Like a lot of people from a small town, my husband and I knew each other from the time we were little kids. He was in my fifth grade homeroom class, but I didn’t give him much thought then, even though I remember my mom always saying “he’s just the cutest little boy!”
It wasn’t until high school, when he started a garage band with my brother, that I took notice of his blue eyes, the way he played guitar, his closeness with his family… He wore a leather jacket to school every day and slept through every class, and I guess a lot of teachers thought he was a slacker. But I knew he was smart and strong and sensitive and loyal. We were sixteen, and I KNEW I was going to marry him.
He joined the Army when we were eighteen, opting for Infantry because he wanted to “be where the action is, do something big and make a difference.” His family was not so keen on the idea, but I was behind him 100%. I knew he wanted to do it, and I also knew that even though so many people underestimated him, if he put his mind to something, he would accomplish it. He was more than just the lazy kid in the leather jacket that some people in our hometown saw. I wonder now if they regret that they never gave him the credit he deserved.
After basic, he got stationed in Friedberg, Germany with the 1st Armored Division, and went to Iraq in 2003-2004. I ALWAYS saw him as such an amazing, upstanding, loyal person, my hero—and then he became an American war hero. He rarely talked about his experiences in Iraq—some of the firefights and situations he won awards for, I am only now, a year after his death, learning the details of—but I knew he had seen some serious things… he never was “the same person” after he came home…
We got married when he came home on leave after Iraq, and then went to Germany together for a while. A few months into our marriage, I realized that something was wrong. My husband was different. The best way I can describe it is to say that his body had come back home, but somehow he’d left his soul in the sandbox. He didn’t sleep well, and if sleep came, terrible nightmares came with it. He often fought and screamed in his sleep. He had flashbacks during the day, and sometimes it was hard to make him realize he was safe, at home. Once, I found him huddled on the floor in our closet, wearing only his PT shorts and dogtags. I asked him what he was doing, what was going on? And all he said was “I just felt safe there.”
Over the next couple of years, things got worse. Especially when we got stationed in California, at a small post in the middle of the mojave desert. In addition to sleep problems and nightmares and flashbacks and anger, there was anxiety and panic, bleeding ulcers and stomach problems…As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, a “fake” IED exploded in his face during a training exercise, leaving him with hearing loss in one ear, serious balance and coordination problems, and even more mental health issues.
When I finally convinced him to seek help for some of these issues, we learned that our tiny post in CA had no Psychologists, no trained mental health providers other than counselors, no hearing or vestibular specialists. They told my husband to “drink warm milk” to cure his anxiety and nightmares, and gave him some kind of “expirimental drug” to see if his hearing would improve. It didn’t.
We fought hard to get him competent care for these injuries. Fought like hell, actually. It was almost 6 months before he finally got his hearing aids, and more than a year before he finally got to see mental health providers in San Diego for Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By then, he’d already been in an inpatient program for PTSD twice. I had to write letters to senators and congressman and meet with his entire Chain of Command in order to get him the medical treatment he deserved, the treatment he was entitled to.
He was medically discharged from the Army in May of 2008, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved! We were both so ecstatic, just to be able to live a “normal” Civilian life, be together on a regular basis, and heal from all the hardships and trauma of the last several years. As awful as things had been, it was wonderful to know that we had made it through all these things together, we would stick by each other through anything, that we’d always be there to fight for each other when we needed to. I felt like we were finally “safe.”
And for almost 8 months, we were. For those months, we had cookouts with family and went fishing and shopping and took roadtrips and just relaxed. I saw him smile and laugh more than ever. My husband—the REAL person, not just the broken shell—was finally healthy and home!
Then, on Jan 17th, 2009, he was killed by a drunk driver. He was on his way home from playing pool with his cousin. At 12:37 he called to tell me he was on his way home. At 12:42, he was dead.
He died on impact, when the car hit a tree.
I have the police reports, his death certificate, all this documentation that spells out what happened. Sometimes I just stare at it. None of these papers really explain to me how the STRONGEST person I’ve ever met or ever will meet, a person who has been through so much and always persevered, a person who has lived through so much pain….how could that person just…die?!! The tree wasn’t very big at all. I still cannot fathom how such a small tree—a sappling, really—could kill him. He was so tough and strong. They say he died “on impact,” meaning he didn’t struggle, he went instantly. And while I suppose this is a good thing, I don’t understand that either. By nature, he was a fighter. He always struggled, always overcame. So how could he not struggle and fight to live?? I have so many questions.
It wasn’t until I filled out some forms for the VA, and checked the “widow” box, that I realized I wasn’t technically a wife anymore. If I am not Chris’s wife, then who am I?
When I boxed up his stuff, put all his Army gear in duffel bags and his Class As in a shadowbox on the wall, I happened to look down at a pair of his combat boots, and then at my diamond engagement ring. I wondered how it could be possible that the Army wasn’t really a part of my life anymore, and how it could be possible that the engagement ring I’d worn since I was sixteen belonged to a dead man??
I don’t know what to do with all this stuff. It’s a little over a year now, and I have put some things in boxes, given some things to family…I even donated some of his socks to Goodwill, which was actually harder than I’d anticipated, even if they were just socks!…the combat boots are in the closet and I recently took off my wedding rings and put them in a keepsake box. But the real question isn’t about what to do with his stuff. The real question is about who I am now. And what am I supposed to do with myself?