Mighty Stories is a WATM feature highlighting the stories of veterans, active duty and military families. This week’s feature is Dale Gardner, Vietnam Veteran.
“I grew up on a farm in the little town of 800 people called Neola, Iowa. I was raised doing typical Iowa farm stuff. My dad was a farmer and my grandfather was a farmer. I graduated high school in 1969. I found myself unable to wrap my head around all that was high school – prom, pep rallies, football, girlfriends.
At the time of the Tet Offensive and afterwards, I think we were tagging and bagging guys in Vietnam at a rate of around 500 a week. I was appalled at that. High school didn’t do a whole lot for me, and I made up my mind that as soon as I graduated I’d join the military. As naïve as only someone from a town of 800 people in Iowa could be, I joined the Army in order to win the war in Vietnam. I joined in the delayed entry program, meaning I signed up in May and was supposed to report in September. I
showed up in Fort Polk, Louisiana, with a shorter haircut than they were giving – I was that gung-ho. I thought I was John Wayne. I went to Basic and then on to Advanced Individual Training (AIT). My attitude changed considerably after 16 weeks in the military. I hadn’t quite figured it out yet. Frankly, I was tired of being screwed with. They were used to people not wanting to be there and everybody got painted with the same brush. But I did want to be there. I made this friend in AIT from California – Steve McCauley. I’d been in the Army five days longer than him. A
fter we finished AIT we got a short amount of leave before we headed to Vietnam. Steve flew home to California to marry his girlfriend, Joan, and after I went home to see my family, I jumped on a plane to go see some friends in Santa Monica, and see Steve and meet his new wife. We were supposed to fly out of the Oakland Terminal. I called Steve and said I wasn’t ready to get on the plane the next day, and he wasn’t ready to leave Joan, so we decided not to go. We took about a three week hiatus. We were AWOL.
After three weeks, I called Steve and said, ‘We probably ought to go.’ We met up at the terminal in Oakland and flew back to check in. We didn’t really care that we were late – we had adopted this attitude of ‘What are they going to do, send us to Vietnam?’ We checked in and the guy looked at our orders and said, ‘You were supposed to be here three weeks ago. Where have you been?’ And we were honest. We told him we just didn’t feel like coming. We got sent to this room and there must have been 20 guys in there shooting the breeze. Steve and I walk in, thinking we’re in really deep kimchi, and then we start talking to these guys who were two YEARS late. So Steve and I are looking at each other thinking, ‘We’re probably going to be alright.’ We got busted back to E-1s, but we didn’t care.
A few days later we boarded a flight to Vietnam.
Vietnam was divided into Corps at the time. We flew into III Corps, and immediately got sorted and sent to where we’d be going. It seemed like everyone was being sent to 1st Cavalry division. I was sent to Alpha Company, 3rd Platoon. Steve was 2nd Platoon. Our MOS was the same: 1120 – infantryman. I got assigned to my unit, to a forward fire base in Song Be. I remember having a meeting with the 2nd LT, Jack Signor, and he told us, ‘The goal here is to stay alive.’ That started processing my thinking that nobody was there to win the war. We were just there to do our job.
The war was lost from a political standpoint – Walter Cronkite had already been on the news and said we’d lost the hearts and minds of America and the war.It was spring of 1970, when I started patrolling. I was carrying something like 75 high explosives in my pack. I was a walking bomb. Plus we were carrying claymores, plus shovels, plus meals and 15 quarts of water, plus poncho, plus personal gear … literally you couldn’t get up with your own packs, that’s how heavy they were.
This guy, Michael Brown, first helped me figure out how to put my pack on. He was just one of those helpful guys. There were about 110 of us in a company. Contrary to what you see in the movies, the dummies didn’t walk point. The experienced guys walked point. As we walked through the jungle, we’d walk in two columns; the columns about 10 meters apart, with about 5 meters between you and the guy in front of you, and the guy behind you. You can picture this: 100 guys walking five meters apart, two columns deep. You can imagine how long that strings out. At night you’d dig in; you’d circle the wagons, putting out claymore mines and trip wires in front of that, and that’s how you’d set up every night. That was our night defensive position.
A little over a week after I got there, we were on patrol one morning. The first platoon started out, and I was in third, so it was about 30 minutes before we were ready to start. It was just about our turn – we’re putting our packs on – and 1st Platoon starts getting shot at. Somebody called in the artillery, and they got the coordinates mixed up and started dropping on us. Luckily for me, I was still in my night defensive position, and as soon as the shooting started I made a beeline for the foxhole I’d slept in. Artillery rounds started falling all around us, and fillings literally fell out of my teeth. When they finally called it off, we got out of the foxholes and the medics started scrambling. Our squad leader was the first guy I saw. He was on his back and the medic was over him. He took a direct hit. The medic had tied shoelaces around his thighs. The sergeant’s legs were totally gone.
Michael Brown had taken some shrapnel, about the size of a fist that went through his back and came out through his front. The medic, who was a really good friend of his, was giving him CPR. I’ll never forget the sound. It sounded like when a kid is blowing up a balloon with a hole in it. His lungs had been shredded, and he was already gone. That was April 27, 1970. It was my 19th birthday. It was a fairly short firefight but we had all these wounded people. We were in the jungle and we found a few clearings. We had to get medevacs in there, and I was told that we needed to make a clearing. I grabbed a machete and there were people helping me and we cleared a spot for the helos to land. I got put in for an Army Commendation Medal for that. I thought it was ridiculous. What’s heroic about clearing bamboo? It wouldn’t even register for me that you wouldn’t do that.
It’s said sometimes – and correctly so – that being an infantryman is mostly boredom. I’d agree. It’s sheer boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. On April 30th, three days later, much to my mother’s horror back in Iowa, Nixon informed the United States that he was sending the 1st Calvary Division to Cambodia. This insurgence into Cambodia was only supposed to last 60 days. A helicopter came and dropped maps and we packed up. That’s when it really got fun. It was pretty crazy.
When I first got to my platoon, I was the newest guy there. Three months later, I was the third oldest. That gives you an idea of what was going on. We found the largest cache of weapons ever recovered. We hauled stuff out of there for two weeks. It was just crazy. In the course of this, the Army had a new problem. It was mostly big city kids from Chicago and North Philly who had said, ‘I’m not going to Cambodia. I said I’d do Vietnam, but not Cambodia.’ So the Army’s response was to send anybody not willing to go to Cambodia to jail. This went on for a while and they meant it. I was too naïve (maybe too afraid) so I didn’t push back. I didn’t join the Army to go to jail for not obeying orders. But it became a huge problem, so the Army said to everyone, ‘Okay, you don’t want to be in the field anymore? We’ll tear up your existing contracts and we’ll write you a new contract for any job you can be trained for in Vietnam for three years.’ As long as you had been in the Army for eight months, you were eligible. It was a good deal.
