Casualties of War: The 2012 Essay Contest Winner
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Casualties of War: The 2012 Essay Contest Winner

Tell it like it is: A reader reflects on the year that her husband was deployed to Iraq -- and the lasting effects it has had on her family.

The sound of artillery, rattling the walls, wakes me. Too early in the morning for this, I think. And then, half a beat later, I hope it didn't wake the baby.

I listen for her to stir, but all is quiet. She's not a baby anymore. Remember? Time moves on.

Sunrise is poised on the horizon, but in this small room, darkness still holds sway. Beyond my home in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on a pine-dotted, red-dirt range, soldiers are already training with the artillery.

I'm on the verge of falling back to sleep when I hear glass shatter on tile. I sit up, but no other sound comes from upstairs, and worry takes over. I hurry from the room and take the stairs two at a time, my cotton gown billowing behind me, trepidation gathering. I reach the stair landing and hurry down the hall, where bathroom light spills into the hallway. I open the door and the scene slices through the last of my morning haze. Scott is on one knee in his ACUs -- shorthand for army combat uniform -- towel in one hand, wiping the floor. The smell of spilled cologne permeates the small room. He looks up at me, eyes darting from the shattered glass on the floor to my face. His hands shake.

"The artillery startled me and the bottle slipped...." His voice trails off. I nod understandingly, and the truth hangs heavy in the room, unspoken.

War is hell, even if you survive.

The Day He Went Away

I woke alone in bed. The faintest gray light touched the edges of the blinds. I lay still, listening. Scott was leaving in a few hours.

I found him in the garage, sitting on his motorcycle. I stood in the doorway watching him, and then he seemed to sense that I was there and looked up.

"Hey, Sunshine," he said. "You're up awfully early."

I shrugged. "Bad dream." I leaned against the door. "What're you doing?"

"Checking the bike again. Just start it now and then while I'm gone, okay?"

I wrapped my arms around my chest and huddled in the doorway. Scott sat motionless, seeming to forget for a moment that I was there. He stared at the floor, and I realized that in some way, he'd already left.

"Scott?"

"What?"

"I'm scared."

"Me too."

There were no other words.

"Breakfast?" I asked lightly. He nodded, and the moment became a memory.

Life Goes On

He left later that day, a sweltering sunny Saturday in August, for an arid country halfway around the world. This deployment would take him away for a year. Good-byes are especially hard on children, so our older two were spending the weekend away with family. The car hummed in park while the baby slept unaware in her car seat. Scott and I stood in each other's arms in the parking lot of the barracks, heat swarming around us like angry bees. No one else existed for those last silent moments. He kissed the top of my head once more, then pulled away, turned his back to me and picked up a jog to the bus.

I couldn't watch the bus leave, couldn't watch the wives clinging to one another in huddled masses, the mothers crying over their sons. I went home, took the baby from her car seat and put her on the floor to play. Around us, life went on, but in our house on the hill, it had come to a screeching halt.

Fayetteville, the main town surrounding Fort Bragg, went on, too, despite the absence of a few thousand soldiers. In September children returned to school, emptying parks of their rowdier element. In my military-housing kitchen, I made dinner for four. The big dining room screamed loneliness without Scott there, so I dragged the baby's high chair into the kitchen and we began eating our meals in the breakfast nook.

In October the kids and I headed for the mountains. I dipped my feet into a creek and carried the baby in a sling on my chest. While I sat there, my husband was a million miles away, checking out the house of a supposed terrorist sympathizer. He carried hand grenades on his body armor and quietly directed his men around the rooms, their awareness heightened to a degree few of us can comprehend. All I knew was that my feet were cold and my children would want lunch soon.

On Halloween I donned a witch hat and stood at the door, baby in one arm, bowl of candy in the other. And a million miles away, my husband went to sleep with the sound of mortars going off in the distance. A day earlier, a neighboring base had been attacked and his unit was on alert that it could happen again, maybe closer this time.

My jet-setting parents announced they were spending Thanksgiving in some place beginning with an "M." Maine? Machu Picchu? We army wives were reminded to get holiday packages to our husbands in the mail early, so the kids and I trudged over to the mall for some portraits. When the pictures came in, I saw that my eyes had a weariness around the edges, deep worry lines that hadn't been there before. I stuck the pictures in the care package and hoped Scott wouldn't notice.

Army Wife 101

I couldn't watch the wives clinging to one another in huddled masses, the mothers crying over their sons.

