*I obviously started this and intended it to go up while ago, it has taken some time to get it out.
April 6th was a haunting anniversary for Andy…and me too, but mostly for Andy. April 6th, 2004….a decade ago. That was the start of events that would change him forever. The man he was before that day would never return to me. The parts I got back were….different….it was him, but it also wasn’t.
I doubt any of our friends or acquaintances are unaware that Andy was a Marine….I can’t think of one person. It isn’t how I start a conversation with someone “Hi I’m Natalie, my husband was a Marine!”….but eventually if you get to know someone they find out. In fact, as the years go by, as we age, as our perspective on the events of 10 years ago change, my need to share that Andy was a Marine gets pushed further and further back. It is almost shameful to say that, but he got to that point far sooner than I did. I still tell people, but it is with less enthusiasm than was once there…
Slowly he revealed pieces of the damage to me….slowly I started to understand…. maybe it would have been better to know right away. Like ripping a band-aid off. I would have known absolutely everything and it would have been horrible and sad and traumatic, but at least then I wouldn’t have spent those first few years bumping around recklessly blind to him. Who knows? Maybe it was better this way….maybe it took him this long to share what he has shared….maybe there is more. That’s the true unknown. What more is there that I don’t know/understand? Will he ever share it all?
There was a celebration….no not a celebration, more of a memorial. It would be on base and lots of people were going….well lots of people from the battalion, but not from Andy’s platoon. We considered it. We talked about it 6 months ago and thought how it could be good to go back and reconnect with people. Then as the date crept closer, he stopped wanting to go.
I looked at plane tickets, it would have been a stretch to get us all out there together, but we would have gone. Because it is important. Not just for us, but for them….those that were lost. It is so easy to say “you won’t be forgotten” – “we will honor you”, but words never feel like enough. We would have gone to hold the hands of the wives who lost everything that month. The month that we all not-so-affectionately refer to as “Bloody April”. We would have gone to look into the eyes of the children and tell them a story about their dad and say how much they’ve grown to look like him and how proud he would have been. I was ready to go. Part of me needed to go.
But Andy couldn’t and he didn’t need it. In fact, a deployment you would have thought would pull together and strongly connect a group of guys, in fact tore most of them very far apart.
On September 8th, 2003 a platoon of Marine Snipers took me out for my 21st Birthday. I had been in California for just over a month, married for only 3. I felt like the odd-man-out as I watched this group of raucous men – boys really – interact. They punched each other’s shoulders, they gave each other crap, they pointed and laughed when the waiters all came over to deliver my piece of cake and sing, as if it was the funniest thing in the world to watch me turn red. They bitched about how Jason brought ten bucks and drank more than fifties worth. I was in awe of them.
They were some of the most specially trained men in the world, doing a job that was so personal and “in your face”. Yet they could think of nothing more fun than celebrating one of their buddy’s wife’s birthday. It was such a fun evening….probably one of the best of my life.
Five months later, I was sitting in our truck at 2am shivering and waiting for the last window to say goodbye to Andy. Valentine’s Day….I was never a fan before that particular one, but several of the wives’ were especially sad. When you drop your husband off for a deployment (at least back then) they have to report at 2am (because leaving at a normal hour would make too much sense), then they spend about 3 hours on the parade ground: standing at attention, piling their bags, and other things I can only see, but not hear while sitting a few yards away in the car. The wives and families all wait….well many did. Some went home and back to bed (probably those who had done it several times before). But a lot of us waited in our cars, huddled alone under blankets that were too thin considering this was California.
Then about 5am Andy came back to the car. He had 5 minutes to say our last goodbye: “Don’t cry (slim chance of that), I’ll be back in a few months, don’t watch the news, I love you”. That was it: 3 hours of waiting, one short exchange, then it was over.
I drove to Shelly’s apartment. I crawled into bed with her and we cried. We talked about all our fears and held each other, which I never would have done with someone I had traditionally only known for 6 months. You make friends fast in the military. Three days later Shelly would be on her way back to Texas. Eric and she had put most of their things into storage before the guys left and her dad and brother came to drive back with her.
That is what most of the wives’ did – moved back in with parents – to save money, to have support, etc. Strangely it was the Snipers’ wives who mostly all stayed. And fortunately for me the Lieutenant’s wife scheduled monthly get-together and sent regular e-mails to us all so we felt less alone. Her husband was able to e-mail her several times a week and call every week or two. Contrast that with Andy who I received about three letters and two phone calls from in 9 months. But at least someone could tell me that he was still out there somewhere in the world.
I chose not to live on base. I was only a mile away and could get on and off easily, but I liked having our separate life in town. Before the guys left, we moved from a large two bedroom outside of town, to a thumbnail sized studio two blocks from our favorite breakfast place, 5 blocks from the train that took me to school, and 7 blocks from the beach. It was perfect. When the guys left, I was lonely, but I had my own things: work, school, etc. Thank god for those.
The first month went okay. I wrote to Andy about 5 times a week. Every other week I would put together a box of stuff to send: copies of Penthouse, tiny bottles of liquor, roll of chew, beef jerky: only the necessities. Anyone who tells you deployed troops want toothpaste and deodorant is a fucking liar. I poured my heart into the letters, telling him how much I loved him, how I was fine:
Marine Wife Training Seminar Item #1: Don’t Concern Your Marine With Anything Back Home, Let Him Know You Are Fine So He Can Focus On His Job. If You Are Not Actually Alright, Here Is A Binder of Numbers to Call for Help and the Respective Reasons You Might Need Help. Reason #1: You Can’t Feed Your Children, call _….
The first letter I got back from him arrived weeks after they had left. It started out “Hi Baby, Hope you are doing well. Keep the letters coming. Here is a list of things I want to do to the truck when I get home…”. Men! It was a comic relief though and I started to settle into what life would be like for the next 9 months.
I didn’t watch the news, I clung to the statement “no news is good news”. I would know before it was released on the news. That is all I knew, but watching the news wasn’t going to help the situation I knew that. I cringed at the site of dress blues on anyone within eyeshot of me, convinced they had stumbled upon me at the laundry mat on a Wednesday afternoon to give me the news. Like we all had a GPS tracker in our arms where they could find us at a moment’s notice. Every day when I closed and locked our door I thought “please don’t let today be the day, as long as today is not the day I can keep going”.
As news from the Lt’s wife came in, I started to relax. All was well. They were meeting the locals, having tea, all was good. Fantastic! What was I so worried about? Silly me.
April 6th, 2004 – The day I was so worried about arrived. Just because we weren’t in California didn’t mean we weren’t both thinking about it this year. I turned to Andy and asked how he was doing. He responded solemnly: “this was the day that we put 12 men into a body bag….that was the first time I had ever done something like that…I remember feeling [His] boot laces as we carried the bag and realizing he wasn’t coming back out”.
How do you come back from something like that? I have no idea, but he did….parts of him did. I am thankful every day, whereas I am sure there are days he wished he hadn’t.
…..perhaps to be continued