When Jon and I went on our first date, it wasn’t technically a “date” as such. We went to Bertucci’s Pizzeria, where I ate an entire pizza – by myself – and then saw the epic drama Old School…minus the epic drama part. Jon later told me that he’d thought we would share the pizza. On the way home, he’d almost totaled his Toyota Prius when he spun out of control on the snow that blanketed the New England roads as late as March. He also told me that meeting my dad when he’d picked me up had terrified him – we weren’t even on a real date and already we were skipping ahead to the “meet-the-parents” phase! But he grinned, gritted his teeth, and subjected himself to all that pain and suffering…for me. Come to think of it, Jon did pay for both of us at the movie theater since I’d conveniently forgotten my wallet. So maybe it was a date after all. And even though it wasn’t all roses and candlelight, it was the beginning of something truly magical, something akin to a fairytale. I had almost given up on fairytales, but with Jon I got my very own Cinderella story – fairytale romance, fairytale wedding, fairytale life.
Or so I thought.
Jon and I met when I was a freshman and he was a senior at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. At eighteen years old, I was a dedicated academic, allergic to exercise, and getting dirty ranked low on my list of priorities. I was not even a U.S. citizen, having moved from Scotland to Massachusetts when I was ten years old. Despite these handicaps, I loved military history and decided to join the Army ROTC program. I’d seen all the “Army of One” commercials on TV where female Soldiers jumped out of airplanes and blasted through targets with M16 rifles. September 11th was still fresh on everyone’s minds, and I thought to myself, “hey, I could do that…right?” At the time, Iraq was only a figment of the government’s imagination. The only ROTC instructor with combat experience during my freshman year was Master Sergeant Matthew Eversmann, who was made famous by Josh Harnett’s character in the movie Black Hawk Down. By my senior year, however, the odd man out was the instructor without multiple deployments.
My future husband, Jonathan Grassbaugh, was the Cadet Battalion Commander when I showed up at the ROTC building in my little white shorts and silver hoop earrings (I was yet to undergo my transformation from “girly girl” to “tough warrior”). After months of learning by some trial and lots of error, I began to understand what I had signed up for as an ROTC Cadet. Better yet, I came to know the man I would later agree to marry. While I stayed at Hopkins to complete my degree and ROTC requirements, Jon graduated and entered onto active duty in June 2003. He began training almost immediately and succeeded in graduating from Ft. Benning’s infamous Ranger School, a course with an overall failure rate of 50%. Sleep-deprived, starving, and mentally exhausted, Ranger School students trudge up the steep mountains of Georgia and though the swamps of Florida while manically chanting to themselves the mantra of “never quit, never quit, never quit…”. I have yet to see Jon’s father more proud than he was on the day Jon earned the coveted black and gold Ranger Tab; a Ranger himself, a Vietnam veteran, and the father of two sons both serving as Army officers, Mark was well within his bragging rights as a parent.
By the time Jon dropped to his knee and asked me to be his wife, I had been dreaming about those magical words for two years. Our Cape Cod wedding in June of 2006 was like a scene out of a bridal magazine, and our whirlwind honeymoon to Jamaica was nothing short of heavenly. When we returned home, however, we had only five weeks together before Jon deployed to Iraq on July 31st, 2006. Looking back, I don’t know how we got ready for him to leave so quickly – we literally just pushed aside the bubble of newlywed bliss, buckled down, and made it happen. We had no choice; the day of his departure was looming but inevitable. In a no-frills, no nonsense ceremony at a generic parking lot on Fort Bragg, I tearfully bid my new husband farewell. Jon wiped away my tears and assured me that I gave him so much to look forward to when he returned home. No amount of assurances, however, could stop me from fearing the worst. As I watched the white, prison-like bus carrying Jon and his Soldiers disappear into the distance, I already missed him with every fiber in my being. The fear combined with the longing is a physical ache for which there is no cure besides time. As I quickly discovered, time isn’t exactly a “wonder drug” remedy, not when you’re anxiously waiting by the phone for twenty-four hours a day and checking email five times an hour for any word from a war zone thousands of miles away. The news coverage didn’t help; this was back when sensational headlines about mounting casualties were the main theme of every news ticker and photos of fallen Soldiers constantly graced the cover of the Army Times. I couldn’t go to the gym or turn on the TV at my house without being confronted with my greatest fears on a daily basis.
