whether I’d recognize him when he walked out of the terminal. I have a terrible memory for faces and didn’t have many pictures of him. I hadn’t seen him in six months. What if he’d changed? What if there were other soldiers in uniform on that flight? At that point, I felt they would all look alike to me.

What if I didn’t feel the same way about him once I saw him again? Our communication for the last eight months had consisted of a disembodied voice on the end of a phone line and sometimes misunderstood emails. Sure, we were competently compatible via email, but what if we weren’t in person?

By the eve of my boyfriend’s arrival, I was a wreck. I knew he was in route, but I didn’t know exactly when he’d be landing in the States or when I’d need to go pick him up. I was waiting on yet another phone call and it was making me into a certified wall climber.

Having been there already, K knew some of the palpitating anticipation I was feeling and insisted that I spend the evening at her house grilling, eating and sitting around the fire with her family. I resisted, insisting that they needed time together, but K told me that they were already perfectly reconnected. If it weren’t for his going back, she told me, it would almost be like he’d never left.

I took profound relief from this and applied it happily to my own worried circumstances. Surely T and I would pick up where we’d left off as well. True, K and Joe had been together for years while T and I had only been dating for ten months (eight of which he’d been gone for), but we’d worked at staying connected. Right?

I hadn’t been to K’s house since Joe had been home. When I arrived, he was walking around the backyard in shorts and a t-shirt, carrying a spatula. Seeing him sent another wave of relief over me so strong I had to fight back tears. It was the same old Joe. He greeted me with a grin and a bear hug. Haircut a bit sharper, skin a little darker, face almost imperceptibly more weathered, but still teasing his kids, groping his wife in the kitchen and tossing her an, “I love you, baby,” àpropos of nothing.

Yep. That was Joe.

Sitting around the fire pit later that evening, still glancing at my Siamese-cell phone every three seconds, I shared some of my fears about not recognizing T at the airport. K tried to ease my worry by telling me about her reunion with Joe.

When she got to the airport, she said, there was a sign asking folks to wait for arrivals downstairs and to stay clear of the terminal area upstairs. Despite the sign, there were plenty of people milling around upstairs. K felt a pang of envy, thinking that if anyone had a reason to wait upstairs, it was her. (I agreed.) Reluctantly, she compiled with the sign, and waited diligently at the bottom of the escalator.

Soon travellers began pouring out of the doors and making their way down the escalators. K didn’t have to look long for Joe. He appeared at the top of the stairs and spotted her almost instantly. Circumventing the statues on the escalator, he dropped his bag at the top of the stationary stairs and bounded down them, two at a time, until he reached her. Picking her up in a cinematic hug, he spun her around, while she hissed, “Put me down, put me down!” in his ear.

I laughed, but my heart melted at this story; so romantic. I couldn’t wait for my turn. I longed to feel T’s eager arms around me; to breathe him in and touch him again; to see his bright smile. I imagined the sympathetic looks of others as they watched a soldier reunite with a loved one. This moment would make up for every minute pain over the last long months. Easily.

Toward the end of the night, I got my long-anticipated phone call. T was on the other end of the line. He sounded weary but excited. He told me he would be landing at the jetport at one o’clock tomorrow afternoon.

I went home to wait.

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Walk With Me: Our Story, Part XIII

With the funerals over and the FRG temporarily disbanded, we still needed to find a way to endure the next nine months of the deployment.

 Read Our Story from the beginning.

The months following the funerals were filled with dread and uncertainty. I had no idea what my boyfriend was going through: how trying to sleeping during the day for night missions was nearly impossible on a base as large as BIAP; how, with his platoon separated from the rest of his unit, he had to deal with unfamiliar and often incompetent leadership; how as ranking officer from his unit he was responsible for not only the physical safety, but the general well-being of fifty other guys.

I was new to the military. I didn’t know any of it and he certainly didn’t tell me much. When I asked what he needed me to send him, the answer was always, “Nothing.” They had it all on base. They had phones, internet connection, a huge PX and even fast food places. They had a chow hall, a swimming pool and a barber shop. They got their laundry done for them and T had his own digs.

