Bombs, war and the mysteries of the brain: How The Post's TBI story came to be
The question last year, from a long-time source, seemed simple enough: Did I want to meet some patients from Bethesda with TBI? Unlike so many military acronyms beyond my ken, I knew what TBI stood for: Traumatic Brain Injury. But until that night, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where I met several wounded warriors who were the guest of the governor of Maryland, I realized I didn't really know what TBI was.
The Marines, all patients at the new TBI unit at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, were tough and tattooed, and, at first, didn't seem all that different from other infantryman I had met. But the more I talked to them, the more I got caught in conversations that meandered from one subject to another, sometimes mid-sentence, the more I realized their brains weren't functioning quite right.
Although they all looked fine, their speech was sloppy and their memories were flawed. One showed me a notebook he kept to write down all the things he knew his brain would not be able to recall: when to take his medications, when his doctor appointment were--and where.
After a few months, I was able to visit 7 East, the TBI unit at Bethesda Naval, where I met an amazing staff of nurses and doctors led by David Williamson, a neuropsychiatrist. Over the next few months, he would introduce me, photographer Marvin Joseph, and video journalist Whitney Shefte to many of his patients, teach us about the mysteries of the mind and help us understand what it is to have a TBI. The result is this multimedia report.
Early on in the reporting, Dr. Williamson gave me what I took to be a challenge. In order to capture what it really means to have a brain injury, he said, I was going to have to somehow demonstrate that his patients suffered far more than a physical wound.
When the brain is injured, he said, it affects our humanity.
He sounded more like a philosopher than a doctor. I had no idea what he was talking about.
Look, he said. You're listening to what I'm saying. You're processing the language, understanding it, storing the information away. At the same time, you can hear other conversations in the background (the hospital was a bit noisy at that point), but subconsciously you can filter that out, just like you feel the chair beneath you without really thinking about it. Meanwhile, he went on, you also know that later today you have to pick up the dry cleaning or run certain errands. You can, if needed, pull memories from childhood that have been stored in your long-term memory. Look, he said pointing, you just scratched your head. You had an itch--that information was conveyed to your brain, which sent a message to your arm to scratch.
All of this is going on in your brain in real time, he said. So when some of the neurological connections are disrupted, either by a blast wave or a piece of shrapnel, it changes how people experience life. And that, he said, makes them different people. Some come home from the wars with scars and missing limbs. Others come home acting strange: extroverts can become introverted. Others become impulsive. Some can't recognize faces.
A brain injury, then, affects their humanity.
"That," he said, "is what your article should be about."
When Daddy goes to war
By Sophie Roth-Douquet
I'm a twelve-year old girl. My Dad is in the Marine Corps. Eight months ago, my dad was deployed to Kabul, which is the capital of Afghanistan. This is his third combat deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, but this is the first time I've been old enough to actually realize what's happening.
My mom says that the first time my dad deployed, when I was three, I came up with lots of ideas to catch Saddam Hussein so that my Dad could come home sooner. An example of this was my idea to sneak up on Saddam and scream really loud so that he would fall down, then the Marines could capture him. The second time my dad deployed, my brother was three, and he'd wake up at night and go walking around the house calling for his Daddy. He never really understood that he wouldn't find him.
People sometimes wonder what it's like to be a military child. Sometimes it's easier, more fun than others. One of the worst times for me was last fall. I came home from swimming, and my mom told me she had to tell me something. She led me in and we sat down on the couch. I was a little bewildered, my first thought was that I was in trouble, but my mom reassured me it wasn't that.
The news that came out of my mom's mouth was unexpected. My dad was getting deployed and would be gone a year. He would be leaving in seven days! I couldn't believe it. Pretty soon, I was crying hysterically. Tears were streaming down my face. I was repeating over and over again, "He can't go, He can't go." I was eleven then; it meant when he came back, I'd be twelve. We had a new puppy, it would be a full grown dog.
My brother was only seven. A year is so long for a seven year old. It made me more upset to see my brother: After my mom told him, he was just playing video games and laughing with his friends. It made me so angry.
