by Margi Desmond
Some civilians may reason that saying goodbye before a deployment becomes easier the more military families endure them. It doesn’t. Families understand the process better and already know items covered in the pre-deployment briefs, but the goodbyes are always hard.
Rachel watched as her husband, Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer James C. Davis, packed for his sixth deployment. He’d served four times in the sweltering heat of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and now prepared for a second freezing tour in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom.
Rachel strode to the kitchen to check on dinner. The turkey’s skin, a golden brown, she covered with foil to cook the remaining hour.
“Smells great,” a voice from behind said.
Rachel jumped in surprise. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I didn’t,” James said, smirking as he pulled her close.
“Yeah, right.” Rachel looked up at her husband, enjoying the feel of his muscular arms around her, the warmth of his body against hers. She laid her head on his chest and closed her eyes, breathing in his scent. They stood, embraced in the kitchen, cherishing as they always did, every little moment together.
James kissed the top of her head and released her. “What else are we having?”
“Same thing we ate for Thanksgiving, per your request,” Rachel said. “Stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and green beans.”
Despite being November third, Rachel prepared their Christmas dinner two weeks after their October Thanksgiving dinner. Since James would be in Afghanistan during the actual holidays, Rachel planned the celebrations early so they could share them together. During their “Thanksgiving” celebration they’d sipped eggnog and put up all the Christmas decorations, Rachel figured, much to the inevitable confusion of the neighborhood kids, who would see the Christmas tree lights in the window each night.
“You know I could’ve made a roast or ham, something different since we just had turkey.”
“Nope. I wanted this meal.” James grabbed a cola from the refrigerator. “I’ll be eating Grade D mystery meat and smeggs while I’m gone, so I want to enjoy my favorite meal again before I leave.” Rachel knew the “smeggs” to which James referred were the war zone dreaded powdered egg substitutes served for breakfast that upon preparation had a consistency resembling phlegm.
“I need to do some more organizing.” He walked to the back bedroom—his cluttered home office full of equipment, mementos of past trips, books, weapons, clothes, and photographs he’d taken during his trips to unique parts of the world.
Rachel poured herself a small glass of wine and shuffled down the hallway to join James. She stood in the doorway and watched him. He sat by a black tough box containing uniforms, sheets, towels, underwear, toiletries, and both cold and warm weather gear, putting check marks by each item on the packing list issued to each member of his team. His brow furrowed in concentration as he packed. Given an exception to Army grooming standards, he had grown a full beard in order to blend in with the Afghan locals, who considered facial hair a sign of power and manhood. Rachel preferred James clean-shaven. The beard represented the danger he’d face interacting with locals to track terrorists. It also tickled and itched when he kissed her.
Rachel wanted to run across the room, throw her arms around him, and cry. She wanted to beg him to stay, to yell, “Please don’t go. Don’t leave me again. How many times are they going to send you over there? They’re going to use you until you’re dead! Let someone else go this time.” Instead, she didn’t say a word. She knew that even though his feelings were not visibly apparent, he worried about her, and the deployment would be hard on him too. She had to be strong for him. She would not allow him to be distracted with worry for her wellbeing when he needed to be focused on his mission. She couldn’t imagine how she would endure this again, and searing panic rose from her stomach to her chest but she pushed it away. Time to compartmentalize. She’d remain strong for him. She understood that distractions led to mistakes and wanted him focused on his tasks at hand. She willed herself to be strong and to cry later, after he left.
James handed Rachel the Red Folder. The same one they’d used five times before. Its contents included a power of attorney, his will, and other financial documents.
“Anything change?” she asked.
“Yeah, I chose Arlington this time. I don’t want my parents to be like Tim’s.” James was referring to a close buddy who had been killed in action three years prior. Tim had chosen a burial in his hometown. His parents drove to his gravesite every day to grieve, which James thought may have served to exacerbate and prolong the extreme emotional distress of losing their only son. Tim’s parents eventually divorced.
James tossed a few pairs of wool socks in the tough box and checked another item off his checklist. “I don’t want Mom and Dad to dwell. They don’t need to be going to my grave all the time. Arlington’s far enough away they won’t be able to do that.”
“Okay.” Rachel gazed at a speck of lint on the carpet. She hated these talks.
“Of course, you’re still the primary notification contact, but I’ve made Mom and Dad the secondary contact. I’m sure you could break the news to them, but I’d feel more comfortable with someone physically there in case…well, you know Dad’s health isn’t so good.”
Rachel nodded her head to indicate she understood. The notification team would go to her apartment. A secondary notification team, thousands of miles away, would arrive at his parent’s home. She closed her eyes and said a quick prayer. God, please never let this happen. Feeling tears well in her eyes, she returned to the kitchen to check on the dinner. She poured the rest of the glass of wine down the kitchen drain. Drinking would only further depress her.