Special services needed somebody, which was stuff like escorting USO tours, showing movies to troops, handing out baseball bats and balls — and that was definitely the job for me. Remember my friend Steve I told you about? He took the deal, too. But I’d been in five days longer, so he had to stay five extra days in the field. And it sounds like a movie … but in those five days he got killed. They were out, they got ambushed, he went running and hit a tripwire for a B-40 rocket that was booby trapped in a tree. He was sprayed with shrapnel, and it perforated his lungs. It was a very survivable injury, but it just so happened to be one of those monsoon afternoons, and they couldn’t medevac him. He died at two in the morning. I wrote his wife, Joan, and the Army gave me 30 days of leave to fly back to see her. I stopped in Iowa to see my family on my return, and then I flew back to Vietnam for another two years.
I made a deal when I got back to Vietnam that I would extend an extra six months if they’d put me on duty as a lifeguard at one of the pools. They did, and I stayed until my time was up. When I got home, I found and married this wonderful girl, Lindy – a social worker – from South Dakota. For our honeymoon we rode a motorcycle from Omaha, Nebraska to just south of Mexico City. We’ve been married over 40 years. That’s the girl I married – a girl who would get on the back of a motorcycle. She’s always been a partner. We moved to Alaska and raised our kids there. We lived there for almost 30 years. We eventually got tired of the cold and moved to Mexico, to a spot we found on our honeymoon. People make this quintessential caricature of Vietnam Veterans as someone who is a drain on society and we should pity him. By and large, that’s not us. The typical Vietnam Vet is me. A kid from a family whose attitude was, ‘Get up every day and if you do nothing else, don’t be a part of the problem.’ We aren’t poor loss souls. We are successful businessmen, we are dads, and we are proud of our service.”
Mighty Stories is a WATM feature highlighting the stories of veterans, active duty and military families. This week’s feature is Art Jetter, Vietnam Veteran.
“I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. I was the oldest of six boys, no girls, in middle class America. My dad was a great man and my mom was a wonderful mother.
My dad was a B-17 pilot in World War II. He flew 35 missions out of England. He volunteered to fly in the Pacific, but thankfully the war ended as he finished his training. My mom’s two brothers were also pilots. My grandfather joined the Signal Corp in the Army and was also in pilot training during World War I. My dad didn’t really talk about the war.
He was the youngest of 9 kids. I read some letters he sent back to his family during World War II. Whatever the Army paid him, he sent home. Here’s a guy who did all his country ever asked him, and I don’t think he had time to be scared.
The 8th Army Air Corps had a reunion in Omaha about 25 years ago. His crew all came. They fought together, they came home together, and they stayed connected. They all came over to dinner at my parents that night and invited us kids to join them. My dad was pretty hard of hearing, so imagine a long dinner table with my dad at one end. One of the guys, Marty, was at the other end. And Marty said, ‘Now boys, I just want you all to know that the reason that we all are able to have dinner here tonight – the reason that we all came home alive – was because of your dad. I asked, ‘What did my father do,’ I mean these B17s flew in formation, ‘What did he do to provide protection?’ And Marty explained that my dad always flew toward the flack.
There was some room between the bombers, and the Germans would aim their anti-aircraft at a particular aircraft and when my dad would see the flack, he would turn toward it. The Germans would adjust, trying to guess where they should have shot, and they’d always guess wrong. My dad turned to me and said, ‘What did Marty just say?’ I said, ‘He said that in order to avoid getting shot you would fly toward the flack.’ And my dad said, ‘You know I used to do that.’ We all had a pretty good chuckle about it. He expected me to do the right thing. He was a very honorable, truthful, loyal guy.
I remember in 1965, our student body was all sitting in the auditorium for some kind of program. One of my favorite friends, Charlie Lee, was sitting next to me. His dad was a major in the Army. He turned to me and said, ‘My dad says we should join the Reserves.’ And I said, ‘Why would we do that?’ And he said that as soon as we turned 18 then we could join the Reserves, and we could pick our jobs instead of just getting sent to Vietnam as an infantry guy. I didn’t really even know what Vietnam was. Charlie joined the 173rd Transportation Company in the Reserves and as soon as he joined his whole unit was called up and sent over. He’d been trained as a lifeguard at a swimming pool at the Officers Club and got to Vietnam as a convoy commander. He remains to this day one of the most organized guys I’ve ever met in my life. Charlie stayed in the Reserves and was called to most of the battles after Vietnam. He achieved the rank of Command Sergeant Major before he retired.
I didn’t follow his instructions and I got drafted. I wanted to be an architect. I got accepted to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but my grandpa was on the Board of Trustees at a small college in Iowa and he wanted me to go there. So, I went, but I shouldn’t have gone. I left and couldn’t get back into UNL. I was selling men’s and boy’s clothes at a retail store for id=”listicle-2645885448″ an hour. I went to Wentworth Military Academy for 12 months and soon after, I got a letter welcoming me to the United States Army.
Photo courtesy of Art Jetter
I went to Fort Lewis for basic training. They put us all in a line and asked anyone who had been through ROTC to take a step forward. I did, and then they asked if anyone had gone to a military academy. Since I had, I took another step forward. And so, they made me the acting drill sergeant for one of the platoons. I thought, ‘holy crap.’ I was a little guy when I graduated from high school. I was almost 5’2 and 120 pounds. I think I could do about three pushups.
I worked hard and pretty soon I was maxing the PT test. At the end of basic, they put an article in the Omaha World Herald that I was the top in my class and they promoted me to E3. I went to my senior drill sergeant and told him I was the best guy he had. He replied that I shouldn’t be bragging. I said, ‘Make no mistake, I’m not bragging. I’m saying if I’m the best you have you’re in big trouble.’ He said, ‘You don’t think the training was adequate.’ I said, ‘I’ll be lucky to make it down the stairs of the airplane in Vietnam without getting shot.’ We talked about needing better training and a week later I found myself as a candidate in the Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS).
