“This morning started early, 0610, as neither Leslie nor I could sleep very much last night. Everyone was sad and very, very quiet. It seemed as if I was just trying to take in everything . I mean how the house smelled, what the view from the windows looked like and even how the porcelain bathtub full of hot water felt cold when I sat down.”
This excerpt from Doyle’s journal is such an accurate description of the morning he left. It was strange reading this after he died, and how precisely it summed up my impression of the morning. We lived in an adorable, old, rental house that had some of those charmingly annoying details like a porcelain tub but no shower. I sat on the toilet seat in the bathroom that morning while he got ready. He asked me to rinse the soap off his back for him. I remember crying as I washed his back and tried to memorize every inch of skin under my fingers. It was as if deep down I already knew his fate….
Doyle and I met our senior year of college at Texas A&M. A mutual friend introduced us on the morning we picked up our Aggie rings and as they say, the rest is history. He was a charmer. A west Texas gentleman. Our first official date, two days after we met, we went for ice cream and sat on the swings at a local park and just talked. Seven months later he proposed to me in the end-zone of Kyle Field during the A&M vs. UT game. We married in August of 2002 on a brutally hot Texas night at a picture perfect, antique, white outdoor chapel surrounded by our family and friends. The week before Doyle had accepted his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army. We would leave the week we returned from our honeymoon for his Engineer Officer Basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. Following his 6 months of training there, we received orders to move to Ft. Riley, KS. The adventure had begun.
The week we arrived in Kansas, OIF I began. Our friends started to deploy. We knew it would come for us soon. On July 26th, Doyle came home with the news that their NTC rotation had been cancelled and that they were deploying instead to Iraq. Contrary to ALL common sense, we decided that day that we would try and have a baby. In August, right after our first anniversary, we found out that we were expecting. We were both shocked and thrilled! On September 8th, we said goodbye for what would be the last time. Doyle kissed me, kissed my tummy, and then we walked our separate ways, both crying.
My first inclination that things were rough in the part of the country where he was came in January when his Company Commander and 1st Sergeant were killed in an IED blast. I assumed up until that point that he was engaged in “engineer” activities like building things and disposing of confiscated ammunition and ordnance. I was blissfully ignorant of the dangers he faced daily. It was then I realized that his main responsibility was route clearance from the town of Habbaniyah to Ramadi. The Wild West they called it. I slept with the news on from that day on.
On March 30th Doyle called to let me know he’d received a box with the fixings for Frito pies that I’d recently sent. He was pumped to have eaten a semi-hot, sort of from home meal. The simple things always made him happy. He sounded happy, vibrant, enjoying his work. He told me he was running route clearance for a convoy to Ramadi early the next morning. We hung up with the usual “I love you’s” and the hope that he would be granted a 2 week R&R when our daughter was due to arrive in 4 weeks.
The morning of March 31st I woke with a feeling that can’t be described with words. Deeply unsettled is probably the most accurate description of it. I saw on the news that five service members had been killed in the western part of the country earlier in the day. It was the same horrific day that the American contractors had been killed and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. I couldn’t seem to shake the tears that plagued me that morning so I took some pictures of my growing belly and put his daily letter in the mailbox. I had just laid down on the couch to rest that afternoon about 3:00 when I heard a knock on the front door. The front door lock was broken so my mom walked through the house to go out the garage door….we were expecting a workman that afternoon. While she was en-route to the garage, the knocks on the front door came again, this time more urgently. I leaned back on the sofa and saw through the sidelights on the door a glimpse of a maroon beret.
He was hurt. That was all. I had talked to him the day before and he was fine. I ran, as fast as I could in my very pregnant state, to the garage door. In the driveway sat the government-plated, champagne colored mini-van. Two officers in their Class A’s and black jump boots met me at the top of the driveway. I remember falling to my knees and begging them to tell me he was okay. They silently and ever so gently picked me up by my arms and took me into the house. They sat me on the couch, with the Chaplain next to me holding my hand, while the poor Captain had to read the script, of which I heard nothing. My first thought was that I wouldn’t be able to keep our Gracie. It wouldn’t be fair of me to raise her by myself without a father. That it would be selfish of me to deprive her of a “family”. The guilt from these initial thoughts still haunts me on the bad days.
The next 6 weeks were a functional blur. We flew to KS for the memorial, drove to Texas for the first funeral, and then flew home and waited to have a baby. Grace Ashley changed my life when she joined us on May 14th, 2004. Two weeks past her due date might I add! I can’t remember my life before her now and I certainly can’t imagine a future after Doyle was killed without her. I feel like that knock on the door shattered my soul and Gracie is the glue that has held the pieces together. When she was a month old, decked out in a tiny pink dress, she had the opportunity to say goodbye to the daddy she would never know when we laid to rest the co-mingled remains of Doyle and the four other heroes he died with in a beautiful ceremony at Arlington Cemetery.
I never imagined I would every re-marry. In fact, the very mention of such a thing by anyone, well- intentioned or otherwise, infuriated me. God had other plans for our life and about two years after Doyle’s death, I reconnected with a friend from Ft. Riley. We renewed our friendship over the phone, swapping silly single-parenting stories, and our relationship grew quickly from there. Terry and I married in a small ceremony on Thanksgiving Day at home and I was blessed with a wonderful step-son, Christian. Terry deployed that February and served for 15 months in Baghdad doing the same route clearance missions that Doyle had done. The deployment was brutal, but I survived it. I’m not saying it was a healthy experience since wine and crackers were my main sources of nutrition for the entire year! I circled the neighborhood looking for the government vehicle every time I came home. They weren’t going to sneak up on me this time! I relied heavily on sleeping pills to escape the terror and nightmares that plagued me at night. But in the end, I made it. Terry is in the Army for the long haul, so we’ll have to do it again, sooner than later most likely. As difficult as it was, I did it, and I know I can do it again. My hope is that I can use my experience to help other wives going through difficult deployments and make some good out of a tragic experience.
I’m extremely blessed despite this epic loss. I am married to a wonderful man who understands that this event forever changed me and who welcomes the memories of Doyle into our home. Gracie knows her Daddy Doyle despite having never met him and knows how much he loved her before she was even born. We have a family and Gracie has a dad and siblings…the exact things I was afraid of withholding from her that first day. Terry and I added our youngest son, Timothy, to the mix last August and we’re expecting another baby this March. I’m still able to call Doyle’s family MY family. I know many widows can’t say the same as I’ve discovered grief does unexpected things to us and affects us each differently.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Doyle, and miss Doyle, and wonder what he would be like as a father. I guess that’s just one of the scars that will never go away. Thank you for the fairy-tale romance, Doyle. Thank you for our Gracie. Thank you for allowing me to move forward. I’ll love you forever.