The actual deployment was easier than I expected. By the time it had sunk in that my dad was gone, I'd gotten used to it. The worst thing about my dad being gone is realizing that as hard as I try, I remember less and less about him. Even though we see him on Skype, sometimes he seems like a memory, and that's a little scary.
Some of the things that make me feel better when I miss my dad are: playing with my puppy, cooking, and reading. It was also fun to go to Disney World with friends during Thanksgiving.
Even though it's hard to have my dad gone, I don't want him to stop being in the Marine Corps. Even though bad things happen. I had a friend once whose dad was killed in Iraq. And a family who used to live in our neighborhood lost their dad in a helicopter crash. It's hard when these things happen, but it's rare. Our life has a lot of good in it too -- travel, new people, and feeling proud of ourselves for what we do.
I think it's great that when people think about the troops, they'll think about the ones that died, like my friend's dad and our neighbor, and maybe they'll think about people like my dad too, far away and giving up being with us to do his job. Maybe they'll even think about me, and kids like me, who serve in our own way, and that would be good for everyone.
Sophie is a sixth grader. Her mother, Kathy Roth-Douquet, is the co-founder of Blue Star Families.
Would you give your seat to family of fallen Marine?
Between innings at Nationals Park, we put down our beers and hot dogs and clap for the wounded warriors. Sometimes we clap for soldiers walking through the airport. Sometimes we festoon our cars with yellow bumper stickers that proudly announce that we "Support the Troops."
That's what we're willing to do. But would you give up your seat on an overbooked flight for a soldier? What about a soldier's family? What about a dead soldier's family escorting his casket home?
According to a riveting article in the Washington Times, a flight attendant at Washington National recently pleaded with passengers to accept a $500 flight voucher and take a later flight so that the family of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Justin Wilson, killed in Afghanistan, could accompany his casket home from Dover Air Force Base. Initially, three passengers volunteered, including Colleen M. Getz, a Pentagon official who wrote the Times story.
But we three were not enough: Six were needed. So we stood there watching the family - dignified and mute, weighed with grief and fatigue - as the airline representative repeatedly called for assistance for this dead soldier's family. No one else stepped forward. The calls for volunteers may have lasted only 20 or 30 minutes, but it seemed hours. It was almost unbearable to watch, yet to look away was to see the more than 100 other witnesses to this tragedy who were not moved to help. Then it did become unbearable when, in a voice laced with desperation and tears, the airline representative pleaded, "This young man gave his life for our country, can't any of you give your seats so his family can get home?" Those words hung in the air. Finally, enough volunteers stepped forward.
So: would you have given up your seat? What do you think of the people who refused? Has eight years of war made us numb? Please weigh in on the comments board below.
Why we fight
By Thomas Daly
Seven minutes into our first patrol in Ramadi, the point man was shot in the throat. The wounded Marine apologized to his lieutenant for getting hit. Then he went unconscious.
Another day at war, another firefight, another casualty. After the confusion and chaos of our brush with combat, I couldn't stop wondering: What did this Marine's sacrifice accomplish? We didn't kill or detain any al Qaeda operatives. We didn't discover any hidden weapons caches. Ramadi didn't feel any safer because of our presence. So what was the point? In past wars, the answer to "Why do you, or we, fight?" was easy. In World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Nazis' expansion, provided a call to action. Today, it isn't so clear.
Throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, the nature of each traumatic injury or death may be different, but the question of "why" that follows is still the same. To ignore the why erodes the basic principle that provides what every combatant needs to fight: the reassurance that the cause is worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. Once this basic principle is no longer true, soldiers and Marines fight for self-preservation, and each other, not a heroic cause or just peace, as politicians might like to think.
In Ramadi, our lives were reduced to a collection of missions, during which we tried to identify and kill an unseen enemy before he could do the same to us. We weren't fighting for any noble objective, or to protect the U.S. from weapons of mass destruction. We were fighting for survival.
