Excerpt of No Man’s War, by Angela RickettsBy TNB Nonfiction
July 22, 2014
Three months before my disoriented search for my other green Croc in the middle of the night, my front door has another reason to open in the wee hours. Each time Jack and I plan the good-bye scenario for a deployment, we think we’ve come up with a magical way to make the process of good-bye anything less than brutal and horrific. Even if we keep the brutal and horrific under the guise of a scripted scene, with firm hugs and confident words, the wailing agony is right under the surface. Every single time. This time he needs to be at the brigade headquarters in the middle of the night to manifest and draw his weapon, so he arranges for someone to pick him up from the house, sparing me a drive in the middle of the night. He has considered driving his Jeep and just leaving it in his office parking lot for me to pick up later, but we are so new to Fort Campbell, and my unfamiliarity with the straggly and spindly layout of this post takes that option off the table. Navigating my way to his office seems overwhelming; it’s the small things that overwhelm at these times, so Jack knows arranging a pickup is best. This plan will be a piece of cake. He can tuck the kids into bed, then sleep a few hours before he has to go. His rucksack waits packed by the door. His uniform is draped over the closet door.
Jack never unpacks any of his personal items after the movers carried in load after load of boxes from Carlisle. I made sure his boxes had an enormous letter J scrawled on them in black Sharpie and had the movers carry them straight to the garage. There they will sit for a year, piled and waiting neatly in a corner. So aside from the rucksack by the door, he doesn’t have a place in this house. It won’t be his home, at least not for the next year.
The last few hours of the Sunday night before he leaves, Jack tucks each of the kids into bed and reminds them to be good and help Mom out. Words he says each time. I stay in my bedroom and try to block out the wrenching scene, wanting to leave this one to him—the rest of the year will be all mine—but I can hear the sobs and the pleading. Doing this at home was a terrible idea. A public good-bye at least forces us to maintain some degree of dignity. I feel the bitter tears well in my eyes as I hear Jack choke back his own gasps at each of our three children’s bedsides. The children separately weep as he slips from one bedroom to the next, but I feel spared that I can’t hear their actual words. Somehow the notion that this is anything but our regular routine escapes them, which is a blessing. When Jack finally makes his way back into our bedroom over an hour later and with the muffled sobs of at least two kids still audible from their beds, he falls on the bed and his back heaves. He weeps, though weep seems like such a strange word to use for someone who is the polar opposite of any mental image the word might conjure. I stare at him and allow the hot tears to drip from my cheeks and onto the neatly folded Martha Stewart quilt on the bed, but I also feel numb. Not even angry or devastated; this moment is too familiar to feel much of anything except numbness. I hover in a weird limbo of just needing this part to be over and wanting to soak in the last remaining hours. Mostly I need it to be over. The eighth time we’ve danced this ritual, and the first time he has wept. His eyes have filled with tears before and he’s been unable to speak, but this outward display of emotion is altogether new.
I feel myself detach.
I learned to detach sometime around the third deployment. It must have been the Macedonia or Bosnia deployment, when we were stationed in Germany. We were married six years before we had kids, because he was deployed back to back in various peacekeeping missions, ranging anywhere from six to eight months. There are only so many times you can give in to that desperate feeling of sending your better half off to a potential combat zone. Even though Macedonia and Bosnia weren’t war zones as we see them today, at the time it was a big deal. Looking back, it was a piece of cake. If I could go back in time, I would warn the younger, softer me. I would shake my head and say, “Girl, just you wait. This is the easy part.” At the time, there was nothing for me to compare it to except Somalia—which was a complete nightmare and meltdown.
Of all eight, the good-bye for Somalia makes the other seven look effortless. Jack had to pry himself from me when he boarded the bus that would take him to the plane and then to Somalia in December 1992 in the middle of heavy falling snow. As he took his seat and looked at me through the window, the bus closed its doors and started to slowly pull away. Not even waiting until he was out of eyeshot, I flopped facedown into the snow and fake vomited. I wailed and sobbed and didn’t give a shit that everyone around me was staring or that Jack was mortified from his seat on the bus. He waved as the bus pulled away, and instead of waving back, I retched and dry heaved again. Zero dignity, or anything even resembling dignity. Looking back on that scene, I’m embarrassed, but also amazed that I used to have such a capacity for emotion.
For each moment of good-bye after that, I became increasingly hardened. Army wives refer to this phenomenon as the “black soul.” It’s my coping style; it’s not for everyone, but it works for many others and for me. Each of us figures out her own, and for those who don’t figure it out, well, those are the wives who don’t stay army wives for long. Sappy, clingy marriages just don’t last in this world.
For the next three hours on that sweltering Sunday night in August, we lie awake together on the bed, not touching. I’m afraid if I touch him it will start the wave of emotions over again. I hope he is sleeping, and he probably hopes the same of me. Neither of us even closes our eyes. Without an alarm clock needing to wake us, he gets up a couple hours after midnight and dresses silently, and I follow him down the stairs and hug him. Tell him to be safe, which is just rhetoric at this point. The meaning and novelty of those words long worn off. Both our voices crack in our final good-bye, my face buried in his steeled chest. I try to pull in his scent, but it’s gone. Masked by the mistress. She’s taken him again. All I smell is her, metallic and industrial. Gritty.
