He is walking slowly through the thick sand, dragging his feet out of boredom and the heat, the fucking heat. His nostrils are dry and he has another headache. He looks down at his boots and that’s when it happens. A split-second blast. All that’s left of him is one tattered boot. Sound familiar?? Probably not. But, it’s the stuff that goes through every military widow’s head. Like a horror movie. Something only a widow can imagine. Only, we never get to see that movie. We never really want to but, that last moment is something we wonder about every day and it starts with that knock at the door. For some, it ends after time. But for others, it only gets worse after that silver casket is lowered into the ground.
Even for me. I’m not your typical military widow. My husband didn’t come home in one of those “treasure boxes”, as my five-year-old son calls them. He made it through his deployment or so I thought. His story ended in our living room one year later. His boots neatly placed in front of our favorite overstuffed armchair. I can see him as if I were there. A half-empty beer can carefully placed on the edge of the coffee table. The night before we joked about that same can of beer. It was an off-brand, so cheap that the label said “Beer”, like you see in sit-coms. We were trying to save money and this was Michael’s attempt to adhere to our budget.
His feet propped-up as if he were laying down to take an afternoon snooze. Nothing could wake him up from this one. It was permanent. Only a foot away from his boots, lay his beloved Sig Saur 45 pistol. He bought it in Germany. His love of guns was deep rooted from childhood. War used to be just a game he played in the deep woods of Connecticut. War was something he left behind only a year earlier. But, he never really left that sandbox. His eyes were closed and his glasses rested on the edge of his nose. You had to really look hard to see the small hole in his chest, but, it was there.
Every detail imprinted in my mind, only, I wasn’t there. I quizzed my father for months after Michael’s suicide. I couldn’t get those questions out of my mind. What were his last moments like?? Was he wearing his wedding band?? Yes. Was there a note? No. Was there blood everywhere? Yes, there was blood underneath his body on the cushion of the chair we once made love on. Was he still warm? Yes, it had just happened when my dad returned from the post golf course. He walked by him, got a beer from the fridge, and clicked on the television. He glanced at him and noticed that all the color had gone from his rosy cheeks. Dad laid his hands on Michael and asked, “What happened Michael?” He was gone. Dad kissed him on the forehead. But, no matter how many questions I asked, I couldn’t find resolve.
What could I do to make this better? Nothing. I couldn’t do anything to make this one better. I couldn’t talk him through this one, like I did when he forgot to pay his credit card. I couldn’t sign him up for auto-pay and give him a pep talk to boost his ego after I had completely ripped him a new one. I couldn’t fix this. But my quest and demand for answers did not subside. I was going to find out what drove my husband to this. My sweet, baby-faced giant.
It must have been the officer in me and trust me, I have to dig really deep to find that person. You have a problem. Find a solution. I wasn’t going to let him go like this. I was going to keep asking questions and I was going to get an answer.
Years into my journey as a widow of this war I can recall numerous incredible women that have inspired me, but, none more than Chanel. I remember our first encounter. She is a tall, striking black woman with perfect skin and gleaming white teeth. Her smile is always warm and she always has her arms out to offer a hug. One would never know what a bad ass she is just by looking at her. We spoke together at a Fort Sill, Oklahoma forum on military casualties. A group from the post was trying to improve casualty affairs. You know, referring to the deceased by their name, not “it” or “the body”. I never understood why you need a forum to discuss such things that should come easily to anyone with a brain. We shared our stories. But, being widowed was not the only thing we shared. Chanel was a Private First Class when we met. She’s in Iraq now. She had to go to the sandbox to “see who and what Michael died for.” Chanel’s husband was one of the very first casualties of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was a helicopter crash. Chanel and her husband had some problems, just like every other Army couple I know. Sgt. Michael Pederson was a quiet man. He left her with allot of questions. But, like me, Chanel doesn’t let a question get in her way.
Shortly after his death Chanel up and joined the Army, leaving her daughter in the care of her mother. It was something I knew well. Michael and I were dual-military. We were both on active duty while we were married. We had to leave Ben several times and it was not easy. So, I knew Chanel was on a mission.
Then there’s Crystal. She’s joining the Army in October. She’s an amazing, petite, little ball of energy. We bonded one Christmas at a function for Children of the Fallen. She was over 200 lbs when we met. This year she was barely 100 lbs. and had just given birth to her dead husband’s third child. I was in awe and jealous all at once.
As for me, I wasn’t going to let the Army continue it’s cycle of mediocre mental health care. Michael did not die in vain. I stormed the infamous buildings of Capitol Hill until someone listened. I spoke in front of Congress, continuing to tell Michael’s story when he could not. My husband cared about his soldiers and I would continue to do his job.
We are all trying to find answers, redefine ourselves, stay afloat, and move on. It seems like we are all moving in different directions but, essentially we are doing the same things over and over again. I’d like to pass my story on, so that some of you don’t have to take the bumpy roads that I have chosen. I’ve struggled, Lord knows, I’ve struggled. I’ve taken pills to numb that lump in my throat and the dark thoughts that flood my mind in the wee hours of the night. I have abused food for four years until I looked in the mirror one day and didn’t recognize the person in the mirror. I’ve traveled all over the world since they lowered him into the freezing ground in Wolcott, Connecticut. But, I keep coming back to these little places where I can talk to other widows. You inspire me.