While my husband dined on a Thanksgiving feast in a mess hall a million miles away, the kids and I ate sweet potatoes and peas in the breakfast nook, with a lit candle for decoration. The baby chirped "dada" but had no concept of who that was. I smiled, but her babbling stabbed at my heart.

In December Fayetteville became a madhouse of happy families with husbands and fathers home on leave. Scott wasn't due back until spring. But I put up a tree and decorated it. I hummed Christmas songs and filmed the baby tottering around on shaky legs. A million miles away, my husband strung some Christmas lights around his cracker-box-sized room and went to bed at 1:00 in the afternoon, exhausted from an all-night mission.

My parents went traveling again. A friend invited me to spend the holidays with her family, but I found it painful to be around families not broken up by deployment. One afternoon, while the baby napped and the older two played outdoors, I lay on the bed in my sun-washed room and projected prisms of light on the walls with my wedding ring.

While I was entertaining myself with a piece of jewelry, a million miles away my husband left the base on patrol with his men. While they were out, someone planted a land mine in a pothole near their gate. Returning to base, Scott's Humvee rolled over it, unaffected. The vehicle behind his was not so lucky. It tripped the mine and the Humvee blew apart. One soldier was injured, two were killed. The phone lines were shut down, as always after this kind of incident, so it was two days before I learned what had happened.

My younger sister flew in for a few days right before Christmas. "Well, you seem happy," she said as the two of us sat in the den.

The bullet bounced off the wall, missing my husband by four inches. It hit the soldier next to him.

"It's an act, you know. They teach us that in Army Wife 101."

In January it snowed. I sat in the breakfast nook and looked down the hill to the other houses. The view, spectacular with its twinkling vistas of unbroken white, did nothing to cheer me up. The long days and nights of winter dragged by like a sled on gravel.

For my birthday, in February, Scott sent chocolates and pink roses. I went into ecstasies over the presents when he called, but secretly the flowers depressed me and the candy tasted like sand in my mouth.

Go to Work

The baby turned 1 year old in March. Her daddy sent toys and I threw a small birthday party. A million miles away, my husband left on another mission. And while he and his men were patrolling a street, someone stood on a rooftop, aimed a Russian assault rifle at my husband and pulled the trigger. The bullet bounced off a wall of the building behind him and missed Scott by four inches. It hit the soldier next to him. I learned about the incident from another army wife, who called a few days later to recount the story. I held my poker face and stuffed the fear back inside.

Scott came home for two weeks in April. To escape Army World we took the kids to the beach -- nothing bad could happen there. But Scott twitched a lot in his sleep and once he bolted upright, grabbed my arms in the darkness and said, "What happened? Is everyone okay?"

A week later I stood crying in the airport parking lot. He kissed the top of my head, waved good-bye to the kids, hoisted his luggage bag onto his shoulder and was gone. Again.

Spring bled into summer and we headed into the home stretch of the deployment. Like migrating hummingbirds, the wives who'd gone off to live with their parents while their husbands were away began returning to town. "Welcome home" signs cropped up in yards like wildflowers. There was excitement in the air, but also loss. Not every soldier was coming back.

The plane touched down on the tarmac in late August. Waving their flags and posters, families stood in breathless anticipation as their soldiers exited the plane. The kids and I stood off to the side and watched for Scott. And then suddenly I was in his arms again, and the fear fell off me in great waves of relief. Sunshine would now return to our lives.

After He Returned

The nightmares came first. Then the shaking hands. Scott sold the motorcycle one day while I was at the grocery store. The baby walked toward him hesitantly, but he didn't seem interested. On weekends he refused to drive, so the task fell to me. He warned me constantly about potholes in the roads. I started sleeping in one of the kids' rooms as his nightmares worsened. He insisted he was fine, but his eyes told a different story. The war had followed him home and hung over us like a silent sentinel.

And now I'm in the bathroom, standing over Scott as the memories of the past year flash through my mind in less time than it takes to tell them. I grab the broom and dustpan from the hall closet and smile at him. "Go on to work," I say gently. "I'll clean this up."

My hands work mindlessly as I sweep bits of glass toward the dustpan. I'll clean this up, I'd said. But I don't know if I can.

Tammy Dominski, an army wife for 17 years, has homeschooled all three of her children. One measure of her success: Her daughter Tori enrolled at the University of North Carolina when she was 13.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2012.

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