The guilt of a Gold Star friend

It was Nov. 10, 2010 — the Marine Corps birthday. I was sound asleep and having another nightmare. I’d been having them randomly for years; PTSD does that to a person. Lately, the nightmares seemed real and more consistent.

My husband had recently deployed for his 4th combat deployment. A Platoon Sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, Mike was in what was considered at the time to be the deadliest place in the world: Sangin, Afghanistan.

I was about to be diagnosed with some serious medical issues. While I waited for test results, I spent my days and nights in those early stages of deployment hiding that from everyone. I was alone with three children under 6-years old, and 50+ wives and mothers and families, all of whom depended on me to be strong and healthy.

Of the 50-something man platoon my husband was with, none but three had ever been in combat aside from him. Not even his lieutenant.

The wives were having issues with the Family Readiness Officer, and so the saltier wives took over helping the less experienced ones. It was very much like the beginning of the Iraq war for us — unreliable contact, unreliable information, unreliable family readiness program, unreliable EVERYTHING.

In short, it was a sh*t show just shy of becoming a sh*t storm.

So, I was having another nightmare. Somewhere in the distance I could hear knocking. A phone ringing. Was someone saying my name?

In my dream, Mike was whispering “Katie, answer the phone. Katie, get the door.” He coughed, his face contorted in pain. “Katie… Katie… Katie…”

I pulled out of a groggy, medication-induced sleep, and picked up my phone.

“Uh huh,” I muttered into the phone.

“Katie!” the frantic screaming felt like a bucket of ice water being thrown over me. “Katie, they’re at the door and I don’t know what to do!”

I jumped out of bed. “Who’s at the door,” I asked the young wife on the phone, my mini-me. At barely 19 years old, Katie Stack was my overly dramatic, neediest Marine’s wife, and she was a GD headache. I loved her, but I really wanted to knife hand her most days.

“The- the men! In blues! A chaplain!” I could tell that Katie was on the verge of outright collapse. Her voice was near hysteria. I could hear her movements; she was practically rushing around in a circle halfway through the house, screaming mostly incoherently, trying not to look at the men standing, knocking on her door.

“Sweetheart,” I said softly, “Is Joanne home?” Joanne was Katie’s little sister, and I knew that Katie was home in Chicago visiting family. I’d had to update the FRO just days prior in case something happened. In case she needed to be notified of…

“She is, but she’s just a kid!”

“Sweetheart, put your sister on the phone and go answer the door, you have to.” I waited for Katie’s little sister’s voice to greet me.

“Hello?” came the tiny, terrified, barely-a-teen, voice. In the background I could hear a sob, a wailing. Men talking gently.

“Joanne, honey. Where’s your mom?” Katie and Joanne’s mom, a school administrator, would’ve already left for work, I assumed.

“She’s at work. Miss Foley, there’s men at the door named CACO and they’re saying scary stuff about James…”

“I need you to go hand the phone to the men at the door, go upstairs and get your phone, and call your mother right now.”

“What’s going on Miss Foley?”

“Hon, I need you to do this right now and then you have to come back down stairs and sit with Katie until your mother gets there. Tell your mom it’s an emergency, and that CACO are at the door. Run now.”

The next voice I heard was deep and somber.

“Mrs. Foley, are you near Chicago that you could get here within the next few hours? Mrs. Stack is going to need you.”

“I’m in California. I’ll take the next plane, but her mother is en route now. Do you guys stay with the widow? She has stress related seizures, she can’t be left alone like this. There’s a baby in the house…”

My mind was running a mile a minute-

Get to Chicago, get childcare for my three kids, reschedule my upcoming doctors appointments, shoot an email to Mike- God is Mike okay? No time for that. Someone will come to my door if he isn’t.

I hung up and went to my kitchen, rushing around, pushing dishes into the sink, starting a pot of coffee, pulling my V-neck tee all the way on as I’d run out of my room with just one arm in the sleeve. Suddenly, I stopped moving.