After I applied for Ranger and Airborne school (which I didn’t get), they told me I had the aptitude to be a pilot. I thought it was pretty nifty with so many pilots in my family. I did my troop duty and then went to flight school in Texas. Then I spent four months at Fort Rucker learning to fly Hueys. I graduated from flight school as one of the top guys. I tell you that not to brag, but it was because I was more afraid of what could happen to me than anybody else, so I studied harder. It was more about being able to live than grades. I was picked to fly the Cobra, which was like going from a family minivan to a full-tilt Ferrari.
I knew I was going to Vietnam. I had a month off, so I went home. Every girl I knew took me to the airport on my way to Vietnam. The whole time I was in helicopter school I knew they weren’t training me to stay home. It’s an interesting thing about getting ready to go. You know in one regard, I was scared. Another, was, with all this training, I really wanted it to be put to use.
I’m not a fan of war. But I’d put everything into training that I could – for my own survival and for the survival of everyone I’d be associated with. I requested to be in the 1st Air Calvary Division. When I got to Vietnam I went to the 1st Air Calvary reception station. The smart thing would have been to ask which is the unit where nobody got shot at, but I had heard people talking about the legendary Blue Max Aerial Rocket Artillery Unit, and I requested that. I wasn’t disappointed. Maybe a little overworked, but I was in a unit with exceptional human beings.
That experience and those guys stuck with me. Many of them are dear friends of mine. We only had 32 pilots in our unit. Just after I left, eight of them got killed. It was a weird way of thinking about those guys. And I think I had survivor’s guilt. Like I left too soon. By the time I was there about nine months, I had been the flight lead in most organized attacks. I told my commander, Major Larry McKay, I’m going to extend for six months. I felt like I belonged to this unit. Larry said great, company clerk said great, and the day after I was originally supposed to leave Vietnam – the day my year was up – the Department of the Army called up my commander and said, ‘Where is he? My commander said I was on a mission, that I’d extended for 6 months, and the Army said no. So, my commander sent out another Cobra to relieve me. He and I went to the 1st Calvary Division Headquarters and I was told I had to report to Fort Riley, Kansas. I left Vietnam and tried like crazy to go back. Those guys were that important to me.
Our mission was this: They parked us within 5 minutes’ flight time of our guys in the field. We sat with a radio operator who would have contact with the guys on the ground. If the radio operator yelled, ‘Fire Mission,’ we’d run to the aircraft and have to be off the ground in less than two minutes. As soon as we took off, the guy would give us a heading to follow and then he’d read the mission. If there was a Medevac, part of our mission was security. We’d provide security for the medevac helicopter to come in.
I flew 1,032 combat missions but there are a bunch that stand out, all for different reasons. When I first got there, I was a co-pilot. You strive to become an aircraft commander but when you start out you’re a co-pilot. It was an incursion in Cambodia. A command and control helicopter got shot down and landed on a road. Just an ocean of people came out of the treeline; enemy soldiers, running toward the Huey.
Getting that would have been a prized treasure. Parts of war are treacherous, and parts are bizarre and humorous in a dark humor kind of way. We were shooting so many people. We weren’t very high off the ground and we were looking at them shooting at us. The devastation was just insane. And I just kept thinking, ‘What is wrong with these soldiers – they just keep coming. We’re taught to disperse.’
While all this shooting is going on, a two-and-a-half-ton truck is coming down the road. The truck stops and picks these guys up and they just keep going down the road to Vietnam. I think just the memory of all those enemy soldiers in the open … that will never go away.
I had a co-pilot, Ernest Rickenbacker, who had a famous last name because of his great uncle, Eddie, the World War I flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient. I went to my commander and told him that Ernest needed his own aircraft – he was unbelievable. And my commander did it. We called Ernest “Fast Eddie” because he became an aircraft commander so quickly. He won a Silver Star for rescuing his co-pilot. But let me tell you about that mission, first.
There was a Fire Support Base called Pace, right next to the Cambodian border where the Ho Chi Minh Trail came into Vietnam. For political reasons, the Army was supposed to evacuate this Fire Support Base. Left to its own devices, the Army never would have sacrificed it because of the strategic advantage. But, some guy wouldn’t go on patrol and he wrote his senator, so they shut it down for being “too dangerous.” Not the way you should fight a war, but anyway. We were supposed to take 12 helicopters to the Tay Ninh airport for a briefing and we’re being told about all this anti-aircraft all over the place and that nobody could get into Pace – it was too deadly.
We were working out how to get these guys evacuated. The plan was that the next day, a Huey with a smoke generator would fly around and mask trucks coming up to pick up the guys and get them out of there. I don’t tell this story very often, so I might miss parts of it. But the bunch of us that were walking back were supposed to brief the other pilots. But then the airport came under a rocket attack.
First thing we had to do was get our helicopters out. So, we did, and then we’re all supposed to land. As we’re coming in for final, the guys at Pace start yelling that they’re taking incoming. I said to my wingship, ‘Let’s take care of this.’ So, we went low-level up to the treetops until we got next to Pace. We popped up to about 1500 feet and we see 6 guys and a mortar tube on the other side of the border. The border right there was marked by a creek. Everything on the west side was Cambodia and the east was Vietnam.
We always had to call to get clearance to fire, so I called. I think the guy I had to call was an Air Force guy, and I requested flying over the border to Cambodia in order to save the men at Pace who were taking mortars. He denied my request. I said, ‘We’re in hot pursuit,’ and he said, ‘Nobody’s crossing. Out.’ Just like that, and that was the last I heard from him.
I pulled the nose of my helicopter up and launched about 6 rockets in the direction of the mortar tube. I shot across the border instead of crossing it. As luck would have it, the rockets fell right by the guys. I killed three and three hobbled off. We both dove at those three guys. My wingship, who was ahead of me, shot the other three guys. We took a hard left and and I called the guy back at Pace and told him something stupid like, ‘Send the Congressional Medal of Honor to Blue Max 1-2.’ And just as I’m saying this, I’m probably at 800 feet and there’s a loud kablamo and a big flame shoots out the left side of the nose of my helicopter. And my helicopter whips about 30 degrees to the left and then snaps back. I said to my wingship, Blue Max, 1-8, 1-2, we just got hit. And my wingship says Roger that 1-2, we just got hit.
My co-pilot in the front seat is pointing down and just yelling really loud. He’s not on the intercom; he’s just pointing and yelling. And I look down and I see this big orange garbage can coming toward me and I thought, ‘The hell is that.’ It looked like a Star Wars kind of thing. It took a lot slower than you’d think a bullet would go and it went right past us. I’m thinking, ‘That’s a 23-millimeter antiaircraft cannon round tracer.’