Other than being out on the road every night, navigating through the IED-infested streets of Baghdad, it seemed like things should be pretty good for him.

Well, they weren’t. But I couldn’t see it. All I knew was that my boyfriend had email and phone access, but our communication was limited to one short phone call where he was constantly distracted by music, shouts and the delay of the international wire, and one email per day. (I didn’t have a computer, so my emails were all sent and received from work or from K’s house.) Instead of the starry-eyed start to a new relationship when we should’ve been inseparable, we were thousands of miles apart and we were constantly beset with the misunderstandings of a toneless email environment and the miscommunications born from two totally different sets of experiences.

Fearing that our relationship wasn’t growing as it should, I became more and more needy. I begged for more communication. Then, when I did get it, I reacted negatively, letting my feelings be hurt by every little nuance of an email. After one such misunderstanding I complained, “It’s hard enough for me to tell when you’re joking when I’m talking to you, never mind in email where tone is more difficult to express.” We didn’t have the luxury of history, so we didn’t know each other well enough to fill in the blanks.

Yet, somehow, this man never lost patience with me. Not then, anyway. Not while he was still deployed. He just continued to send more and more loving emails.

And there were some good moments. We joked and made each other laugh and sent increasingly steamy emails as leave approached. We developed some interesting ways to stay connected. But I still needed a way to cope with the tension and the gut-wrenching pangs of worry and the long, empty nights where I lay and wondered what it was really like where he was and why he couldn’t be with me. I needed an outlet.

Clearly, alcohol hadn’t worked for me.

So K and I turned to exercise. We pumped up our running program. We set goals for ourselves. And we began hiking.

Bingo.

Being in the woods was almost like meditation for me. The earthy smell breathed its way into my pores and flushed out the toxins of stress. The sound of tricking water melded with that of little peeping birds and tiny rustling creatures, making a subtle music of epic joy. It was creation. It was pure. And it was truly spiritual.

Hiking brought me closer to my boyfriend, even during his absence, in a way I didn’t anticipate. He is an avid hiker and has hiked about 75 of New England’s 100 highest mountains. I met him on a hike and we had plans to hike during his leave. Hiking became a bond between us.

So K and I hiked.

We hiked Cranberry Peak in May.

We laughed with Little K and Laurie Loo for the length of the trail.

K and Little K on Cranberry Peak

K and Little K on Cranberry Peak

We laughed at the summit as we posed for silly pictures to send to Iraq.

At the summit of Cranberry Peak.

At the summit of Cranberry Peak.

And we laughed when we got lost, thinking of the joy our men would take in teasing us.

For the record, we weren’t really lost. We knew exactly where we were and we knew where we needed to go. We just didn’t know how to get there. But I don’t see how we were to blame for poor trail maintenance. Even the warden couldn’t find the trail right away.

Yes. Yes, we had to call the warden to take us down. Not one of our finer moments.

Waiting for the Warden

Waiting for the warden.

(I love how in this picture Little K’s face so clearly shows that she’s thinking, You guys are idiots. And I’m stuck with you. Great.)

In early July we hiked East Osceola and Mount Osceola.

My boyfriend had hiked Mount Osceola several times and when he learned we were going he told me of his experiences. He had never seen the view from the top because it had always been raining or socked in the clouds. In fact, he wanted to hike the mountain again sometime for that very reason.

When K and I started out, it was a sunny summer day, without a cloud in the sky. I couldn’t wait to tell T that I had gotten to see a view he hadn’t.

Osceola trail sign

Notice the sun?

But as we neared the summit, a fog rolled in, seemingly out of nowhere. The first drops began to fall as we came out of the woods and the rain continued for as long as we were on the top. I stood looking out at the white blanket obscuring the other mountaintops and thought about how it felt too big for a coincidence, even considering the weather of the Whites. It felt mystical. I got goose bumps on my arms and tears rolled down my face. I had never felt closer to my boy.