Then, halfway through the deployment, in the vast farmland east of Ramadi, an answer came. In January of 2007 an Iraqi citizen militia approached my unit, wanting to help us defeat al Qaeda. In the series of pinpoint raids that followed, I realized that I wasn't fighting for America. I was fighting for the Iraqi people. The more I interacted with the militia, understood their suffering, the more I became convinced in their cause against al Qaeda. The brutal murder of a father while his wife and young children were forced to watch and the placement of children's heads in baskets because their "tribe" was not fighting the Americans were no longer statistics. They knew the hard reality of life under brutal terrorists. Their pain was real. And because of that reality, the fathers, sons, mothers and daughters that made up the militia became my, and America's, greatest opportunity. They revealed to me my unseen enemy. Al Qaeda was no longer a shadow in the dark. My unit now had a purpose. Our war finally had meaning.
We conducted raids with former insurgents, men who were once our enemy but had switched sides. We adapted to an unconventional style of warfare, which resulted in the capture and killing of dozens of militants, including the second highest-ranking insurgent in Anbar province. Most important, our actions directly contributed to what came to be known as the "Anbar Awakening"--the uprising of thousands of Anbari tribesmen against al Qaeda. That, in turn, led to the collapse of the terror network in cities like Fallujah, Haditha and Ramadi.
This was why we fought. Not for the reasons politicians championed from behind lecterns hundreds of miles away. We fought for the Iraqis. So they could live free from terror.
When the president and other elected officials send soldiers and Marines into battle, they know they'll go willingly, at a moment's notice, without questioning why. Eventually, though, that question will bubble up to the surface. It took me six months to figure it out.
I'm glad I did. Because you never want to be a looking at the body of a fallen comrade, searching for the meaning of his sacrifice.
Thomas Daly joined the Marines following his graduation from the University of Rochester in the spring of 2004. He is the author of Rage Company: A Marine's Baptism by Fire, an account of his tour of Iraq during the surge. He is now a project manager for ITT Corporation and lives with his wife and daughters in New York.
From Fallujah to Chili's: A reservist goes back to work
By Dario DiBattista
It's cold in here. Cold and casual. The consumers - we call them guests - squeeze into their booths (the especially large ones we put at tables) and low light comforts them all. "Make yourself at home," we say. We wear dark shirts like shadows so we don't impose ourselves on their dining experience.
Our guests are uncouth and shallow. They demand their Cokes like IVs for salvation. When they need more drip, they look at me and point at their glasses. "Hey chief, get me another Coke, will ya! Can't you see my glass is empty?" A few months ago, I would have slammed the butt of my rifle in their faces for such insolence. I am not a Chief, I am a Lance Corporal and you know nothing of where I have just been. Today, I smile and say, "No problem, sir." Twelve thousand miles away, an IED goes off, another soldier dies in combat trauma, and no one here cares. I think of the young Iraqi boy who lost his hands to insurgent axes because he sold us Americans soda.
Fat cows; these people delight themselves with treats most Iraqi children cannot even fathom. They swallow shots and stab at sweets and sift through the vegetables on their plates to only eat the best red meat. "Yum," they say, "this food is so good."
None of them have the same desperation in their eyes as me.
At the restaurant, right now is the highlight of our guests's week. Monday through Friday, for eight hours a day, they had to dress up, be polite to the boss and look busy behind something light and digital - how tough for them.
None of them carried a weapon instead of a Personal Digital Assistant. None of them listened to wind-tossed dog tags clanking against the rifle, boots and helmet memorial of a newly killed Marine. None of them picked up the body parts of both strangers and friends: a tossed salad served by suicide bombings.
It's March 2005; I've only been back home from my second tour for about four months and I'm heartbroken and poor and not mentally well. It's been over two months since my year-long orders to active duty ended. The military's finance system has yet to sign off on the thousands of dollars they owe me. So I'm forced to work when I'm barely capable of basic existence. On my days off, I'm too depressed to move. On my couch, I watch the days turn to darkness through the slits in the patio blinds; and when it's dark I'll finally rise to go get wasted.