So, I was an infantry guy – What do you do in a near ambush? You assault. I flipped the cobra over and dove on the gun. None of my weapons would work.
I pushed the rocket launch button, nothing.
I pulled the trigger for the mini-gun, nothing.
I pushed the button for the 40-millimeter grenade launcher, nothing.
I called my wingship and said, ‘See where I’m going to hit the ground? Blow that up!’ I pulled up my nose and he hit where I was trying to and there was a huge secondary explosion from where we took out munitions. But then my cockpit filled with smoke.
I thought this was really bad because the helicopter is made of magnesium and would just burn up. So, I was flying really low – a few feet off the ground – because I thought that when the thing goes up like a match, I’ll set it down and skid down the road and open the canopy and we’ll just jump out. But as we’re coming on final, the smoke cleared out and I landed. It was the weirdest thing. The 23 millimeter came up through the nose of the helicopter. It went through the heavy steel cartridge ejection shoot for the mini gun and just shredded that, and then it went through this wire loom that controlled all the weapons systems, and it was a big heavy bundle of wires. Because it was a tracer, it started the insulation on fire and that somehow got sucked into the cockpit. And that’s all that happened.
But for my wingship commander, the 23 millimeter went through his engine compartment and took out the Environmental Control Unit and turned it into shrapnel and clipped a hydraulics line. You can fly a helicopter if you can’t shoot, but you can’t fly the Cobra without hydraulics.
All this is a lead up to what happened the next day to fast Eddie Rickenbacker.
The next morning, they told me they got my rockets fixed but they haven’t fixed my mini-gun or my 40-millimeter grenade launcher. My wingship can’t go. I shouldn’t go because I don’t have all my weapons.
Somebody needs to be back up so that’s me.
Rickenbacker’s job was to provide security for the smoke generating Huey to mask the extraction. Rickenbacker is flying about 400′. In Vietnam they would always tell us to fly below 50′ or above 1500′ because between 50′ and 1500′ a guy can shoot you down with a rifle. Rickenbacker’s helicopter gets hit about 15 times by a 51-caliber machine gun. His engine quits, his helicopter starts on fire and he crashes into the woods directly east of Fire Support Base Pace, across the road.
He crashes, and the helicopter is leaning a bit to the right, sitting there on fire. Rickenbacker gets out and runs away from the helicopter. He turns around and he looks back and Mac, his co-pilot is still in there and he’s on fire, thrashing about. He’s not getting out. Understand that you don’t want to be standing in front of one of these things when it’s on fire because it’s got all these rockets on it ready to launch.
Photo courtesy of Art Jetter
Rickenbacker runs back over there, reaches into the fire, unbuckles Mac, picks him up bodily and yanks him out of the helicopter and puts him behind a dirt mound as the ammo starts to explode. So, all this is going on and the other 11 cobras that are there can only fly for about an hour and a half and then they’re out of fuel. I get the call that they’re out of fuel and that they’re heading back, and I have to go find Rickenbacker. I said, ‘What do you mean, find him?’
Well, there was a patrol that left the support base to rescue the crew, but what they found was Mac laying there with a compound fracture of his femur and he’d broken his pelvis and he was badly burned. He had Rickenbacker’s pistol – Eddie had this really fancy revolver with a pearl handle, like a cowboy that he had brought with him. Rickenbacker had given it to Jim and told him he would go to the base to get help and have them come back for him.
The patrol walks over and finds Mac and ask him where his pilot is. He points east. East is 80 miles to the ocean through jungle, which would be the absolute wrong thing to do. I’m flying in little circles and only my rockets work. The guy in the front seat and I are trying to see where the hell Rick is.
The guy on the radio says, ‘We think our ground surveillance radar found your guy in some elephant grass across the road.’ So, my plan was to land in the Fire Support Base and my co-pilot would get out and I’d hover over there to where the elephant grass was and hopefully I’d find Rickenbacker. I’m on final to the Fire Support Base and one of the guys who flies the air ambulance, the Medevac, who’s a dear friend of ours, calls and says, ‘I’ve been listening to all this on the radio, and I’m coming up to get Rick. You just provide me with security.’ And so that’s what happened.
We get Rick out and God Bless Him. He had yanked Mac right out of there. Fast Eddie Rickenbacker had a stellar military career after that.
Photo courtesy of Art Jetter
Eddie was a Harley guy. He drove his motorcycle to Omaha and stayed a couple days with my wife and me. This was eight years ago maybe. He drove clear across the country and back and when he got home, he checked into the hospital for problems with cancer from Agent Orange. He probably shouldn’t have made the trip and he didn’t even say anything to me about his health problems. We had a good visit.
He was dead shortly after that.
We went to his ceremony at Arlington and my wife said, ‘I don’t care if you knew who was getting buried here or not, you’d be crying just standing here.’
It was very touching. Mac showed up and that was really touching to watch him say goodbye. I’m still in touch with him. He’s a great guy. You know he says that Rick gave him the rest of his life, which he did.
That day sticks out in my memory because I’ve been reminded of it so many times over the years, having seen Mac and Fast Eddie. Even in the Arlington National Cemetery website eulogy for Ernest Rickenbacker said that I had given him the name Fast Eddie. So, if I’m proud of one thing, it’s that his son, Scott, who was also a helicopter pilot, had told the writer that.
I don’t think you ever become immune to the missions. You don’t become jaded, you become more professional with how to handle missions. And you learn when to break the rules, because sometimes it’s the right thing to do.
Going from selling clothes for id=”listicle-2645885448″ an hour to flying around Vietnam in a million-and-a-half-dollar helicopter with all this elaborate training and going through all this craziness, I think I’m much better for it. I don’t know how I would have turned out otherwise, but it really helped me set my course and make good decisions. Between the training and the camaraderie with the guys in my unit and with my high school buddy Charlie Lee, it really prepared me for life. Not that life should be about killing, but the education experience, the leadership, well, it made me a better person.
Being around those guys was strengthening. A year ago, I was in Salado, Texas. I met up with my commander, Jerry, who was commander the first part of my tour, and my co-pilot and another aircraft commander. Jerry told us that we’d all been hand selected by our commanders. You know we had to wait 47 years to hear that but that was wonderful to hear. I don’t think he was making it up.