Socked in on Osceola

Socked in on Osceola.

When we turned to go down the trail, the clouds broke. The rest of our hike was sunny.

Finally, in late July, we hiked Borestone Mountain.

For this hike, we travelled up Maine and spent the weekend with a fellow military spouse. We had a lovely time connecting with this friend who knew just what we were going through.

At the summit of Borestone.

Another bonding moment.

That was our last hike for a while. By August we were planning for two weeks of R&R with our men. K’s husband would be home in the middle of August and T would arrive a week later.

I couldn’t wait to finally see him again.

Walk With Me: Our Story, Part XII

Three months into his first deployment, two soldiers from T’s unit were killed in action and a third was wounded. Shortly after the incident, in a fit of alcohol-induced despair, I drunk emailed a message to my then-boyfriend with the subject line “BREAKING UP WITH YOU”…or did I?

Read Our Story from the beginning.

The screen went to a blank Hotmail page.

“Oh shit.” I said, stricken.

I looked at K and Laurie Loo. Their faces mirrored my horror, but I tried to swallow my panic.

“Did that go through?” I asked. “It doesn’t look like the regular ‘sent message’ screen.”

“It might not have,” K said, always the one to give solace. “I’ve had that happen before and the email didn’t send. It does that sometimes. I don’t know why.”

I wasn’t convinced and my stomach felt leaden, but I laughed anyway. What else could I do? I’d just pulled the world’s most bone-headed move, but there was no way I was going to admit it.

I got up from the computer and we went about with our evening. We played some cards. We laughed. We drank some more.

At one point I remember lying on the kitchen floor staring through my haze up at the ceiling. I think K was on one side of me and Laurie Loo on the other, but I wouldn’t swear to it in court. We lay there talking and laughing.

“I can’t believe you’re laughing about it,” Laurie Loo said. “I would be devastated.”

“Well, I am,” I said. “But I can’t take it back. If it went through, it went through.”

“Is that how you want things to end?”

I was quiet for a moment.

“No.”

I jumped up and sat back down at the computer and I typed this email to my soldier:

Subject Line: Okay, that was bad…

I’m sitting at K’s computer right now and I am obviously upset and alcohol has a lot to do with this.
 
This is why alcohol and computers don’t mix. It’s sort of like drinking and driving and I think I just crashed my car.
 
I really was trying to express my frustration but I obviously meant to change the subject line. Unfortunately I’m not really all that coordinated right now and I totally hit the wrong button. I don’t truly feel that way. I’m sorry.
 
I also don’t remember everything I typed and I sent it before it was complete so I’m sure it was way worse than I actually remember it being. Please forgive my ignorance. I’m retarded and drunk.
 
I hope that you will just disregard that entire email and realize that drunk, emotional people should not be allowed near the computer.
 
Sorry, baby. I still love you. That’s why it hurts so much.
 
Sarah
 
P.S. I’m not really sure if that actually went through but just in case…
P.P.S. I’m not really a twat, like Laurie Loo says.
P.P.P.S. Okay, maybe I am, if I actually sent that.
P.P.P.P.S. Actually, I am, anyway, whether I sent it or not, because I’m sending you this.
P.P.P.P.P.S. But I love you.

Then I logged off and waited with a churning stomach for a reply.

I don’t remember when I heard back from T. I don’t remember whether it was the following day or later that week. I don’t even remember whether we addressed it by phone or by email.

What I do remember is that when I did hear from him, he had no idea what email I was talking about, though he quickly put two and two together. I told him I was most upset about the subject line and how hurtful that would be. He asked what I had written and, with quaking guts, I told him.

I think he may have laughed, but I was too busy trying not to throw up to remember. But my head swam with relief; I hadn’t made the fatal mistake I thought I had. And we would go on enduring.

That week was a time of record rainfall. Rivers swelled and crept over their banks. The water tables leapt up, basements flooded and roads washed away. People were forced to take alternate routes and were urged to stay home if at all possible.

It seemed to me that the whole world was crying for our fallen soldiers.