Sleepy and content after a delicious meal, James sat on the couch and propped his feet on the ottoman. Rachel gazed out the window as snow fell. “The first snow of the season, just in time for our early Christmas celebration,” she said. She watched Ruthie, the little girl from the apartment on the stairwell’s first floor, walking her little dog. The small gray pup jumped and played in the snow, pulling on the retractable leash. Oh, to be an innocent child without worries.
“Come here,” James said, holding his arm up. Rachel scooted closer beside him and he wrapped his arm around her. She closed her eyes and cuddled close to him. She would miss sitting with him, simply enjoying being together whether watching television, reading a book, or just napping. Having his presence beside her was comforting. She would be alone for the next eight or nine months, without any human physical contact. Of course, she refused to feel sorry for herself because she would still have the comforts of their king sized pillow top bed, soft sheets, and plump pillows. All the luxuries of home including a clean bathroom with plenty of hot water, not to mention no worries of incoming mortars, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, and the rest of the dangers James would face. Yes, she was the lucky one. She would not complain about being left alone.
James held the television remote in the hand furthest from Rachel and flipped through the channels featuring sports, news, and a reality program showing wives screaming at each other. Nothing good.
“Shall we open our Christmas presents now?” James asked, and he clicked the television off.
“Okay,” Rachel answered and hopped from the sofa to retrieve the present she had placed under the Christmas tree for James. “I only got you one.” She held the present out for him as she sat down beside him.
“Hold on.” He placed the present on the ottoman and walked to the back bedroom. Rachel heard a bag rustle and he emerged holding a small box.
“Jewelry?” she asked. She opened a royal blue velvet box containing a beautiful pair of diamond stud earrings. She gasped. “James, what have you done?”
“Merry Christmas…early.” He smiled at her. “I’m glad we decided to do this now so I could see your reaction—”
Rachel interrupted him with a kiss. “This is too much. Way too much.”
“Carpe diem,” he said. “Plus, we can afford it since we’re DINKs.” Dual-income-no-kids couples did not experience the financial hardships endured by families with children. Especially Rachel and James. Her position as a sales executive for a healthcare practice management software firm allowed her to work from home, albeit evening shift hours since her sales territory encompassed the southeast United States, a time zone six hours behind Germany’s.
James pulled her close and kissed her deeply, caressing her face with his large, strong hands.
“Well, I’m really glad you see things that way because here,” she handed him the present, “open this.” James smiled and took the present from her. He unwrapped a green leather box with Rolex emblazoned in gold on the top. He looked at her quizzically. “No way.”
“Open it.” She was thrilled at his reaction.
James flipped the box lid open, displaying the steel Submariner. “It’s the exact watch I looked at.”
“I know! It’s the one you saw at the jewelry store downtown.” Rachel grinned at him while he took the watch out of the box and fastened it to his wrist.
“I can’t believe you bought this for me.” He stared at the watch. She’d been taught to be frugal, save her money, but their lifestyle—his constant deployments to war—brought with it the understanding that each moment must be savored. Nobody embraced the concept of Carpe Diem quite like Special Forces couples.
“And I can’t believe you bought me diamond stud earrings, silly! Those are something you buy for a huge milestone anniversary or birthday.”
“I wanted you to have them.” Although they saved and planned for the future, they also splurged, especially before James left for another mission. They both knew, in the back of their minds, there was a chance that he might not return to give her those earrings. Sometimes it was best to live for the moment.
“You need that watch. If I can’t be with you in that hellhole of a country, at least I can arm you with something that might save your life.” Rachel knew if James was taken prisoner or found himself in some other precarious situation, he might be able to use the Rolex to barter his way out of a deadly predicament. Members of the military had used this tactic numerous times in past wars.
“I’ll call and add both the earrings and watch on our insurance policy tomorrow,” Rachel said.
James pulled her close and kissed her. “Sounds good,” he whispered. “You know what else would be good?”
He took her hand, and she followed him to their bedroom.
Most people’s favorite topic of conversation is themselves, and the fact could not have been more apparent than it was in the case of Rachel’s sister, Kate. Five years older, married to a successful financial advisor, and the mother of a beautiful daughter, Kate discussed the latest problems in her life during every phone conversation.
“If Chuck isn’t at work, then he’s golfing. I’m always the one who has to drive Carrie all over town.”
“She takes the bus to school, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, but then there are the extracurricular activities.
“Oh, that’s right. How’s she enjoying the drama club?”
“She’s got a part in a play, which means rehearsals up the wazoo. I’m so exhausted running errands and carting her all over the place. You have no idea.”
Rachel stretched out on the sofa. Her sister’s pity parties could last a long time.
“I simply asked Chuck if just this once he could come home from work early and talk to the contractor who is putting in the pool, but you know what he had the gall to say to me?”