I loved someone once. And she loved me. She wrote me daily in Iraq and drew me pictures. She scribbled hearts under her name and marked the envelopes with lipstick. We used to work at the same store. Now that I'm home again though, I've become an ugly man - filled with rage and sorrow, prone to excessive self-medication. I scared her away. I show up to a different Chili's now; it's too hard for me to face my failures.
I see her in the crowd tonight. The pony-tail of her bright blond hair eludes me like a firefly in this biting darkness.
I did see her; where did you go?
Who are these women who wear your posture but not your face?
"Where did you go?" I want to scream. I often forget that I don't work at the same Chili's as her anymore, though inevitably I dwell on it for the duration of every shift.
Our song comes on, played from the rafters above: Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" (she had red hair when we met). My chest pumps like my blood is sap. I am barely alive and definitely dying.
Because every Chili's plays the same music, I know that where she is working on this very same night, at this very same time, she hears the same song. And I can only hope she feels an inkling of the pain that I do.
Somehow, I must focus on my job. I must give good and courteous service. I need our guest's money; although I just wish everyone, especially me, was dead.
To make them comfortable, I wear my smile like a cloak and hide what is in my heart.
When these people go home, I will put away my smile and go to the bar. The only people I will talk to are women who look like or remind me of her. All fireflies produce the same light, after all. Don't they?
It is cold and casual here. When I go to the bar tonight, it will be time to burn.
DiBattista is an Iraq War veteran who is in The Johns Hopkins University Master of the Arts in Writing Program. He is seeking publication of his memoir, "Go Now, You Are Forgiven: A Memoir of Love and War," from which this blog post is adapted. His literary nonfiction or poems have appeared in The New York Times, World Hum Online Travel Magazine and The Johns Hopkins University Arts & Sciences Magazine. DiBattista is also a featured blogger for www.notalone.com, a resource website for returning veterans impacted by combat stress and PTSD.
When Mommy goes to war (leaving the kids behind)
By Laura Browder
While our culture has always seemed able to cope with the idea of fathers as warriors--think of all those photographs on the front page of your local newspaper, featuring a returning soldier seeing his baby for the first time, or reuniting with older children--we may be less able to handle the idea of deploying mothers. We have learned, through watching countless war movies, that the bonds forged between (male) comrades during war can be stronger than those of family, but it may be a surprise to learn that this is true for many women as well.
As Marine Sgt. Jocelyn Proano, who joined the military after being expelled from high school, told me about getting her deployment orders when her daughter had just turned one year old: "That was the worst ever -- to leave my kid and everything." Yet she found her feelings for her daughter were in conflict with her military training: "The mommy mentality left me as soon as we got on that bus. All of a sudden, the Marine hit me." Sgt. Proano ended up extending her deployment so she would not have to leave her unit: "You want to be a Marine, and you can't be a mom all the time."
Sergeant Proano's overwhelming loyalty to her unit was only one of many surprises I encountered over the course of 52 interviews I did with women soldiers, sailors, coasties, airmen and Marines across the eastern seaboard. Photographer Sascha Pflaeging and I had conceived of our collaboration as a way of hearing the stories and showing the faces of some of the first large cohort of women--over 220,000 as of this writing--who had served in the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and surrounding regions. Among many other things, "When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans" ended up being a story about motherhood and war.
Our societal expectation that motherhood should be the overwhelming force in any woman's life was conspicuously absent for many women I spoke with. Police Capt. Odetta Johnson, an Army reservist, still regretted that she had had to cut her deployment a month or two short in order to return to her young son, who was facing surgery. She described her family's pressure on her to come back and her disappointment at letting down the members of her unit. Single mother Lt. Col. Willa Townes, U.S. Army Reserves, was deployed when her son was four. She had the choice of not going, because she had no family member who could take the child. But she was determined to serve in Iraq and finally got her son's daycare provider to board him for the year, to her great relief.