While I embarked on my new life as a law school student at William and Mary, Jon became a minor celebrity of sorts in his unit. He performed logistical feats like delivering sixty boxes of hot pizza to Soldiers at nine different outlying landing zones by helicopter and produced cold diet Coke for caffeine addicts and Cuban cigars for his commander. He didn’t have to do any of these things, but he did them anyway – quietly – and earned the respect of his peers, superiors and subordinates alike. Truth be told, he was never crazy about being the Supply and Logistics Officer, and often noted wryly that it was a thankless position; no one noticed when the job was done well, but all hell broke loose when someone didn’t have exactly what they needed when they needed it. Jon, however, had the rare ability to make the best out of any situation, no matter how dire. To improve the unit’s quality of life, he constructed a makeshift movie theater by whitewashing the wall of an abandoned building, blacking out the windows, and acquiring a wide-screen projector. He put together a schedule of “movie nights,” complete with bootleg copies of the most recent releases, and provided popcorn for the staff. A die-hard movie buff, Jon was also known for ability to produce movie quotes on cue that could break through the tension of any situation and have everyone rolling on the floor in laughter. Ray Edgar, the Squadron Command Sergeant Major, said that one of his favorites was when Jon would shout: “How dare you come in here and bark at me like junk yard dog? I am the President of the United States!” This was from a scene in the movie Clear and Present Danger. CSM Edgar would usually try to get Jon to shout that quote out at least three or four times a week and it never got old.
During December of 2006, Jon and I shared two brief but unforgettable weeks together for what the Army calls “R&R” leave. We wanted to go on a cruise but decided that our families would never forgive us if we abandoned them at Christmas. We carefully planned a whirlwind trip, first to Hampstead, NH, then to Tacoma, WA, and finally to Sarasota, FL. It was on Christmas day that year that I last saw my husband alive. As I watched him walk down the platform towards the plane and caught a final glimpse of his face, fear squeezed my heart like a vice. I had no logical reason to believe that I would never see him again, yet I sensed instinctively that something just wasn’t quite right. His unit had already lost two officers, and Jon was profoundly affected by their deaths, knowing all too well that it could happen to any of them. I, on the other hand, was guilty of the all too well-known attitude of “it will never happen to us.”
On April 6th, 2007, I learned that my mom, while visiting Scotland, had been admitted to the hospital with a pulmonary embolism, which, if left untreated, can prove fatal. Reeling with this news and overwhelmed with the stress of final exams, I decided to drive to our apartment in North Carolina for the weekend. When I heard the knock at the door at 5:30pm on Saturday, April 7th, I was about to pour myself a glass of wine. The knock startled me – no one knew I was in town – but I thought little of it because the last time I was at the apartment, I bought a year’s subscription to Easy Home Cooking from a kid selling magazines door-to-door. This knock sounded no different. There was no way to know what was about to happen. It couldn’t happen to me, to us – Jon was sitting safely in his office on FOB Warhorse. He was the logistics officer. Logistics officers came home to their families.
When I peered out through the peephole, I could see two Army uniforms. Everyone knows that a visit from uniformed officers is never a good sign. I, however, believing Jon to be safe and invincible, did not make the obvious connection and opened my door. I barely had time to confirm that I was his wife before peppering them with questions: “Is he injured? Please tell me he’s just injured? Is he ok? What’s going on?” When one of the officers stated flatly that they had to come in to talk to me, I lost all semblance of control. I dropped to my knees and screamed “NO!” over and over again. I had to be physically removed from the doorway and escorted to the living room before they could deliver the official words that are all too familiar to anyone who has lived through this nightmare: “The President of the United States regrets to inform you…”
I would later learn that Jon was killed in Zaganiyah, Iraq, during one of the bloodiest months of the war. I saw pictures of where the trigger man sat as he peered through a tiny hole in the wall of an abandoned brick house and blew my husband’s 12,000-pound humvee to smithereens with a 500-pound Improved Explosive Device. The bomb caused the truck to flip up into the air and land to the rear of where it was travelling along a dirty Iraqi road. The crater created by the IED was five feet long and two feet deep. There were four other Soldiers in the vehicle with Jon that day. Of the five of them, four were killed, and although the fifth and final Soldier miraculously survived the blast, he has since undergone almost fifty surgeries to repair the extensive damage to his body from third degree burns. Both he and Jon were thrown approximately thirty feet when the blast ripped the heavily armored door off left side of the truck. Jon was still breathing when he was placed on the MEDEVAC helicopter, but he did not survive the short flight to the nearest hospital.