“What?” Rachel gazed at a framed photograph of James she had taken a few years earlier during a visit to Washington, D.C. They had gone during the Cherry Blossom Festival. The blooms were beautiful, the sunny weather perfect. They had enjoyed dining at delicious restaurants, touring the Smithsonian, and walking all over the city, enjoying the power and history associated with the nation’s capital. They had also visited both the Vietnam and World War II veterans’ memorials, paying their respects to all those who fought for the country and its people before James’s own contributions in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“—Wouldn’t you have said the same thing?” Kate continued, not waiting for Rachel’s response. “I mean, really, but then when I pointed out that he was wrong, that it had been his idea to put the pool in to begin with—”
Rachel periodically grunted a “hum” or “uh-huh” as her sister droned on, allowing Rachel’s mind to wander to other fond vacation memories. She and James had spent a week in Savannah while they had been dating. He had enjoyed strolling around the city squares taking photos. They had dinner at The Pink House, where they enjoyed a delicious romantic meal. They had snuggled together in an evening carriage ride and he’d surprised her with a wedding proposal.
“—so basically I’m a golf widow. He’s never around on the weekend to help with anything around the house.”
“You have a maid and lawn care service that comes—”
“They don’t come every day, Rachel. I’m constantly picking up after everyone. If I didn’t, then we’d live in squalor. I don’t think they would even care! Animals, I live with a couple of filthy animals. I try so hard to make them do the right thing. I was watching Dr. Phil a few days ago and—”
Rachel’s thoughts wandered back to Savannah. Maybe she’d make shrimp etouffee for dinner. She always made an effort to cook a delicious feast for dinner in the final evenings before James’s deployments.
“—so I brought a copy of the DSM-5 and looked it up. I was right, as usual. Chuck is a prime example of diagnosis 301.81: Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”
“There are a lot of factors to consider before making a diagnosis like that, Kate. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual isn’t a cookbook—”
“I know, I know, I know! But I know what I’m talking about, Rachel. He’s a textbook case. Open and shut.”
“And Carrie is exhibiting characteristics of bipolar disorder.”
“She’s up one minute and down the next.”
“She’s moody. It’s normal. She’s a teenager.” Rachel closed her eyes as she felt a headache brewing.
“I sat them both down and told them, ‘First you must recognize your inappropriate behavior and then work to modify it because I can’t keep living like this.’”
“Mmm.” Rachel knew it was useless to try to reason with Kate, who knew everything.
“Honestly, you don’t know how good you’ve got it. I’d kill to be in your position.”
“In base housing alone most of the time?” Kate would be suicidal.
“You know what I mean. To have the freedom to do whatever you want and not have to think about anyone else.”
“I live every day in fear for James’s safety, thank you very much.”
“Yeah, but he’s doing what he loves, so you shouldn’t worry.”
“Kate, he never dreamed when he joined the army that the wars would continue for so many years. He thought he’d do his part, make a patriotic contribution to the War on Terror. This wasn’t supposed to be a career, but here we are, thirteen years later.”
“I get what you’re saying, Rachel, I do, but you can’t live in constant fear of him being killed. You knew that was a possibility when he joined the military. You just have to suck it up.”
“Maybe you need to ‘suck up’ the trials and tribulations associated with messy teenager and a hardworking husband, Kate.”
“Your displaced aggression is hurtful, Rachel. I called because I needed emotional support and you’ve made me feel worse. Now I’m going to have to take a nerve pill, thank you very much.”
James walked into the room, took one look at Rachel’s face and mouthed, “Kate?”
Rachel nodded and James rolled his eyes. “She’s clueless.”
Rachel covered the phone mouthpiece with her hand and whispered, “She just doesn’t understand.”
For security reasons, no information regarding the deployment departure schedule is divulged prior to a Special Forces team’s travel. Wives may have a general idea, but dates and times change for various reasons, and the actual day is always in limbo sometimes until a few hours before “wheels up.” In the past weeks James had given his parents an idea that he’d probably be leaving within the month, but as Rachel listened to Marty and Diane on speakerphone, she could tell by the tremble in their voices and pauses in conversation that even though they tried to hide their dismay, it was quite evident they’d been thrown for a surprise that their son would leave for Afghanistan the next morning.
“You’ve got that better body armor than what the Army supplies you, right son?” Marty asked. “That money we sent you—you used it to buy that latest technology that’s supposed to be better, right?”
“And you say it’s better.”
“I still can’t believe you had to buy it yourself. What about guys that don’t have money to spare? It’s unbelievable that the government doesn’t even give you guys the best equipment.” Marty went on a military budget cut tirade, and James held the phone at arm’s length. “The commander-in-chief doesn’t have a son in Afghanistan!” Marty’s voice cracked with emotion as he struggled to keep from breaking down with his son and daughter-in-law on the phone.