Photo courtesy of Art Jetter
It was a very special unit. Wings, the History of Aviation even did a little 10-minute thing on my unit. I don’t see the guys too often. I’m 70 now. Some of them have died.
In 1993, the Army had a new Apache helicopter company. And the new commander’s name was Timothy Solms. And I know this because he called me and said, ‘The Army gave me a new Apache unit and because I’m the charter commander, I get to name it. I looked through Army history and of all the stood down helicopter units so that I could give the members of my unit a legacy. I picked your unit. We’re calling our guys ‘Blue Max’ in your honor and we’re going to have a black-tie dinner in Fayetteville, North Carolina and we’d like you to come out for it.’
He found about 15 of us, and we went out for this dinner. The guest speaker that night was General Bill Miller, and Larry McKay who was the commander the second half I was out there. McKay was just a wonderful guy. He had decided it had been too long since we had seen each other after that night, so he started hosting a dinner the night before Veterans Day every year in Washington DC. Then on Veterans Day, we’d have a sunrise service at the wall, and then go have breakfast with the 1st Calvary Division.
Larry died in 2014. I don’t see the guys as a group like when Larry was doing those dinners, but we stay in touch and my crew chief even flew in from Alaska to see us. In 1995, I took my wife and daughter to a Vietnam helicopter pilots’ reunion and she saw that about 8 of these guys had Blue Max t-shirts on. And so, my wife went up to one of them, a guy named Jet Jackson. She asked if he knew me, and he replied, ‘No ma’am, he was just a legend when I got there.’ I pulled him aside and said, ‘Where did that come from? What do I owe you for that?’ And he said, ‘Just remember what to say to my wife when you meet her.’
Blue Max was truly a special group of guys. I think about them often. I guess I always will.”
Mrs. Jaffe, as she was known to her third grade students at Ambrose Elementary School in Winchester, Massachusetts, mailed a special package to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Inside was a small paper cutout of a bear, detailed in crayon, wearing a NASA suit and black sunglasses.
Bill the “Travelmate Bear” was a part of a class project to learn more about geography. The idea was to have the bear passed from traveler to traveler, who would place postcards and souvenirs in the “kit” with the bear. And the goal was not only to illustrate geography lessons but also to receive NASA classroom materials designed to make learning science and math more fun and interesting.
In early March 1996, Bill the Travelmate Bear took flight, first on a research mission aboard an F-18 aircraft to San Antonio, Texas. Then, on March 20, Bill the Travelmate Bear flew in an aircraft that only a select few engineers or pilots had ever had the opportunity to fly in.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in Edwards, California, was the home of the SR-71 research flight program. Marta Bohn-Meyer was one of two flight engineers — the other being her husband, Bob Meyer — assigned to fly aboard one of three former SR-71 Blackbird spy planes NASA acquired from the US military upon their retirement in 1989.
The spy planes, developed by Lockheed Martin and announced to the world in 1964, were capable of flying up to an altitude of 85,000 feet and could reach speeds faster than 2,200 mph, three times the speed of sound.
On March 20, Bill the Travelmate Bear rested without a seatbelt in SR-71 Blackbird pilot Ed Schneider’s cockpit while Bohn-Meyer, then an SR-71 reconnaissance system operator, sat in the back seat to handle the navigation and imaging systems. Bill, in a span of just one hour and 20 minutes’ flight time, had traveled 1,800 miles over the states of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and California.
“To my dying day, it will always bring a smile to my face,” Bohn-Meyer once recalled about her experiences flying in the SR-71 Blackbird. “That was the most invigorating, stressful, enjoyable, toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The following week, Bill hitched a ride aboard a 747 carrying the space shuttle Atlantis back to Florida. The STS-76 landed at Dryden Flight Research Center at 5:29 a.m. on March 31, 1996, after completing a nine-day mission. His final leg home was by US mail from Florida to Mrs. Jaffe’s class back in Massachusetts.
Along with Bill the Travelmate Bear were mementos including coins, stickers, and postcards. There were also journal entries from each traveler and their personal accounts of some of the many interesting places they’d been to. Story Musgrave, a NASA astronaut, wrote about his experience orbiting Earth, describing the coral in the South Pacific surrounding the volcanic islands as glorious.
When Schneider and Bohn-Meyer landed the NASA 831 SR-71 Blackbird back at Edwards AFB, they took a picture by the plane, holding their paper companion that went along for the ride. Schneider also sent the class a handwritten letter, and in it he asked students questions like “Can you see how far 1800 miles is in a straight line from your school?” and “Can you find Edwards on your map?”
The learning experience between the class, NASA, and Bill the Travelmate Bear added a unique spin that Mrs. Jaffe’s pupils surely would not forget.
Mighty Stories is a weekly WATM feature highlighting the stories of veterans, active duty and military families. This week’s feature is Krista Simpson Anderson – Army wife, Gold Star wife, founder of the nonprofit The Unquiet Professional.
I grew up in Hampton, Massachusetts – a little town right outside of Springfield. My father served in the U.S. Air Force from 1967-1971, but it was before I was born. My mom’s side of the family also served, but it wasn’t something we talked about. I was blissfully ignorant about military life.
I met Mike in June 2006. He was a friend of my cousin’s. My cousin was deploying to Iraq and my aunt was having a deployment party for him. She flew in a few of his friends that had been in the Old Guard with him, and she called me and asked me to help her with the guys flying in.
I walked into the Toasted Owl Tavern in Northhampton, and there he was.
It was love at first sight. I remember my cousin saying to me, ‘I’m going to disown you both if you get married.’ But we were fixed on each other. The whole world could have come crashing down around us and we wouldn’t have noticed.
In August 2006, Mike’s whole unit transferred to Germany. I went out to visit him for Thanksgiving. In September of 2007, he deployed to Iraq. He came out to Rhode Island to my family’s home before he left and we spent a week together. I was working in the restaurant business at the time of his deployment, so I took a couple of different jobs, one in St. Thomas, one in New York. But we stayed in contact.
In April 2008, during his mid-tour leave, he invited me to his brother David and sister-in-law Kelsey’s wedding in Texas. During their rehearsal dinner in his parents’ backyard, he went to give his best man’s speech and we all thought it would be something funny. He was so goofy, it was hard to imagine him doing something serious. Now mind you, he served in the military in the Old Guard so he clearly had to be serious for work. But the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Be each other’s compass.’
I was blown away.
Mike and Krista. Photo courtesy of Krista Simpson Anderson.
