The weeks leading up to the day of my husband’s death were pure insanity. Just two weeks before he died, I was busy packing up our home and preparing to move in with his parents for 4 months while Tony was studying for the Mississippi bar exam. He had recently graduated from law school and had accepted a federal clerkship in Gulfport, MS. He had also commissioned as an officer within his unit and before he could begin his new clerkship, he needed to complete his 16-week leadership training at Ft. Gordon in Georgia. So during this transitional time I was preparing to live with Tony’s parents until he returned from Ft. Gordon and we could start house hunting. We moved everything into storage and my in-law’s house. Tony took the bar exam and the next day left for Ft. Gordon. It was going to be 4 months apart, but nothing we couldn’t handle. This all took place at the beginning of August, so as a teacher I was busy preparing for the new school year. We were both insanely busy, but managed to send text messages in the morning, and talk every evening. Tony had only been at Ft. Gordon for a week before he died.
I’ll never forget the details of that first day.
It was a Friday evening and I had sent Tony a text message earlier that morning and never heard back from him. That wasn’t unusual considering how crazy both of our schedules were at the time. Tony’s parents had left to babysit their 3 granddaughters while I stayed behind and rested for a bit. It was about 6:30pm when I realized I still hadn’t heard from Tony. Within the next 30 minutes I received a phone call from an unknown Georgia number. Before I even picked up the phone that unknown Georgia number had me worried, but I told myself it was probably just Tony using a friend’s phone. Upon answering, I heard an unknown voice; an officer from Ft. Gordon was calling to tell me that my husband had participated in a land navigation exercise earlier that afternoon and had still not returned. They were searching the woods for him, but he needed my permission to track his cell phone in order to help locate him. He said he would call with an update as soon as he had one. I gave my consent and tried not to panic. It didn’t work of course. I called my mother in law in tears and told her about the phone call I had just received. Within the next few hours all of the immediate family had been informed and we all gathered at my brother in law’s house and waited. We waited for hours and hours. It felt like an eternity. At about 5am the next day, I had waited long enough. I redialed the number of the officer that had called me the night before. When he answered it was obvious I had disturbed his sleep, but I could have cared less. I asked him for an update, and he told me that he was not allowed to disclose any information at this time. I knew what that meant. My thoughts went wild. The military never discloses bad news over the phone; it is always in person. If he were alive, we’d have heard something by now…Tony would have made someone call me! I tried to keep my cool and didn’t share any of my wild thoughts with his family. But like many military spouses, Tony and I had talked about this. I knew the Army protocol and knew what was going to happen next. Within the next few hours I received a phone call from a different officer asking me for my current address. We had just moved the week before so there was a little confusion about my location. Again, at this point, no one would tell me anything. Amidst my endless badgering, one officer did slip up and said something along the lines of “Ma’am we just need your current address so we can discuss your husband’s accident with you.” Accident? Accident was news to me. His family and I had been led to believe that Tony was still lost in the woods somewhere. His parents and I waited in terror. We knew that the next knock on the door would be two officers in full uniform, but none of us were prepared to say it or admit it. Every fiber of my being was begging to God or the universe, “please let this be a mistake…please let them have found the wrong person…this isn’t real, this isn’t happening.” We heard a car pull up. We heard the slam of two doors. My father in law opened the front door before they could knock, and on the porch stood two officers. At this point, things started to get a little blurry for me. Its not that my memory is hazy or that I’ve blocked it out. I vividly remember the room spinning, my heart pounding, and my hands shaking. The officers asked us to sit down and like many other families of fallen soldiers know, they informed us that on August 8, 2014, 2nd LT Anthony Thomas Scardino had died. The officer continued to talk, but I couldn’t hear him. My in-laws pulled me closer as we all cried and stated things like, “No, not him. He’s too young to die. He just took the bar exam. He survived two tours in Afghanistan.” So many emotions were hitting me at once; I thought I was going to puke. In a panic, I ran outside and took a couple of deep breaths. I don’t remember what I said or did next, but I know at some point I started to call my close family and friends.
The next week was a complete blur. Family and friends coming into town; food and flowers everywhere; an endless stream of text messages, Facebook messages and phone calls from people I barely knew or hadn’t seen or talked to in years; my Causality Assistance Officer; funeral arrangements; my best friend sleeping on an air mattress next to me even though she had a hotel room; the endless mounds of paperwork.
Throughout all the craziness and gaps in my memory, there are a few things I do remember. I remember being on the tarmac and watching the honor guard carry his casket from the plane to the hearse. Seeing his casket was the first time it really hit me. My husband had come home, just not in the way any of us expected. The Adjunct General of the Mississippi National Guard had his arms around me. He was holding me so tightly that his grip left marks on my arms. If he hadn’t of held me the way he did, I probably would have passed out.
I remember the first time I saw his body. I was alone in a room with an officer from Tony’s unit, my Casualty Assistance Officer, and Tony. I entered the room, saw the open casket and burst into tears. I remember backing away, shaking my head and saying, “no, no, no…it can’t be him.” He was in full dress uniform, just like on our wedding day. But he didn’t look like himself. His lifeless body scared the crap out of me and I couldn’t be alone with him for very long. At that point, his parents, his brother and sister and my aunt entered. We spent a few minutes soaking all of it in.
I remember bits and pieces of the funeral. I remember feeling so alone amidst all of the people that had come to honor his life and give their condolences. I remember the beautiful eulogy that his brother had written. I remember all of the stares and the sorrowful looks of pity. I remember members of his battalion taking up half of seating in the church. I remember the grief and tears that washed over their faces. I also remember the pride. Most of those men knew Tony longer than I did. They had served with him and deployed with him. They were proud to call him a brother and weren’t afraid to share their grief with me.
I remember the patriot guard. Their presence made me feel such a strong sense of pride and support. I remember cars pulling over, and men and women stopping and standing in the Mississippi heat all to honor a man they’d never met.
I don’t remember much from the burial service itself. I remember the honor guard carefully folding the flag that draped his casket. They truly honored Tony and his service to his country. I remember someone handing me the flag. The rest comes back to me in bits and pieces.
It has been nearly 7 months since my husband died. These have been some of the most challenging times of my life. I was lucky enough to marry the man of my dreams. We made plans and we had an amazing life ahead of us. In an instant, that life we had created was gone. Time was suddenly split in two – before Tony died and after Tony died. So here I am, a 26-year-old widow trying to figure out where my life goes next. The pain of losing my husband is always with me. The memories we created together sneak up on me at the strangest times and I find myself bursting into tears. Sometimes it’s the small things like making coffee in the morning or the lyrics of a song. Other times it’s finding one of his old t-shirts while doing laundry or waking up and reaching for his side of the bed.
Tony used to always joke about how he married this independent Texas woman and if he keeled over tomorrow, he knew I would be ok. I hated when he said that, it made me seem like I didn’t love him enough to get attached. It was actually quite the opposite. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to keep the people around me at a distance, but not Tony. He was one of the good ones and I knew it the moment I met him. Falling in love with him was the easiest thing I’d ever done. He was truly my better half and when he died a part of me died with him.
Some days are harder than others. I have ups and downs and constantly struggle with my new normal. In my worst moments, I try to remind myself of how Tony viewed me – as the strong independent woman who could handle anything life threw her way. When I feel like giving up or throwing in the towel, I strive to be that woman again. I try to continue to live my life to the fullest because I know without a doubt, that’s what he would want.
Katy Scardino, Proud Military Widow of 2nd Lt. Anthony Scardino