Left Behind: He Left Me–To Go To War

It’s 1 a.m. and I can’t sleep. My Army reserve husband returned safely from Afghanistan and is back to his old self, but the part of my heart that went with him still aches for those who suffered horrific injuries or who didn’t come home at all. On this Memorial Day, I want to speak for those of us who have lived the sacrifice at home.

For three months prior to deployment, we sifted through a long depressing checklist of “what ifs.” How much life insurance to buy? Power of attorney, a new will and health care directives had to be signed. What if he returned brain injured or missing limbs? If the worst happened, at what point did he want me to pull the plug?

As the tears welled up in my eyes, he held me and gently pointed out that my wedding vows included, “I will stand beside you and love you through any challenges that life brings us, including deployments and hunting season.”

I was not amused. “I remember. And I believe you promised to vacuum, but that hasn’t happened either.”

The final question on our list– burial or cremation? “Just scatter my ashes in the woods.” I wrote it down.

I usually ended up crying in the garage after he’d gone to bed. He’s a well- trained veteran of several deployments, but just knowing that he could be dying while I’m playing tennis left me numb with anxiety.

I couldn’t burden him with my fears; he was going to war. I needed to go with the logo and be “Army Strong.” It wasn’t happening. Every day I became more afraid I would end up a widow. I tried to hide it, but he knew.

He left for pre-deployment training in the fall of 2009. During daily calls, I learned about hand-to-hand defensive tactics, having to run on previously injured knees while wearing what felt like my weight in body armor, combat lifesaver first-aid training and how to escape from an upside-down armored vehicle after it’s been hit by a roadside bomb.

Soon the nightmares began. I was walking in some woods and got lost. I felt anxious and desperate, as if I’d never get back home. I followed a bend in the path and a man stood there. He smiled and took my arm to lead me out of the woods. We came to a clearing where there was a flag-draped casket and people standing all around. They were waiting for me.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were high school classmates who had never met in school, but emails announcing the 35th reunion of the class of ‘72 brought us together. We soon fell in “like” but I feared that if we got married he might deploy and I couldn’t face sitting home wondering if he was coming back in a box.

When he popped the question, I tried to extract a promise that he would not deploy or I wouldn’t marry him. He said another deployment at his officer rank was “remote” so I said yes. Shortly after our first anniversary, the orders came.

Life morphed into a chaotic reality show. I turned on the water one morning and the plastic faucet broke off in my hand. We had the house painted the previous summer and it layers began peeling off so I called the painter to come back. He never showed. The dryer, TV and hot water heater broke in one 10-day period. I decided to implement defensive maneuvers and launch a vigorous counter-attack. In other words, I kept the yellow pages handy.

Before we married, I, like most Americans, had no idea what a deployment would be like. The stress is unrelenting and at times intense. Whenever I wasn’t frantically busy, the loneliness was waiting. My heart raced if the doorbell rang when I wasn’t expecting anyone. Emails and Skype barely connected us as the months wore on and his two-week mid-tour break was bittersweet. I don’t know how spouses with young children do it; I can barely manage our two cats. When the nightmares come, I pray that the unit will return safely– and if some don’t, that those left behind will have the strength to endure the future.