The few weeks following the news of Jon’s death were a blur of disbelief. I numbly stumbled through the process of picking up the pieces of my broken life, unable to fathom Jon’s palpable absence in this world. The headlines announcing his death blazed across the front pages of every local newspaper and anonymous signs saying “God Bless Captain Grassbaugh” and “Thank You Soldier” popped up all over town. On April 18th, 2007, firefighters and police lined the funeral route despite the pouring rain, American flags appeared on every mailbox, and ancient veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars drove in on motorcycles from all over the country to shield us from the group of protestors outside the church. If I were to see any of those protestors again now, I’d probably offer them some choice words, but I was too grief-stricken at the time to do anything other than show up at the allotted time and place armed with an arsenal of tissues. I filled Jon’s open casket with a framed wedding photo and letter and fiddled with his dress uniform – Jon would never have forgiven me if I let him go dressed in a uniform that was anything less than pristine. As I leaned over his casket for the last time to kiss the thick coat of makeup masking his beautiful face, my brother-in-law played “Time to Say Goodbye”, a song I have been unable to listen to ever since.
During all this, I ate nothing for two straight weeks and became gaunt and lifeless. My brother-in-law, an Army doctor, told me that he could smell the ketones on my breath. In other words, my body was eating away at itself as the muscle I had worked so hard to develop after all those hours of running began to atrophy. After two trips to the hospital, I was a physical wreck. I knew of nowhere I could run and hide because everything around me reminded me of Jon. Because she was still in the hospital recovering from her pulmonary embolism, my mom could not be with me until the burial services at Arlington National Cemetery. When she did arrive, she pulled me onto her lap and held me in her arms as if I was still a little girl who she could somehow protect from what had happened. There was nothing, however, that she or anyone else could do to shield me from the life sentence of my new reality. I watched the world continue to turn and people cautiously continue on with their lives, yet I was paralyzed, rooted to the spot. I thought that if I could only change places with Jon, I would. How could everything I loved be gone in an instant after taking years to blossom into the beauty of our life together? How could such a good man be gone at the age of twenty-five when criminals lived on to the age of ninety-nine? How could this happen?
On our two-year anniversary, Jon had sent me a pair of painted “wedding ducks” from Korea. The ducks were accompanied by a card that explained that these ducks were so emotionally connected to one another that when one duck is sad, the other is also sad. When one duck is sick, the other is also sick. The ducks are the definition of soul mates and remain together forever. But here’s the problem – what happens if one duck dies? What happens to the other duck then? What happens when you get a raw deal because no one thinks to ask for your permission before snatching away your soul mate and you’re only twenty-three years old and you find yourself left with a life that means nothing without that one person who made it mean everything? I spent months trying to answer this question. Advice from others was plentiful and because I was desperate, I took on almost all of their suggestions – I travelled, making it as far as St. Petersburg, Russia, read countless books on widowhood, sought professional counseling and medication, exercised to excess, and engaged in plenty of retail therapy. I rescued a dog from a local animal shelter – something I had wanted to do with Jon – and got two memorial tattoos, one of the Gold Star and another of the American flag in the shape of broken heart. Below the broken heart are the words “Loved Always & Forever.” These were the words Jon and I had used to sign every letter, card, and email, and they were also the words we had chosen to inscribe on his headstone. I wore the wedding ring they had retrieved from his finger on my right hand, deflecting the awkward inquiries when I didn’t feel like explaining myself to unenlightened, nosy strangers. Whenever the question did arise in the course of conversation, I continued refer to Jon in present tense as my husband – we didn’t get a divorce; he is still my husband and I am still his wife.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Dideon writes that “grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves”…a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intense subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.” Despite all my efforts at distraction, I remember many a night alone in my empty apartment, lying splayed on the floor having drunk too much wine, uttering these guttural, animal sobs of physical torment. I literally would gasp for breath, unable to draw enough oxygen into my lungs or stop the torrent of agony that wracked my entire body. When I could finally breathe again, I would call Jon’s voice mail over and over and leave messages telling him how much I loved him and needed him to come home to me, as though he were just permanently deployed. I don’t remember how long it was in the end, but for months I didn’t – couldn’t – bring myself to cancel his mobile phone line. We had a family plan (we were, after all, a family), and I was unwilling to give it up. I needed to hear the sound of his voice, and I wasn’t ready to let go of my ability to pretend that he was still out there somewhere.