Not all women I talked to celebrated this shift in importance from family to unit. Many women were disturbed by the way their deployments had attenuated the bonds they had with their children. Army Staff Sgt. Connica McFadden deployed with her husband when her baby, whom she was breast-feeding, was six months old. She returned a year later to find that her daughter did not recognize either of her parents, and cried when left alone with them. It took two months before their little girl would come home with her parents. Yet even as military life made motherhood difficult, motherhood was the reason many women gave for joining the armed services. Several women I interviewed had children with serious health problems. For them, joining the military was a way of getting good health insurance.
Many female combat vets are single mothers, and some judges have accepted the argument of military mothers' ex-husbands that women who deploy should have permanent custody transferred to the child's father, on the grounds that a mother's deployability inherently makes for a less stable family environment. Since one-third of deployed troops have kids at home, this has become an issue that fills the pages of military blogs and has drawn attention as well in such media outlets as the Associated Press, NPR and Good Housekeeping.
Apart from news stories about child custody issues related to deployment, though, there has been less media attention than one might expect relating to the issues of mothers in battle. But as the wars continue, and mothers continue to be deployed for long periods--returning, often, with physical and emotional injuries--it is more than likely that their stories will force us to reshape our cultural ideas about motherhood in general.
Laura Browder's fourth and most recent book is "When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans," a collaboration with photographer Sascha Pflaeging, for which she interviewed 52 women from all branches of the military. The Janey exhibit is on a national tour through fall 2011. Browder is the Tyler and Alice Haynes Professor of American Studies at the University of Richmond and is the writer and co-producer of a forthcoming documentary on PBS titled "Gone to Texas: The Lives of Forrest Carter." She is currently working on a documentary film based on Janey.
Should soldiers get a medal for holding fire?
The idea of issuing a medal for "courageous restraint" may sound like a noble idea, especially during a war where it's often hard to differentiate between combatant and civilian. But when news recently broke that military commanders in Afghanistan were kicking around the idea of honoring those who hold their fire, the reaction from veterans groups was swift and forceful.
In a press release, Clarence E. Hill, the national commander of the American Legion, called the idea "misguided." "The proposal to award medals for holding fire is troubling because it is symptomatic of a growing culture in the military that will punish troops for making split-second decisions while they are expected to defend themselves and their comrades," he said. "This proposal is an insult to our men and women in combat who already do an extraordinary job of exercising restraint. Too much restraint will get our own people killed."
He also said it would imply that those who do "fire their weapons are somehow failing in their mission."
But Air Force Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a military spokesman in Afghanistan, said by email that "there's no proposal for a new medal." He said it was an idea floated by Britian's Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of Regional Command South.
"The modest backlash by some to this idea -- which was never more than an idea -- as putting our troops at risk kind of misses the point," Sholtis wrote. "By being in a combat zone, our forces are by definition at risk. In this environment, they retain and are expected to exercise the right to defend themselves and their buddies. To say that we should value restraint in potentially dangerous situations is only to promote the ethics our forces have always taken with them to war. That position is not now -- any more than it has been in the past -- incompatible with the right of troops to employ lethal force when circumstances dictate."
So what do you think? Should the military award those who go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties?
Does Michelle Obama support the troops?
By Rebekah Sanderlin
Very few people relate to the agony of sending a loved one into harm's way, knowing that there are people out there who want to kill him. Very few people know the exhaustion of raising your children alone in a town far from the help of family and friends. These last few years, we military spouses resigned ourselves to the knowledge that only other military spouses understand those emotions, emotions that are now far too familiar for us. And then, out of nowhere, Michelle Obama reached out to us during the presidential campaign. She, the most captivating first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy, lent us her voice.
She said that she had a newfound sympathy for military spouses because, like so many of us, she had hugged her husband goodbye knowing that there were people out there who wanted him dead. She said that, like us, she had spent lonely nights raising her daughters, comforted only by the knowledge that her sacrifice was for something bigger than herself. She, like many of us, quit her career so that her husband could pursue an all-consuming calling. She got us. More importantly, she told us - and the nation - so.