“James,” Diane said after obviously grabbing the phone from her husband. “Remember we love you and to be careful.”
“Don’t turn your back on those sons-a-bitches for one second,” his father yelled from the background. “They don’t care that you’re trying to help them. They’ll blow you up or shoot you, given the chance.”
“Marty, he knows how to do his job,” Diane said.
“I’m just saying…” Rachel heard Marty blow his nose and imagined tears in his eyes. Every deployment was excruciating for her father-in-law, she knew.
Diana said, “Rachel darling, I know this is hard on you. You always say you’re fine, but you know I’m here for you always. Whenever you need me, I’m on the next plane over to Germany. You just say the word.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll keep busy,” Rachel said. Her mother-in-law was the rock of strength behind the family. The one who came to the emotional rescue in times of crisis, who always went overboard on Christmas presents, who never forgot to send a card for every holiday and special occasion. Rachel also knew Diane had to take an Ambien in order to sleep every night her son was in the war zone. She lived a hard life but never complained. Diane would hang the Blue Star Flag in her home’s front window, indicating she had a son at war. It would remain in the window until his safe return. She would pray every night—pray that she’d never be a Gold Star Mother, pray that James would never receive a Purple Heart, pray for his safe return, and for the war to end.
“I’ll send you an email when I can,” James said.
“We love you, son,” Diane said.
“Love you, James,” Marty called from the background.
“Goodbye.” James hung the phone up. He and Rachel sat together on the couch, holding hands, trying to recover from hearing the pain in his parents’ voices.
Rachel stared at the bags sitting by the door. Bags packed with James’ clothes and equipment for his deployment. Her chest grew tight, panic-laced bile rose from her stomach. She took a deep breath in an effort to be calm. She did not know where exactly in Afghanistan he’d be working, but she knew wherever the locale, it would be dangerous. He slipped his arm around her and pulled her close. They kissed.
He stood and took her hand. Together they walked down the hallway to the master bedroom. Rachel fought away tears, knowing this was the last time the would make love for months, pushing to the back of her mind fears that he would never come home. Determined to have him leave with sweet memories, she made love to him without crying.
As she lay in his arms, she enjoyed the warmth radiating from his fit, muscular body. A fine-tuned machine trained by the United States government to defend its citizens. She was proud of him, understood his devotion to the cause of eradicating terrorists on their home soil before they could get to the United States.
She suffered a fitful sleep in his arms, occasionally dozing, but mostly praying to God that James would be okay, that he would return unharmed. She closed her eyes and noted the feel of his body, his scent, all which would leave her in the morning.
O-five hundred came way too soon. James showered while Rachel laid in bed, listening to the shower run in the master bedroom. She felt empty, alone although he had not yet left. It was the detachment, she summoned, to endure the goodbye without tears, for she knew it would be harder for James if she cried as they said goodbye before he left for his mission.
He emerged from the bathroom and the scent of his body wash filled the bedroom. That masculine scent. The smell of her husband, the man she loved. She threw on a pair of yoga pants and a sweatshirt while he loaded the car with his bags. Once the car was packed, she donned a pair of shoes and a coat and prepared to take him to the unit. Green Berets did not leave with fanfare. Their wives drove them to the parking lot, said goodbye, and watched as the men walked into the building with their belongings. Later, the men would ride to the airfield to fly to their destination. All without publicity—no cameras, no press, no crowds of loved ones waving and cheering. Green Berets snuck away in the early morning unbeknownst to all but a few support personnel and close family members who dropped them off under the cover of pre-dawn darkness.
Rachel drove through the restricted entrance that housed both the Special Forces and Navy SEALs compound and pulled into a parking spot outside James’s team building. She turned off the ignition and popped the trunk so he could grab his bags. She got out of the car and stood while he unloaded and shut the trunk.
“Be sure to get the oil changed,” James said. “I didn’t have time to do it.”
“I will.” She stepped closer to him.
His bags at his feet, he turned to face her. “And the tires may need rotating. I can’t remember. Check the records first. They’re in the top drawer—”
She embraced him. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” He held her tightly. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“You’d better be.”
He placed his hands on each side of her face and looked her in the eyes. “I will. I promise.” She knew he could never guarantee such a promise, but she had to have faith that he would. She got in the car and watched him carry his bags into the building before she drove home.
It was only six o’clock in the morning. Sad and tired after a lousy night’s sleep, Rachel climbed into their unmade bed. She cuddled James’s pillow and cried.
Margi Desmond has written more than 100 articles and short stories. A United States Army wife, Margi and her husband are stationed in Germany. She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America, serves as a selector and judge for the annual Colorado Book Awards, serves as a judge for the annual Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence, and facilitates a writing group at the military library in Stuttgart, Germany. Margi’s website is available at http://www.margidesmond.com or check out her Facebook Author Page at https://www.facebook.com/MargiDesmond?ref=hl