When I heard that the rest of Jon’s unit would return from Iraq in November of 2007, I finally had to come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t coming home. I did my best to mentally prepare myself for the homecoming ceremony and resolved to meet the plane when it pulled onto the tarmac at Fort Bragg. I couldn’t do it – I showed up and lingered for a few minutes alongside excited families with small children waving their American flags before bolting back to the safety of my car. Jon was one of twenty-two paratroopers from his squadron killed during their fifteen-month deployment and one of sixty-seven fallen Soldiers from his Brigade, but even the knowledge that I was far from alone in my loss did not comfort me. Ultimately, I became friends with fellow war widows through a support group. I clung to the every-other-week meetings like a life-line because they were the only thing that made me feel normal and less alone. No one really knows what to say to a twenty-three year old widow, yet the women from the support group echoed my inner thoughts as clearly as if they could see through my cracked outer shell and read the language of my innermost grief. They were, after, all, native speakers of this language. We commiserated about those pesky extra pounds of “widow weight” and joked about the concept of “widow-brain,” a phenomenon that makes even the most able and intelligent of us forget how to accomplish the simplest of day-to-day tasks. We complained about the fact that although none of us wanted to be members of this “club”, we all found ourselves involuntarily committed to a lifetime membership.
I read every report I could get my hands on detailing the incident that had taken Jon’s life to try to fill in the answers to the questions that tormented my every waking hour. I even requested the autopsy pictures of my husband’s lifeless body just to be sure that they hadn’t made a terrible mistake. I grilled the members of his unit for any and all information as I tried to fit the pieces of the interminable puzzle together. Knowing more about what had happened did not change the bottom line, and yet I literally couldn’t rest without knowing all that there was to know. I was hungry, greedy even, for the knowledge. Who knows why these little details matter so much? You become so focused, so fixated on one little issue that you lose sight of all reason and logic. I thought a thousand times about the last conversation I had had with Jon earlier in the week before he died. Had I told him “I love you” before hanging up the phone that day? What were the last words we had said to each other? How had I managed to miss his last phone call to me the night before he died? I looked back on that night as being among the last moments of my nice, normal life before everything I believed in became tainted and unclean. That part of me that believed that bad things don’t happen to good people died the next day with Jon and I became a hardened realist.
For months, I found myself writing everything down – every precious detail, every precious memory. I feared forgetting what had made Jon who he was, and so I made lists of everything he did to make me laugh and every place that we had ever visited that held some significance. I would literally be in the middle of washing a glass or loading the washing machine when one of these memories would come to me – I’d sprint to the computer, intending only to jot down a few key words, and, pages later, would find myself still huddled in front of the computer screen banging out my thoughts and feelings on the keyboard. I often forgot to return to the half-finished chore until many hours or even a day or two later.
Similarly, during this first year, I would spring out of bed in the middle of the night, struck by a sudden thought of a personal item of Jon’s that I might have misplaced. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the item was right where I thought I would find it – but no matter what, I had to check. Just like there were only a finite number of pictures of Jon in existence, he only owned a finite number of things. He would never again buy a razor or a toothbrush. I couldn’t just add these personal items to my collection of his things later on if I felt like it. No, once I gave these things of Jon’s away, they were gone forever and they were never coming back. Just like Jon, they would be but a memory. Even if there was a chance that a sweater might still have a hint of his scent (despite being locked up in a dirty, dusty footlocker sent back from Iraq) or if there was a possibility that one of his combs might still carry a trace of his hair, I couldn’t throw it away. In the end, I was able to separate myself from a few things: prescription medications that were well beyond their expiration date, travel-sized toiletries that were still un-opened, a bottle of piña colada mix that I’d been holding onto for years because Jon so loved a good piña colada. That was a tough one. Logical or not, I think I was afraid that if I did not take all of Jon with me, it meant I hadn’t loved him enough.
After Jon died, I decided to withdraw from law school to become a Military Police officer at Ft. Bragg where Jon had last been stationed. Many of my friends and family were concerned that I was making a hasty decision for the wrong reasons, but I knew that it would give me something to focus on other than myself. It would also allow me to pick up where Jon left off in Iraq. I knew it probably sounded foolish to an outsider, but I wanted to do my part in contributing to the war effort overseas, and I wanted to see for myself the place that my husband had spent his final days alive.
