In the early days of the Iraq war I was living in Marine Corps base housing in North Carolina. Just about every Marine in the neighborhood was deployed to Iraq. My husband was no exception. Like any other spouse, I had my friends, my peeps, my home girls. We were there for each other come hell or high water. We cared for each other and each other’s children as if they were our own. We lived with the quiet denial that one or more of our Marines might not come home safe and sound. We held each other and consoled our children when news starting coming ’round; the guy down the street wasn’t coming home, the gal across the street would be at Bethesda for months to come, and the news just wouldn’t stop coming. Every few days it was someone from our base, someone from our neighborhood. We stalled fate by pouring ourselves into our work and our children. On the weekends we traded off who would be “the responsible one” while the rest partied away all manner of anxiety.
During this time I’d also been attending one of several support groups offered through the Family Service Center. One particular new Marine wife and young mother was from the Bronx (she was young to me at 21 years of age to my 41) and was still having trouble getting used to people in the South meeting her gaze as she made her way through the town stores. She hadn’t made any friends even after moving into Junior Enlisted housing, saying there was too much backbiting, gossip, and infidelity. When she found out her husband was to deploy, she immediately made plans to return to New York with her infant son and did so within days of his departure.
She showed up for our regular Tuesday evening meeting not sixty days after having left. Many spouses find out the hard way that family and hometown friends simply don’t understand military life, the demands, the camaraderie, and the discipline that filters down from the Command through the service member and to the family. It wasn’t the bugle at sunrise she had missed; it was the knowledge that she wasn’t the only one missing her man and scared to death that he wouldn’t come home to his wife and child. Like so many of us, she needed the company of those experiencing and those who had experienced the same thing, even if most of those were strangers. She learned quickly that military spouses aren’t strangers even if we don’t know everyone’s names. Still she was hesitant to do more than meet up once a week.
My husband’s promotion while in Iraq made me a Senior Enlisted spouse and I was excited about this because of the volunteer opportunities available to assist younger spouses. I’d already spent years in classes and other groups getting ready for something just like this. The other Senior spouses participating in this particular group were a class act and outstanding models of human understanding and decency. Two of the spouses worked for the Center and had founded the groups. Their husbands had retired during and after the Gulf War. They held Master’s in psychology and had years of experience dating back to the Vietnam era. I’d suspected from the outset that our young Bronx native might need a little extra help and was nodded on when I shared my concern.
By now it was May and everyone whose husbands had deployed in January was getting restless. Reunions were still two months away and school was letting out, making it all the more difficult to juggle work and activity schedules with increasing anxieties. We worked diligently with the group and each other to keep spirits maintained as much as possible, but nothing could have prepared me for the day after our young protege found out her husband had been killed. The two Vietnam-era spouses, one a widow herself who had remarried, worked very closely with her day in and day out, leaving the group to those of us they’d trained. The day after she found out her husband had been killed she received a Valentine’s Day card from him. It had been misdirected for months and was postmarked from one end of the envelope to the other. Still in the throes of shock, receiving the card solidified her initial denial of his death. She simply didn’t believe it, and she continued to deny it even as Taps played at his memorial service. She held that card for dear life and insisted it meant he wasn’t gone. In her mind, rather in her heart, he couldn’t have sent it if he was dead. More heartbreaking than the death itself was her inability to process what had happened.
I went home and took the workhorses out of my driveway. I’d used them to block the way so no one could park there; specifically, the guys who bring bad news couldn’t park there. In my mind, rather in my heart, if they couldn’t park there, they couldn’t bring bad news. I looked up and down the block and could see how others had done the same — with large potted plants, blow-up pools, patio tables, and canopies. None of these were in place before our Marines had deployed. I hadn’t noticed until then that I wasn’t the only one. We all had our own way of dealing with reality by blocking it out, keeping it at bay, and denying it. Of course the guys with the bad news could park on the street or even in the driveway of a vacant house, but this wasn’t part of my carefully crafted illusion and clearly it wasn’t part of anyone else’s either.
As I stood in my drive, it suddenly hit me that I hadn’t received a Valentine’s Day card from my husband. Mail ran notoriously behind during all of his deployments. My kids’ birthdays are within thirty days of each other and more than once I’ve created a birthday card that looked like it had been sent from afar for the one child whose card didn’t show up in time or at all. But realizing the absence of a Valentine’s Day card this time around haunted me until the day it came — two weeks after my husband arrived home, safe and sound.
There’s No Way You’re Not Coming Back
Copyright © 2006 by Diana M Hartman
There’s no way you’re not coming back, you carry us on your shoulders
You love me long, you love us all, there’s no way this is over
They rolled up in the driveway, they were sharply dressed in blue
The children hurried outside, they thought it might be you
The children hurried back to me, as the men walked up in blue
And later on they handed me a flag in place of you
I cannot comprehend the words, I don’t want to understand
But they kept saying awful things I can’t repeat to the children
There’s just no way you’re not coming back, you told me you’d come home
They weren’t there when you held me near, they weren’t there when we loved
They weren’t there when I held you back, they didn’t hear my cries
They weren’t there when you said to me, “I’m coming home, you’re mine”
There’s no way you’re not coming back, you called the other day
You said the fighting’s over with, you didn’t lie, I say
They didn’t hear your words to me, they haven’t read your letters
They’re telling me it’s over now, but I know, I know better
The neighbors come with dinner made as if I couldn’t bake
They say they understand and hope the kids and I will be okay
Okay from what? I cry to them. I know he’s coming home
They don’t listen when I say I heard you on the phone
I just sent you a package of your favorite things to eat
I know I’ll get a letter telling me I am so sweet
There’s no way you’re not coming back, I’ve decided this and so
I will wait however long it takes. They’re wrong, this much I know
This is absurd, this hero’s welcome for a box, not for my love
There’s no way you’re not coming back, I know you’ll be coming home
My knees are weak, my heart is heavy. The sun beats down my mood
When are you coming home my love? The shots rang out at half past noon
The cars, the bugler, and a box. It’s all a blur to me
The sounds, the sights, the smells, the cries. It’s all so lost on me
There’s no way you’re not coming back, the mail came again today
A letter from you says you’re good. They all must be mistaken
There’s no way you’re not coming back, I’ve cried too many tears
You told me you’d be coming home, we still have many years
But still they’ve come with papers saying, “Sign the dotted line”
And still I don’t believe it. You’re coming home, you’re mine.
For Cecilia. There but for the grace of God go I.