“Katie, something’s happened to James! I can feel it. Something terrible, I just know it.”

The conversation from just the day before replayed in my mind as if the two of us were standing in front of me in my kitchen.

“Katie!” I’d angrily snapped at her. “God! James is fine. You’re fine. Everyone is FINE! Sh*t! Calm down.”

The scene played over and over until I leaned against my wall and slowly slid to the cold kitchen tile.

She’d called me multiple times a day, every day, from the moment our husbands had left. She’d wailed and cried and complained. She’d tried to send a Red Cross message when he was in pre-deployment training because she’d gotten a headache one night.

I’d finally lost my freaking mind and hollered at her.

“James is fine.”

The words repeated over and over.

“Everyone is FINE. Sh*t.”

Over and over.

“James is fine.”

Every time the words played again, I could feel my heart tighten. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. My chest hurt. I couldn’t feel my arm. My vision was going out.

“Mama?” a tiny voice called out from the top of the steps.

I crawled across my kitchen floor and peered around the bottom of the steps.

“Yeah?” I smiled up at my son at the top of the stairs, his pudgy little fingers gripping the baby gate.

“Lub you. I go back to bed now,” the 3-year-old ginger smiled at me from the top of the steps before skittering back to his bed.

I laid down on the tile right there between my kitchen and dining room and just sobbed.

“Everyone is FINE. Sh*t.”

James Bray Stack was killed in action by a sniper on Nov. 10, 2010, in Sangin, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

“James is fine.”

He left behind a wife and baby daughter, Mikayla.

“Everyone is FINE. Sh*t.”

He competed in the Junior Olympics in 2008, taking the Gold.

“James is fine.”

His daughter was 1 year and 7-days-old, and it was one year and four days after my father died.

“Everyone is FINE…”

Everyone is not fine.

I have, since that morning in 2010, been both wracked with guilt and rattled to my core. I’d never experienced combat deaths from the wife side of the field. When Marines died, it was Marines I knew. I didn’t know their wives. I knew them because I’d served with them. I’d ridden to boot camp with them or worked with them in an S3 shop somewhere or left Camp LeJeune on a bus with them at some point.

When Marines I knew died, I simply felt bad for their wives. But then again… I didn’t yell at them.

“Everyone is FINE. Sh*t.”

Years later, Katie would tell me what she remembered from that day. “It was November,” she’d tell me. “The Marine Corps birthday. James would’ve liked that.”

That’s all, really. She doesn’t particularly remember me yelling at her the day before. She doesn’t really remember most of it.

We are closer friends than most of either of our friends. She calls me out of the blue sometimes, and I text her every few random months to check in. But she isn’t far from my mind, ever. I stalk her on Facebook to make sure she’s okay, and she stalks me on Facebook to make sure I’m still married.

I haven’t seen her in five years. Sometimes I hear my words “Everyone is FINE. Sh*t.” in my mind and I feel like I’m being crushed. I might never stop feeling guilty about that.

“Is there such a thing as survivor’s guilt when the other person survived as well?” I asked my therapist one day.

“Yes. All that is required for survivor’s guilt is that you be dealing with some level of PTSD, and that the thing that happened did not happen directly to you. Stack’s death happened to his wife, not to you.”

“How effed up does that make me?” I asked her, laughing a bit at myself because it’s frowned on to laugh at other people.

“It makes you normal.”

“Other spouses feel like this?”

“They do.”

All these years, all this time, I thought I was alone in that. I thought I was some weird Marine/Marine wife hybrid that had gotten caught in the middle and was just short circuiting or something. But no. It’s normal.

We feel survivor’s guilt, too.

I wish I’d known that six years ago. I wish I’d known that it was normal, that there were other people who felt like I did. I could’ve been of far more use to other spouses, Gold Star and the others.

But most of all, I wish I’d known it was normal because maybe I could’ve helped Katie more.

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