That night, he walked me to my room – we were all staying with his parents – and he told me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. And he asked me, ‘Will you be my wife?’ I knew that it had been a long night of celebrating so I told him that if he felt the same way in the morning we could talk about it. I went to sleep dreaming of the rest of our lives together.
The next morning over a cup of coffee at the counter, Mike looked at me and said, ‘I don’t feel any differently than I did last night. I want you to be my wife. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’ I said yes, of course. We kept this a secret because it was not our day – it was David and Kelsey’s wedding day, and we knew his oldest brother, Isaac, was going to be proposing to his now wife, Vanessa, the next day. We told his sister, Abby, and then swore her to secrecy.
A few days after the wedding we announced our good news and decided to marry as soon as Mike returned from his deployment.
Mike went back to Iraq a week later, and returned in October 2008 to Germany. We met back up in Tennessee for Isaac and Vanessa’s wedding in November. December 20, 2008, we married in Rhode Island, and the first week of January he returned to Germany. We decided to live apart until his orders came through to start the Special Forces Qualification course so he wouldn’t need to extend in Germany.
I went to Germany to see him in February for his birthday, and I came home and found out I was pregnant with our first son a month later. I was working at a restaurant as a manager and living with my parents in Rhode Island awaiting orders. By September 2009 we were finally living together in Fort Bragg, NC and our son Michael was born October 22nd.
I remember taking “SF101” (Special Forces 101) for the spouses and the emphasis was put on how long our husbands would be away from home. Everything was about not getting our hopes up for birthdays, holidays, special occasions and being a family during those times. They really wanted to prepare us for the let downs of our military career. No one ever told me the incredible things our husbands would be doing while away from home and that every mission would be for the good of our nation. No one ever told me about the amazing and wonderful things we would be doing for our families while they were away. No one ever told me how, as spouses, we would show up for each other, in good times and in bad. No one ever told me that we would all be changing the world together – them abroad and us on the homefront.
Mike, Krista and their two boys. Photo courtesy of Krista Simpson Anderson.
Mike graduated in March 2011 and then reported July 10 for a Special Forces billet at 4th BN, Charlie Company, 1st Special Forces Group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. I got out there August 1 with Michael who was just about two, and pregnant with Gabriel. We closed on our first house on my birthday, September 23.
As soon as our household goods arrived, Mike was off on a TDY (Temporary Duty) so I set up the house with my two year old and called my Mom and Aunt in for reinforcements to paint beige the mustard yellow walls and ceiling our new home offered.
When home, Mike was a present and incredibly fun daddy. He played this game called Daddy T-Rex. He would hold Gabe and chase Mic around the house, pretending to be a dinosaur. They would also lie on the floor and play Legos, have mini race-car races all the while tapping into Mike’s very present childlike spirit. He’d say to me, ‘I can’t wait until they’re older so we can do more fun things.’ He couldn’t wait to play basketball, soccer and teach them to ride bikes.
On 6 April 2013, Mike deployed with his company to eastern Afghanistan. Less than three weeks later I received the call every military spouse prays they’ll never get.
Mike, right, with a battle buddy. Photo courtesy of Krista Simpson Anderson.
The day before the call, Mike and I were texting back and forth and I was telling him how grateful I was to be his wife. I asked him to marry me all over again. I said, ‘I love you more today than I ever have. You have brought so much joy to my life that it overwhelms me. Will you marry me… Again?’ We were going to meet in Mexico with our families around Christmas and I told him I wanted to do it then. He wrote back, ‘Yes!’
On April 27, I had just put Gabriel down for a nap (he was 16 months) and I heard my phone ringing. I ran down the stairs to an ‘Unknown’ caller and answered what I can only assume must have been the last ring. It was (now Lieutenant Colonel) Major Jamie Alden, and he said ‘Hi, Krista? This is Major Alden.’ It didn’t even dawn on me why the company commander would be calling me from Afghanistan.
He asked me where I was, and I told him I was at home. He asked where the boys were, and I told him Mic was in the other room and I’d just put Gabe down for a nap.
He said, ‘I need you to sit down.’
You know that feeling when it seems that your brain starts going numb and it begins to rush through your whole body? Luckily I made it to the other room and sat down near the boys’ toys – on a bean bag chair.
‘Michael is alive, but he is in critical condition. There was an accident; he hit an IED while riding an ATV. He has a lower right leg amputation and there has been severe trauma to his right arm. We know there is shrapnel damage, we just are not sure where and the extent. Again, he is alive, but he is critical.’
I had to stop him. I couldn’t process anything and I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember anything else he was saying. I ran across the street and banged on my neighbor Kate’s door, and her daughter opened it. She was supposed to be coming over anyway to watch the boys since we had a neighborhood clean-up scheduled and I was president of the homeowners association. She ran to stay with the boys while Kate got on the phone with Major Alden. It took some convincing for him to speak to her but he finally agreed, understanding my emotional state.
I watched her as she spoke to him but I couldn’t hear her. I could hear sounds, just not the words, as if my ears were blocked. Kate handed the phone back to me and I thanked him, and he reminded me that we were family, that his wife Susan would be calling me soon, and that everything was going to be okay.
Mike, before the attack. Photo courtesy of Krista Simpson Anderson.
I got off the phone and had to start making phone calls. I walked with my phone in my hand across the grass toward our friends, Alan and Angie’s, house. They were laying out a tarp for mulch on their driveway when they looked over. It must have been written all over my face because they rushed to me and caught me before I fell to my knees. Alan was the commander of an EOD unit on JBLM and assured me everything was going to be ok. Angie was by my side and provided support in any way I needed.
I wanted to close my eyes and wake up from the nightmare but I couldn’t. I was a Green Beret’s wife and the mother of two future Green Berets. I said to myself, ‘Pull yourself together, handle your business- he’s not dead and is going to need you to be strong!’
I stood outside, barefoot, on the cold pavement. The bottoms of my feet still get cold remembering those moments. I tried calling Mike’s parents but there was no answer. I tried calling my parents and no answer again. I called his brother Isaac, who was also a Green Beret who was in North Carolina doing his instructor rotation. I said, ‘It’s Mike. He’s alive but he hit an IED and he’s in surgery. It’s critical.’
I can still hear his scream.
Isaac had witness IED attacks before and he knew the gravity of this news. Isaac and Vanessa would make the calls to the rest of the Simpson family as I continued my calls from the floor of our parish where I sat and prayed. Once my parents were notified, my mother arrived from Rhode Island to our home in Olympia, Washington, 12 hours later.
