“I’m on my cell outside the wire, I can’t talk long, but they let me call to make sure you are okay. Don’t panic if I have to hang up” In Iraq, it’s important not to make calls on your cell while on patrol. You need to pay attention to the mission, they can listen in on your calls and they track you.
They were making an exception for him that day because he had just come in from a sniper mission and had to take his scout platoon out on patrol right away. I was surprised to hear he was able to call from there, but needed to hear his voice, and the unit knew it. My mother had tried to commit suicide the night before and I had sent messages to the command asking to have him call me.
I’m not really sure what was said between us, for the most part. I remember vaguely talking about why she had done it, how I was handling it, if I was traveling home. I remember thinking how glad I was that he was calling at 2am and I wouldn’t have to share the phone with the kids. I think I may have even said to him how peaceful the conversation was. I felt better just hearing his voice and his reassurances that she’d be okay.
And then happened. Through the phone I heard what sounded like a combination of static and tin foil being balled up. I knew right away that was the sound of trouble. It didn’t sound like an explosion, it didn’t sound remotely like anything I’d ever heard before. But even before my husband started screaming, I knew it was awful.
“What the fuck was that!?
Get in the fucking truck!
Where the fuck is it coming from?”
Shannon, I have to go.
“Where the fuck is the rest of the team?”
I love you.
“Get that motherfucker in the truck.
Go, go go!”
In my life, full of chaos, full of aggravations, usually I yearn for silence. I relish it, I beg for it, I’ve cried because I couldn’t get a moment of quiet.
This is not what I had in mind.
Suddenly, my limbs felt like there were made of jello, but not just any jello. This was a special, lead weighted gelatinous goo, and it was melting. I couldn’t move. I don’t think I was breathing. As I sat there, I felt the sofa start to suck me in. I could feel it engulf me, pulling me into it, deeper and deeper. And then the tears came with all the intensity of a sobbing, wailing 2 year old. But I still wan’t moving, not sobbing and probably not breathing.
I just sat there, blank and frozen in time with the phone still to my ear. There weren’t any thoughts going through my mind. No what if’s, no questions, none of my typical creation of improbable and impossible scenarios. I don’t know how long I sat, it could have been hours, it could have just been a few minutes.
I don’t know how I got to bed, I don’t have a clue how I got the kids ready in the morning, or how I got to work the next day. The only clear memory I have of that morning was sitting on my platform at work, overlooking all the employees, and thinking how unimportant our job was, how clueless we all are. Thinking about how we go through life knowing anything could happen at any moment, and ignoring those thoughts, because if we didn’t, none of us could get through each day.
How long would it be until I heard from him? I started doing the calculations. If it hadn’t been anything, he would have called me by now. If someone had been seriously injured, as soon as the soldier or unit called his family, the phones would be open… that should be soon. Was I thinking about someone being killed? No, I really wasn’t. I was in some sort of denial of the obvious.
And then I got it. The most important text I’ve ever received said simply: “I’m alive and I love you.” Remember those sobs that didn’t come out the night before? Here they came. Whooping and bellowing, loud and long. I sat there on my stage at work, an entire building of people looking at me like I’d lost my mind before I was able to get up and leave the building. I was done for the day, I didn’t have anything left in me.
But now my mind had decided to start thinking, and the possibilities seems endless. What did that mean, “I’m alive”? Was it that simple? Was he hurt? What took him so long to write just that? And if he could text, why couldn’t he call?
Oh my God, someone died.
I had to be alone. Would the sitter keep the kids overnight? Did I know anyone who had a Xanax? Maybe a valium? This bottle of vodka is going to have to work. Wait! What if he calls soon? I can’t drink that, he’ll need me to be clear headed. I just wanted to stop making up stories in my head. I just wanted to speak to my husband.
I just wanted him to tell me everything was fine. I’d exaggerated his situation like everything else in my life.
When the call finally came, I was still holding the phone in my hand from the day before. I had not put down the last call for fear of missing the next. I answered it before it rang, alerted to the call by the lighting of the screen. Closing my eyes, trying to picture his face, I answered, “Steve?”
He didn’t say anything. He tried, he stopped, and then he cried.
Some men don’t cry. My husband is not one of those men. He’s a macho man, an alpha male, and tough as nails. He’s the kind of guy that people are afraid of the first time they meet him and he gives off an aura that says “Don’t mess with me.” But he will cry and I’ve seen him do it on many occasions. This time it was different, this time I couldn’t be there to hold him and comfort him. This time I could hear the pain more than any other. Maybe it was because I couldn’t see him, and I was more aware of the tone. I don’t know what it was, but this time, I knew from just the sound his cries that our entire life had changed forever.
When he was able to talk to me he gave me an abridged version of what had happened. They had let some soldiers off his Bradley to patrol the route he had just been overseeing as a sniper. They were walking the route he had taken to get to and from his position and it should have been clear. After they let them out they drove to another point to overlook the mission and provide security. That’s when he called me.
The noise I had heard was a land mine. I didn’t know him. He was in another unit, and he knew him only in passing. He had a wife, a young child and a newborn. He was funny. People liked him.
And then he started to shoulder the responsibility for other men’s evil.
Should he have seen it? Was it left for him? Did he miss it? Did he step over it earlier in the day? Could it have been him, instead? Should it have been him instead?
They had to get him back to the FOB, so my husband sat in the back with him.
“Shannon, he just stared at me the whole way. Blaming me, accusing me.”
WAIT! Maybe I had misunderstood! I could finally breathe; maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Gently I asked him, “So he’s still alive?” No, he wasn’t alive. It was too late as soon as he took that step. He wasn’t even whole. “Sweetheart, why didn’t you close his eyes?” In the quiet before he answered, I could hear him thinking, I could feel him struggle for an answer: “It never occurred to me, I never thought of it. Besides… I deserved it.”
Maybe we talked longer, I don’t know. What I do know, is my husband was done with Iraq. Quite literally, the entire Army couldn’t make him do it anymore. I don’t know why this was different. He’d witnessed death, he’d taken life, but this was the last one he could bear. This soldier took a part of my husband with him when he left this world.
Six years later, my family still talks about this man we never knew like he was a member of our family. Discussing what his wife and children may be doing now, talking about stories we’ve heard about him since then. Honoring him on Memorial Day, Veterans day, Christmas and the anniversary of his death.
And every day since, my husband has thought about joining him, wherever it is he may be now.