And still the rain came down. The National Guard was called out to keep people away from the roads and rivers and I glared at the irony with bitterness, wishing my boyfriend could be standing the cold rain he hated so much instead of sweating in an arid desert that was beset with a strife that seemed so, well, foreign to me.

That weekend at the funeral the FRG came together for one last time before it came apart for good. It is a day that is etched in many images in my mind, both powerful and horrible. It is a day that none who were there will ever forget.

But I wish no one had to remember.

Walk With Me: Our Story, Part XI

Many moons ago, I began writing “Our Story” and what started out to be a brief synopsis stretched itself into a serial. After Part X, I stopped writing for a few more moons. Part of that was because I was getting ready for T to come home from Afghanistan and was very busy. Then part of that was because T was home and I was even busier. And then I was just plain out of the routine.

So please pardon my long silence in this department and join me once again on Sundays as I pick up where I left off…

In early May of 2006, two soldiers from T’s unit were killed in action and a third was wounded. We were less than three months into a year-long deployment. I didn’t see how we were going to get through the next ten months with this heightened fear. But what choice did we have?

Read Our Story from the beginning.

The heightened fear began to increase tension and the increased tension began to spur drama back home. Rumors started to circulate: this person is having that problem with her soldier; that soldier is having this problem with his spouse. The FRG started to crumble and a promising group split and drifted, then reformed into smaller groups.
 
I will say that the drama was a good crash-course in all things military. Before all this happened, for instance, didn’t know an NCO from an ACU or whether I should salute the flag at dawn or fold my jammies at reveille. I had no idea that officers and enlisted weren’t supposed to fraternize or that some wives resented this. The day I found this out, I was horrified. I remember wondering if I was behaving inappropriately or in a way that would hurt T somehow. I longed to ask him.

But, of course, I had to wait for the next time he called me.

When I did finally get to talk to him, he patiently explained that at one time the fraternization rule did spill over to spouses, but that it was no longer applicable. I was so green that I asked whether he was uncomfortable with me talking to the wives of enlisted men.

“Baby,” he said, “talk to whoever you want to.”

Eventually, I stopped attending FRG meetings and gatherings altogether because I ended up feeling stressed, confused and left out. It certainly wasn’t worth driving five hours round-trip for a one-hour meeting that was more uncomfortable than sand in your skivvies.

Still, I had my friend K to fraternize with. K and I had grown up in the same neighborhood. We’d played kickball and flashlight tag with the other kids and listened on her front steps for the magical melodies of the ice cream man. In Junior High we’d alternated between best-friendship and fighting with astonishing regularity. We’d been together through everything from broken window panes to growing pains, but if you’d ever told me we’d be going through a deployment together I would’ve laughed in your face. The military was never an option for a pacifist like me.

Yet here we were, clinging to each other, almost as tightly as we clung to our cell phones each day. We listened to each other as intently as we listened for the instant chat buzzer to go off. And we were free to fraternize with each other.

And fraternize we did.

Alcohol

not my photo

In fact, we started fraternizing almost every weekend, starting on Thursdays some weeks. We sat around a campfire and fraternized. We fraternized after a run. We fraternized once her kids had gone to bed. We frat-, frat-, fraternized.

I don’t mean to imply that we became alcoholics. We didn’t. We weren’t secret drinkers and it didn’t interfere with our daily lives. Thankfully, it never got to that point for either of us. What we did do was take to using alcohol as a means to relieve stress and become happy for a while. It was not an ideal way to cope, but it sure was an easy one.

One night, shortly before the funeral of one of the soldiers who had been killed, I got drunk and angry. I was angry that I was thirty years old and had a boyfriend who wasn’t around – a boyfriend with whom I wasn’t sure things would work out. I was angry that I was forced to wait to find out. I was angry about the stress and the loneliness. Looking back now, though, I think mostly I was just plain terrified.