1st Special Forces Group (1st SFG) at JBLM welcomed me in every morning to call Afghanistan for updates. LTC David Haight would call Bagram ICU and translate their medical report for me whether at that morning meeting or 1am. We would share our information, formulate a plan and I would leave the table every morning stronger than I arrived. Monday, 29 April, I called the hospital myself. The doctor that answered told me he was sorry, but that Mike didn’t have a gag or corneal reflex and that he would not live.
I thanked him and his team for caring for him so well. I went downstairs to tell my mother before the boys awoke and then retreated to my room where I called my cousin Alicia and friend Andrea. I begged Alicia to wake me up and take this away.
The medical team cared for Mike so well they were able to transfer him from Afghanistan to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany. We got the green light to go to Germany as soon as Mike was in the air from AFG. They couldn’t cut orders or book our flights until they knew Mike was surviving the altitude. They performed emergency surgery on the plane and worked tirelessly to keep him alive even though they knew the outcome. When they arrived in Germany, one of Mike’s closest friends from the Special Forces Qualification Course was there awaiting his arrival. Casey served with another Special Forces Group and was training in the area when we received the news.
As I traveled to Germany, my Casualty Assistance Officer (CAO) SFC Gerry DeMarzo and Chaplain Johnny Elder escorted me. What a blessing they were for so many reasons I couldn’t possibly list in short. The ‘behind the scenes’ had so many issues getting us all there but with the help from the Green Beret Foundation, Special Operations Warrior Foundation, USO, Fisher House Foundation and Care Coalition on top of 1st SFG, I arrived and met Mike’s parents, siblings and spouses to be with Mike.
Upon arrival, my only request was that I got to see him first. I wanted to clean him up before his mom saw him. Silly, but it was all I could think of. I got to the hospital and Casey was at the door with SFC Doug Way. (They both never once left us. Casey stayed at Mike’s bedside and Doug would either be standing outside his hospital room or kneeling outside the room praying.)
I never lost hope.
‘Maybe he will heal and maybe the doctors were wrong,’ I kept telling myself.
Casey and Doug greeted me, offered their condolences and I entered the room.
There he was.
My big bad Green Beret laying broken and vulnerable. I had never felt so helpless in all of my life.
All I could manage was a whisper… ‘Dear Lord, please help us.’
On 1 May 2013, as we all stood around Mike’s bed, Dr. Betts informed us that Mike was in fact brain dead. I asked, ‘Can his brain heal?’ rationally knowing the answer, but I had to ask. ‘No ma’am, the brain can not heal from these injuries,’ he said. I nodded my head in understanding, saw the very real pain in his parents’ and siblings’ faces, said, ‘Thank you,’ and then ran out.
I ran left out of the room, through the ICU doors into the hall toward the stairs, down the stairs and out of the hospital hoping I could run away from this earth-shattering moment in my life and somehow, when I returned, everything would be ok – Mike would wake, he would rehab and our lives would go on … Together.
I stopped and Gerry and Doug were not too many steps behind me. Gerry never let me out of his sight for a moment; he was my greatest advocate and protector. He always told me he took care of our family the way he would have wanted his family taken care of if something were to have happened to him. When I returned to the hospital, I went back in and I didn’t leave Mike’s side except for an hour to take care of the paperwork I needed to sign.
The rest of that day we would call all the family and friends we could connect with so they could say their goodbyes. I would call and inform them of Mike’s diagnosis, tell them how sorry I was but that it was time for them to say goodbye if they wished. I would put the phone down on Mike’s pillow next to his ear, believing he would receive their love and pain through their words.
I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to say whatever they wanted and needed to for some closure. Our family and friends stateside would say goodbye as well as Charlie Company, 4th BN, 1st SFG. Mike’s team was sure he would survive, so my news was heartbreaking to them … Mike was their brother.
One of Mike’s friends and teammates brought me to my knees with his heartfelt message that his wife would transcribe for me later. His words were, ‘For Mike: Hey buddy. Have no fear, you’re the realest Green Beret now. You did it all. Thanks for all the bravo advice and an invitation to be a part of your family. I will never forget our time together and will do anything for your family. R.I.P. brother. I love you. One more thing – thank you for the greatest sacrifice one can make. My prayer to you … Now I lay you down to sleep, I pray the Lord your soul to keep. If you should die before you wake, bless Mikey Lord, his soul to take.’
Once the last call was made I think my body and mind knew it and I needed to rest. I asked the hospital staff if they could move Mike over so I could lie next to him in his hospital bed. I laid there and just listened to his heart beat. I prayed until I drifted off to sleep. Around 4 am, the nurse came in and wanted to change his dressings and clean him up. I asked if I could help, so she brought in soapy water and a washcloth. She changed his dressings while I cleaned him up. Around 9 pm, they came in to get him for organ donor surgery. I stayed with him while they got him ready to be moved. I walked to the door holding his hand as they started to wheel him out, and didn’t want to let go.
This was it.
I would never see his chest rise and fall or hear his beating heart again. ‘I’M NOT READY!’ I screamed in my head.
But … with as much grace as I could, I leaned down and kissed him one last time and whispered, ‘I love you all the world. I promise you I will take care of our boys, and we will always remember you.’
They wheeled his bed out and I stood in the empty, cold hospital room alone. ‘What now?’ I asked. ‘How do I live without you?’
We came back from Germany to Dover for the dignified transfer on 7 May 2013. He was supposed to be the only casket on the flight, but seven other soldiers were killed just days before, so we were with their families. These families didn’t have what we did. They didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. They watched their loved one get on the plane for deployment and then their casket come off in Dover.
It started to rain as we stood out on the tarmac, so hard it was sideways. My mother in law had an umbrella and was also trying to wrap me in her jacket to protect me. I told her I was okay without it, because I wanted to feel everything; the rain, the heartache, the fear. I had to face that moment.
As the caskets were taken off the plane I could hear the rain and the wailing from mothers and fathers who lost their sons, siblings who lost their brothers, spouses who lost their husbands and children who lost their fathers. I felt as though I was hovering over myself, looking down in disbelief that this was now my journey.
I flew home to Washington after being gone for 10 days. I could never spend a few hours away from my boys without missing them terribly. This time I was afraid to see them. What would I say? How would I tell them their Daddy wasn’t coming home?