I got my wish in September 2008 when I deployed to Mahmudiyah, Iraq – an area formerly known as the “Triangle of Death” – and became a Platoon Leader in charge of forty Soldiers. I found it very difficult when I first arrived in Iraq to forget the fact that this country was the reason my husband was no longer with me. Only slowly but surely over time did I grow to appreciate that the contribution of thousands of Soldiers like Jon is the reason Iraq is no longer a dangerous breeding ground for extremist militia groups. Because of drastic improvements over the past few years, we can now focus on providing electricity and education to Iraq’s people instead of ammunition and bombs to fight terrorists. Ironically, the last of the Army’s combat brigades recently left Iraq on August 18th, 2010, the date of Jon’s birthday. He would have been twenty-nine this year.
Iraq did not, by any means, give me all of the answers, but it did allow me to recognize the potential I still had to do some good in this world, just as Jon would have wanted. He once told me that if anything ever did happen to him, I could not allow it to destroy me and that he knew I’d eventually be able to embrace finding love again one day. I’m still working on the love part – I still have a lot of “me” to work on first, but I’m not closed off to the possibility at some point. I’d like to think I now indulge in a little less self-pity and a little more appreciation for the many blessings in my life. Although I still have the possibility of a bright future, Jon was forever denied all the things that we were so looking forward to sharing together, like children, a little house, and a happily-ever-after ending to our Cinderella story. At the funeral, Jon’s brother said that God must have a great need for Jon’s talent in his kingdom, and that, without a doubt, God will reward Jon for his selflessness, his courage, and his kindness. I just wish that God had given us more time with him before calling him to his new mission.
These days, I continue to barge ahead at full speed. I talk about Jon often, even to complete strangers. It helps to recall the happy memories of our time together, though these memories are also tinged with sadness because, at the end of the day, he is still gone. I have also thrown myself into memorial projects, to include establishing several scholarships in Jon’s name, contributing to the development of Survivor Outreach Services (a nation-wide program designed to help other Gold Star families), and running the Army Ten Miler race to raise money for TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors). I do so much, driven solely by the need to keep moving forward, because I fear more than anything what might happen if I stop and allow the gravity what happened to truly sink in. I feel as though everyone wants to hear the story of how “strong” I’ve been throughout this ordeal. I haven’t felt strong. I’ve felt very weak, in fact, at times. I get out of bed every morning, go to work to keep myself busy, and constantly “deal” in the only way I know how. I don’t think this makes me strong – it just makes me a survivor who has tripped over her feet and fallen several times along the way. I’ve found that there is simply no other way to keep going other than to get up, brush off, and keep placing one foot in front of the other. Jon’s boss told me from the very beginning that no one can walk in my shoes. My family and friends can hold my hand and they can be there to catch me when I fall, but at the end of the day, I am the one who has to live with the memories that make me laugh out loud one second and burst into tears the next. In the words of James Frey in his book A Million Little Pieces, “the wounds that never heal can only be mourned alone.” This can get hard, especially when I find myself consumed with thoughts during that quiet time at the end of the day. Sometimes the only thing I can do to fill the silence is to focus on the times I know will warm my heart, like when our wedding ceremony officiate asked, “where is your sacred spot, a place you feel most connected, most at peace, or most inspired?” Jon’s answer was very simple but very beautiful. His answer was, “With my wife.” These three simple words remind me that although the fairytale didn’t end the way I had hoped, I know that I am still luckier than most. Even if just for a little while, I got my prince. If she were to ask me again today, my answer to our wedding officiant’s question would be “With my memories of Jon.”
Jon lived every day by the motto “non sibi” – not for one’s self. As a husband, brother, and son, he was, quite simply, the best of the best. He loved life with a passion and vigor, no matter what challenges he faced, and constantly sought to share that passion with others. Over the past three years, I hope that I’ve managed, in some ways, to make Jon proud. I want him to smile down on me from up there in heaven, though I’m sure he’s shaken his head once or twice and asked himself what on earth I was thinking. To say that he is missed does not even begin to describe the gravity of his loss. No matter what I may do in the future, I will continue to take flowers to Arlington and ask him to give me the strength to find my way as I trudge clumsily forward. I will continue to reach out to others who find themselves in this impossible situation and lean heavily on the friends and family without whom I would not be standing here – though shakily at times – today. Above all else, just as Jon told me on the eve of our wedding, I will continue to love him, my beloved husband and best friend, “always and forever…and nothing will change that – ever.”