So, I sat down at K’s computer and started to type an email. I had no intention of sending it, but I needed to type it. The subject line was: BREAKING UP WITH YOU

I knew that was a cowardly thing to do to a soldier overseas, but, like I said, I had no intension of sending it. I don’t know that I even had any intention of writing it, but K looked over my shoulder and said, “You aren’t going to send that!”

That did it. A challenge! I was going to bluff her into thinking I was serious. I put T’s email address in the “To:” field and started typing out the poison of my hurt feelings, anger and fear. K’s sister Laurie Loo came over. She called my bluff, too. We started arguing, then we started laughing. I flailed my arms about. The keyboard jostled…

…and the screen went to a blank Hotmail page.

“Oh shit.” I said, stricken.

ODT

Operation Decorate Tree is complete.

Christmas tree 2010

And we didn’t even kill each other.

(I love reintegration.)

Waiting

We waited for so long.

Owen waiting

We waited for over a year. Sometimes it felt like the waiting would never end.

We watched as others came back. And still we waited.

We waited through flight delays and snowstorms, miscommunications and silly schedules.

On the other side there was waiting, too. Waiting in crowded places, waiting in the cold, waiting, waiting, waiting.

Then, when The Day came, we drove a few hours north to a big building and inside there were even more people waiting.

And we waited some more.

Little K waiting

Little K waited.

“Do you want to make a sign?” a Nice Woman asked, holding out markers and paper.

Little K shook her head.

“I don’t want to make a sign,” she told me. “I don’t want to do anything. I just want to wait.”

I felt that way myself. I didn’t want to do anything, I didn’t want to think about anything, I didn’t want anything asked of me. Since waiting was the only thing left to do, I wanted to wait with all my might and main. Just wait.

K waiting

K waited.

K and I have done a lot of waiting together over the years.

She’s the best. The. Best. Period. End of story. Don’t argue with me.

Baby Blue waiting

Baby Blue chatted with Mr. and Mrs. Claus while he waited. It helped pass the time.

After the visit with the Clauses, we moved into the big hangar. The waiting there was almost tangible. It smelled of dirt and musty machinery, as it always does, and it hummed through the crowd.

Each time a sliver of light sliced the darkness by the door, my heart skipped a beat, but I couldn’t see much over the mob.

As I was checking, for the four thousand eight hundred and sixty-seventh time, to see if I still had both my camera and my purse with me, the cheering started.

The door had opened and soldiers were filing in to applause, cheers and catcalls. The waiting screamed with anticipation.

Four lines of soldiers stood at attention. Then…

“Dismissed!”

The wait rippled through the crowd as it swelled and then ebbed. I scanned the sea of faces.

“There he is!” I heard K tell Little K and Baby Blue, and that family crashed together.

Where’s mine? I thought. I knew he’d find me at the back, but wait gripped me hard and held me immobile.

He strolled casually around a group of people and our eyes met.

I didn’t cry or run towards him or anything. But my lips wouldn’t stop trembling.

He paused as the crowd flowed into and then out of his way. I wanted to throw a trashcan.

But I just waited. It’s what I’m good at now.

Our eyes met again and we smiled a smile of understanding. One that twisted into a smirk. It said, Boy am I glad to see you. This crowd is kind of overdramatic and I just want to hug you and then get the hell out of here.

We are not publicly demonstrative people.

He walked up to me.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

We reached for each other. And the wait was over.

Together again

The Eagle Has Landed

For the first time in over six months, my husband and I are in the same country! The Eagle (aka: T) landed in the United States this evening, after another minor delay or two.

Were he active duty, we would probably be reuniting at this very moment. The Guard, however, has to go through the demobilization process first so it will be another few days before he and I are in the same state.

Still, when he called me from the airport, I was over-the-Moon excited. It’s moments like this that make up for the last pale, washed-out year. My heart is beginning to beat again, and it feels good. Really good.

It’s snowing tonight and there is a peace and beauty about it that seems connected to the day’s events – as if two gifts came at once, and both from the same Giver.

snow and lights

The snowflakes glittering on my porch railing are starry and perfect.

snowflakes

And my heart is thankful.