In a post on his The Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy magazine a few weeks ago, Tom Ricks criticized Mrs. Obama for being more interested in raising vegetables than in helping soldiers' wives. He based this assertion on Mrs. Obama's pledge during the campaign to help military families and he said that she has not made good on her promises. I beg to differ.
Since the election, the Obamas have strongly reminded the nation that the war continues, families still suffer and service members are leaving on their sixth - or more - deployments. Mrs. Obama has visited my Army post, Fort Bragg, and met with military wives whose husbands wear a variety of ranks. President Obama made the Fort Bragg area the second stop for his nationwide Fatherhood Forums initiative, a fascinating and necessary project to explore how to strengthen the role of fathers in troubled settings. I attended both of these events. My husband, our children and I were also among the military families invited to the White House Easter Egg Roll this year. And we didn't even vote for President Obama.
In fact, I was so adamantly opposed to Obama during the campaign that, with my husband deployed on his third tour in Afghanistan, I waited in a very long line to attend a John McCain rally. I even breastfed my then-seven-week-old daughter during the rally so that I wouldn't lose my spot in the front row. A picture of my precious baby girl (rest assured, it was taken well after the feeding was over!) wearing my friend's "Drill, Baby, Drill" pin hit the AP wires and appeared in newspapers around the world the following day. That's how much I opposed Obama - I let my daughter be the poster baby for the other side. But considering that I didn't want the Obamas in the White House, I have to say that since moving in, they have each repeatedly stuck their necks out to make my life easier.
My only suggestion for President and Mrs. Obama now is that they continue to lend their powerful voices to the military community and call on the rest of the country, in a way that their predecessors never did, to get involved in the war effort. I hope that the Obamas will draw on their past experiences to create new ways for Americans to show real, material support for service members and their families. Because that, more than any yellow ribbons or benefit programs, is what it will take to end this culture of War and War-Nots and to reunite a badly fractured nation.
Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of two, a freelance writer and a member of Blue Star Families who lives in Fayetteville, NC. She writes a blog about military family life called "Operation Marriage" for The Fayetteville Observer.
Next steps toward a repeal of 'Don't ask, don't tell'
After 17 years of waiting and more than 13,000 discharges of gay troops, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" finally seems to be within reach. President Obama said in his State of the Union address that repealing the law is an administration priority, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mulllen called recently for open gay service, a historic first for an active Joint Chiefs Chair. House and Senate leaders reportedly are planning to take up the issue in late May during consideration of the defense authorization bill.
Even though repeal seems to be just around the corner, and even though the House may vote to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell," there will be no progress in the foreseeable future. This is a hard thing to say, because victory would require just a couple of senators to shift their positions. But close is not the same thing as crossing the finish line. And there is simply nothing that can be done to compel conservative Democrats like Jim Webb to support full repeal at this time.
What this means is that, given the likely outcome of the midterm elections this fall, 2013 will probably be the next window of opportunity for repeal, assuming that the Democrats do well in the 2012 elections. I hope I am wrong about this. But if I had to bet a dollar, I would wager that full repeal will not be possible in the next couple of years.
All that said, there is a lot that can be done between now and then, but progress would require the pro-repeal community to line up behind a paradoxical dynamic. In particular, the best way to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell" is to take an incremental approach, and to tear it apart one piece at a time. This is a case in which asking for less is asking for more. I first realized this several years ago when some strategists cleverly proposed to start by lifting the ban for Arabic linguists only. Who could oppose that?
While it is impossible to put together a winning coalition in favor of full repeal at this time, it would be possible to take a number of partial- or half-steps which would, cumulatively, do the trick. But in order for Congress or the administration to pursue any of those half-steps, the gay rights community needs to show liberal politicians as well as the White House that they will not be bashed as sell-outs for achieving partial victories. Thus far, the gay rights community has demanded variants of full repeal or nothing, which, given the political reality, is about as effective as demanding that the moon become a cube. It is just not realistic.
