Soldier

My husband is a soldier.

It’s odd for me to type that out. Frankly, I think it makes him sound like a scuzzball that drives around in a rusty truck wearing a wifebeater t-shirt, listening to Lee Greenwood and Def Leppard. Why is that? I don’t know. Few of the soldiers I’ve personally known in my life fit that stereotype at all. Quite the contrary.

I met my husband at the wedding of one of his teammates when he was in the Special Forces. He was a bit of a wallflower, but I liked his face. Then I liked his personality. Then, once I broke through the surface, I fell in mad love with him. It amazes me to this day that so few had noticed him, really noticed him in a deep way, before I did. With utter confidence but not bravado, I can say he’s a rare breed. The Army is not the only one who noticed that.

Through my husband I met a number of other SF men. Some of them were brawn; all of them were brains. Save a few exceptions, I found all these men, like my husband, to be Renaissance men: each of them possessing some fascinating combination of musicality, compassion, humility, confidence, prowess, stamina, brilliance, sensitivity, bravery, resilience, wit, humor, and genius, as well as some X Factor I can’t quite explain. When an old family friend of ours, one who served in Vietnam and is quite the man’s man, learned that my husband was a Green Beret, he actually kissed my husband on the lips and told my parents, “She’s got a special one there.” He was right. As if to illustrate, my husband kissed him right back. He’s a goof like that.

After I married my husband, he decided to go back to school and leave active duty. He has remained in the National Guard, some of his service there being in SF units, some not. He didn’t want the SF life, the active-duty life, for his kids or wife. He wanted more stability than those paths have to offer. I have always been grateful that he made that choice, knowing how much he invested in training to become a Green Beret. It was a sacrifice. The result, of course, was that he was deployed to the Middle East when our daughter was not quite two. It was horrible.

Soon after my husband deployed, before he even left stateside, I received a phone call from the wife of another SF Guardsmen we’d known from our old stomping grounds. They’d lived down the street from us, with their loopy dog who always ran to our door and tried to scratch it in the early a.m. when they were jogging down our road. We’d spent many a night playing Scrabble with them, drinking Chilean wine, and discussing everything from literature to fly fishing. She was smart, and he was genius. He was also irrepairably haunted by years spent working to rebuild infrastructure in wartorn Sierra Leone. He carried a backpack everywhere, and we always joked about what we thought might be in it: a gun, some water, a good read, and a rain poncho maybe. One of those guesses was confirmed one day when we were walking with him home from a parade. Noticing a homeless man looking disoriented and sweaty on that hot afternoon, slouched on the stoop of a local business, our friend lagged behind us. We turned around at some point and realized he’d stopped to check on the man, was reaching into his backpack to give him his water canteen for a drink. That was my friend. That was my friend’s husband. He was a complicated, ill-tempered, but ultimately good man.

I have the fondest memory of walking out one late afternoon to see my husband and this guy on our porch, tilted back in Adirondack chairs, feet on the banister, smoking cigars for the first time that I’d ever seen either smoking cigars. They were laughing and looking up some obscure word in my ten-ton American Heritage dictionary, verifying my friend’s husband had used it correctly. Of course he had. He was a walking ten-ton dictionary himself. I’m an editor and writer, but he always had me beat in even my own area of expertise. The guy was something to behold.

“Jenny?” my friend’s voice said over the phone. I was so excited to hear it. Motherhood and relocation had put too much time and space between us for the past two years. Before I could say so, she continued: “Noah was killed.” Words can’t describe what I felt. The absence of my own husband made the news that much harder to bear. He would be away for 15 months; how could we grieve together? I called my dad and cried.

Our friend was gone, my first experience losing a friend to war. He was the victim of a suicide attack in the Middle East, where he’d gone voluntarily — not on deployment but on contract. In the weeks that followed, I arranged for extended childcare for my daughter, bought tickets to fly out for the funeral, and spent some of the strangest, most difficult days of my life with my widowed and grieved friend. They sent her husband home piece-meal, literally, a fact she didn’t want to know. It was as though he died several times over. She grieved with each phone call, with each question, with each formality, with each form. At the funeral, I looked at the drawn faces of all those SF guys, and my legs shook. My imagination ran to bad places. Afterward, when night fell and the formalities were done, I held my friend in the dark like a mother; she held me like a lover. She grieved in strange ways that made perfect and horrible sense to me, that might have offended some, that I know confused others, that were a testament to how catastrophic it all was.

During that grieving time with my friend, I went through a change in my heart that I still hold close to me. It’s hard to write about it, to risk any misunderstanding about the man, his wife, myself, the military, and least important, my place in the matter. So, I don’t know that I’ll ever really write about it in detail. But on days like this, I think of it. I think of him. I think of her. I never imagined that all the training I got through motherhood would lead me where it did in that time: That I’d find myself entwined under covers with a grown woman, holding her sweaty and tear-streaked hair against my heart like a mom would, as I rocked her to the mental rhythm with which I rocked my daughter, loving her unconditionally and yet fearfully, worrying my refuge wouldn’t be enough. Knowing it could not be enough.

Before I go to bed tonight, I just want to say thank you to those who serve. I do not know the full extent of your sacrifice, but I know a small piece of it. Thank you.

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