“The last one, girl. The last one.”
I close and lock the front door, and the heavy aroma of his army gear still lingers on the staircase as I begin making my way back up to the bedroom minutes later. Well, that was ugly. There really is no good way. But we continue to try.
As I pause at the top of the stairs, I hear no sound from the kids. I peer into Joe’s room first, and there are all three of them, sleeping crisscross and overlapping in a pile of blankets and pillows on the floor. Sound asleep, finally. They must have found solace in each other. I lean down and smother each of their faces with light kisses, careful not to wake them. I take in the warm, cozy smell of each of the children, ridding my nostrils of the fading memory of army gear.
With that last step out the door too late or too early for anyone else to be awake, Jack Hawkins officially becomes Currahee 8, heading for his third tour to Afghanistan, this time in the precarious mountains of eastern Afghanistan backed against the border of Pakistan. In each of these moments, I never know if the worst is ahead or if I will look back and think, “That wasn’t so rough after all.” The mistress keeps this secret closely guarded.
In all likelihood, this will be the last deployment and we both know it, somewhere deep down. We need it, though, both of us. We need to see this final deployment through to the end to know if we fit together beyond the scope of the chaotic canvas of the war. Everything about war feels permanent, even though we know this moment will pass, like every moment does eventually. When it does eventually pass, there will be parts of the war that are forever permanent.
These are the things wives don’t talk about directly. The anger. Rage, even. Sure, we discuss the surface frustrations at never being able to plan a future vacation with accuracy. All the husbands in our circle seem cut from the same cloth, stand with their hands on their hips wearing vacant but polite smiles at social events. Like they try too hard to seem carefree and in the moment. Somehow we never talk about much more than the mission in front of us. Instead we talk about SOPs (standard operating procedures) for how to deal with every scenario in our lives. Even free thought is taken out of the equation. We are a well-oiled machine. Built for war, not for introspection or anything even remotely touchy-feely. The U.S. Army War College was the first opportunity for introspection Jack and I experienced in the army, but we were careful to keep it in a neat little box we put away. Scratching at the surface might start an unstoppable ooze of emotion. Emotions and thoughts we certainly share, but never discuss. Because discussing it makes it too real and reminds us that we can’t change any of it, anyway. Walking any path other than this one is unfathomable.
Sadness is expected, and we have a protocol to handle sadness. Fury is hidden away and later displaced on each other or other petty issues. Next week maybe a dog will shit in my yard, and the perfect venue for me to flip out will present itself on a gorgeous platter. Here, this is where the rage goes. This is a perfect excuse for the tantrum you’ve been holding in. Until then, the sadness waxes and wanes, and the anger crouches and waits.
The morning after Jack leaves, I drive the girls to school and come home to a bouquet of pink balloons tied to my front door. Left by my new battle buddies, the CurraShees, a wordless reminder of solidarity. Joe took last night’s good-bye the hardest, and I offer for him stay home from school with me. Maybe we can find a good movie on cable and eat chips all day. Be slugs, indulge in laziness. There are never any tears after the initial good-bye. The day after isn’t about sadness; it’s about relief and a lingering bruised feeling. Like the actual beating is over and this is recovery.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, I think about the overall scope of the war. Surprisingly, no one in our circle ever talks about the war as a whole. Only that we are doing great things over there and should be filled with pride. We are filled with pride, but I wonder if we secretly all wonder what the point is. If it’s worth it. We fight an ultimately losing war, but that little nugget of truth never works its way into the conversations of our inner circle of warriors and their wives. Somehow whether or not the war is winnable is beyond our scope, an irrelevant detail. We don’t do it to win anymore; we do it because it’s what we know how to do. Get ready to go. Get ready to come back. And the moments in between we mark on the calendar. It’s our battle rhythm.
I doubt Jack learned our new zip code before he was gone.
The deployment this time is voluntary. Barely home from a fifteen-month tour in Iraq, he’d been home just under two years. I suppose that was long enough. I was blown away for a moment when he volunteered to leave us again, but quickly accepted that the action of a combat zone was his drug of choice. A part of me was ashamed at my sense of relief to have an excuse not to deal with our marriage. I could exhale. Back to his mistress. Jack is addicted to being in The Fight and the adrenaline rush of battle. He doesn’t drink, smoke, or swear; his vice is far more subtle and insidious. And I’m the sicko codependent, hitched along for the ride.
ANGELA RICKETTS holds a master’s degree in Social Psychology/Human Relations and an undergraduate degree in Sociology. She worked part-time for the American Red Cross in Germany in the 1990s, but since then her formal education has been used to navigate the politics and personalities that come with being an officer’s wife. Her husband remains on active duty but transitioned to Homeland Defense in 2012. She lives in Colorado Springs, CO. Her memoir, No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife, published this month from Counterpoint Press.
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