So, what are the achievable steps that the community could demand? There are many. We could demand an executive order suspending discharges. Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for an executive moratorium two weeks ago, and pro-repeal groups failed to back her up. We could demand a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law but bless a transfer of authority for the new non-discrimination language to be deferred to the White House in keeping with the forthcoming recommendations of a Pentagon study group. We could demand a cut in funding for the implementation of the policy. Or we could get really creative, as blogger Paula Brooks has done, and call on Congress to refuse to promote any more General and Flag Officers until the policy is repealed.
I once heard an analysis of why the Israelis ended up with a state before the Palestinians. Each time the British offered a crumb to the Jews and the Palestinians, the Jews said yes and the Palestinians said no. Then the Jews would continue to push, but from a slightly more advantaged position. Over time, the Jews amassed enough crumbs to achieve their goal. The Palestinians ended up with nothing. The "don't ask, don't tell" repeal movement is in almost exactly the same place.
Aaron Belkin is Director of the Palm Center and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Promises a Marine widow cannot bear to hear
Rachel Porto, 23, is the widow of Marine Corps Cpl. Jonathan D. Porto, 26, who was killed in Afghanistan on March 14. Together they have a three-month-old daughter, Ariana. Rachel, a native of Aberdeen, Md., graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2008. She is currently living in North Carolina outside of the family's last duty station, Camp Lejeune. She blogs atA Little Pink in a Word of Camo.
A cassette tape is waiting for me. It sits in a small bubble mailer on my night table. It stares at me when I walk in the room; it beckons to me as I walk out. But still it sits there and waits. It is the last thing. The last thing he sent to me from "over there."
There is no note inside, just a regular old-school cassette tape. The outside of the envelope is addressed in his handwriting. "Love, Poppa Bear" is written on the back. I've opened it to look inside, but I haven't yet drawn up the courage to listen.
I know what I can expect to hear. The same things he always told me. He'll tell me how much he loves us and misses us. He'll sing to us--he always sang to us. Probably our favorite songs, maybe some new ones. He'll talk to the baby, he loved talking to her and she loves to listen to him. The first time I saw her smile was when he talked to her on the phone from "over there."
It will be filled with promises. He will promise us he's coming home, promise us everything is ok, promise that we're almost done and that we'll see each other soon. It's these promises I am most scared of, hearing them anew from lips that will never again utter them to me. Promises I held on to so tightly for the first three months of the deployment. Before... before the fateful ringing of my doorbell at 0530 on March 15. These promises have taken a completely new meaning for me since that morning. Promises to come home turn into, He's already home, just not the way I ever imagined. Promises of seeing each other soon have turned into, I've got a lifetime to wait. Promises of everything being ok have turned into, I am now in charge of making it ok.
As the days pass, more of his stuff trickles in. It started with the dog tags and the ring. The articles the military considers "sentimental," I received even before the funeral. The ring was one I'd given him when we first started dating, my birthstone cut in a heart shape. I told him "Here, I'm giving you my heart." He kept it safe all this time. Now it is back in my care, and it is again my responsibility to keep safe.
The stuff continued trickling in when two weeks ago, the articles that were "on him" at the time of death were given back to me. My Casualty Assistance Calls Officer - the man who delivers the bad news and then stays with you throughout the whole process -- inventoried each item with me. "One Identification card holder, black in color... Two Corporal chevrons, black in color, damaged" etc. etc., for each item, including the memory card. The memory card containing his photos from deployment -- all I have of the stories I'd been waiting to hear, and quite possibly the last things his eyes set on that fateful day. I studied each photo and wished upon everything I had that he could just show up and tell me what in the world some of the photos were of.
Sometimes, I expect to be able to talk to him. I'll tell a story and I'll forget the exact details. The first thought to cross my mind: "I'll have to ask Jonny when I talk to him." Then reality hits. All I have left are these memories and this 'stuff' that keeps coming back.
And the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps that was his and grew to be mine as well. The Marine Corps we both love. The Marine Corps that I trust will always keep my beloved Cpl. Porto's memory alive for me and my daughter.
The Marine Corps that continues to deliver the last tangible items, the last pieces of him left. And the tape. The last promises he left for us, the last words we can hear repeated to remember he is always with us, promises unbroken.