Mike’s dignified transfer. Photo courtesy of Krista Simpson Anderson.
I sat Michael (age 3) down and asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’
‘Yes Mommy,’ he said.
‘Even though you can’t see Him?’ I asked.
‘Yes of course Mommy!’ he replied.
‘You know Daddy is a soldier?’
‘Yes,’ he answered.
I looked into his eyes and softly said, ‘Well, Daddy is going to be God’s soldier now.’
‘But I will miss him,’ he said.
It would have been easy to sit down and focus on all the tragedy. My husband, my best friend, the father of my two beautiful boys was gone. I was a 35 year old widow who didn’t have enough time with the love of my life. Mike and I always told each other, ‘This love happens once in a lifetime,’ and it was gone.
My future and dreams broke into a million pieces and I had no idea how I would become whole again. And yet, somehow, I had to choose to see the incredible blessings that were happening all around us. The support from our family, friends and community; the military representatives that were assigned to us that created a beautiful journey; it was all a gift as much as my husband’s sacrifice was a gift to us all. Everybody who walked into our lives … it was nothing short of perfect.
On 30 May 2013, our Memorial Day, Mike was interred with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery by his original Old Guard unit where he served when he first joined the military in 2003.
There are many things I remember about that day. It was so hot I could feel the heat from the pavement radiate through the bottom of my sandals – a stark contrast from the cold I felt on my bare feet the day I got the call that Mike had been hit.
I remember walking for what seemed like forever with our two children, hoping to make it through the ceremony.
Michael with his Daddy T-rex at Mike’s memorial. Photo courtesy of Krista Simpson Anderson.
And I remember thinking that this place, Arlington National Cemetery, had always been one of my favorite places to be. It’s so peaceful. It’s filled with a clear and strong sense of honor and courage, but in that moment I didn’t feel brave at all.
There were over 100 people in attendance to show their love and support, not just for Mike, but for us as well. My dear friend Andrea Rinaldi was one of them. She stayed by my side through it all, from the very beginning of our journey, and selflessly gave of her time and heart. The service, experience and support of so many was humbling, and I will always be grateful.
Finally, I remember the boys and I receiving the folded flags. How do you process receiving a folded flag in the place of your Daddy when you’re only three years old? Michael was given the flag, but really only wanted his Daddy T-Rex. As I held our 16 month old, I watched as Gerry, our Casualty Assistance Officer, took a knee, and took Michael’s flag for him. I love this picture – this moment in time – as it truly captures how Gerry so beautifully served our family.
Mike’s company would continue their deployment for six more months after Mike’s death. One of his teammates stated during his memorial, ‘This Team… This company… This regiment, will never forget your sacrifice. Each day when we don our kit and prepare for battle, we will do it in your honor. We will take the fight to the enemy and fight how you would have wanted us to. Never faltering… Never failing… and never forgetting. This fight is over for you brother, but know that it is not over for us. We will continue in your honor and remember you as a husband, a father, and a Green Beret.’
I attended the homecoming for the first flight that came in from Afghanistan. I was grateful to be there yet nervous about my emotions. As we waited in the company I was approached by a woman in the hallway. ‘Mrs. Simpson,’ she said. ‘I am not sure if this is an appropriate time but I wanted to introduce myself and tell you that I was one of Mike’s nurses in Afghanistan.’ I am sure I hugged her immediately and was so grateful to lay my hands on someone who was there, with Mike, during the scariest moments of his life. It was a blessing I can’t explain. She was one of many who saved Mike so our family could say goodbye. She was, and still is, my angel. I am blessed by her and her whole family to this day.
When the buses arrived carrying Mike’s company we all rushed outside to greet them. The minds and hearts of so many wives and children were eased and made whole again. I truly was so happy for them, yet I subconsciously waited for Mike to get off that bus. The last man embarked and I was sure Mike would be next. The door closed and the bus drove away.
In the distance, I heard the shriek of a little girl, calling, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ and as I turned to look, I saw her run and jump into a man’s arms who wore the same uniform as all the other soldiers … the same one Mike would have been wearing, with the same wide arms he would have caught our sons in. But it wasn’t him and it never would be. My heart shattered all over again and I needed to turn and walk inside to face this emotion alone. I couldn’t allow anyone to think I was not grateful their husbands came home, because I was, wholeheartedly, but that didn’t take away my pain.
I went home that night with a folded flag that was flown over Mike’s camp in Afghanistan. My dear friend laid next to me as I cried myself to sleep and she didn’t leave my side until she knew I was okay.
Over the next several months I was constantly at the battalion, offering help, wanting to talk to them to make sure they were doing okay. I know it was difficult for them to see me since I was a reminder of the reality of Mike’s death. I know many struggled with his loss and I recognized very quickly that survivor’s guilt was a very real emotion. They needed to know that this was God’s plan, not ours, and He doesn’t make mistakes. My mission was to show them that we would honor Mike, grieve his loss but we would absolutely be okay. We were strong and proud, not weak and angry. Everyone grieves differently and there is not a right or wrong way to do it. I chose grace for me, my children and his team.
One of Mike’s teammates, Gus, had done the original inventory on Mike’s things. He was able to put all of his belongings into perspective. What he was wearing the day of his accident, what certain gear meant and what it was used for. He brought back command challenge coins from the memorial in Afghanistan where they all gathered on 11 May. Gus was able to retrieve and hand carry the patches Mike wore on his helmet, along with the memorial patch he had made for their team’s uniforms. Gus would come over and play with the boys, give me a moment of rest and help anyway he could.
So many of Mike’s teammates and their families would do the same. I was so grateful for the respite since the light at the end of the deployment tunnel was extinguished for me. Mike wouldn’t return to ease the natural burdens of parenting coupled with keeping up the household alone.
I always had family dinners. From the time Mike passed, I’d send out a text at 1:00 pm on a Sunday with, ‘Family dinner at 4’ and a few hours later the house would fill with joy and laughter. What better therapy than to be surrounded by those that loved us and Mike?
Gus and I would talk a lot about Mike, his feelings of survivor’s guilt (which they all had) and spent a lot of time together over the next couple years. I started to realize I cared for Gus more than I thought was possible and wanted to see where that would lead us.
I flew down to Texas for Easter – I needed to talk to Mike’s parents. His father said to me, ‘I have four requirements: He loves you, he loves the boys, he loves Jesus and that he always shows them it’s manly to love Jesus.’ His mother said, ‘I’ve prayed since the week after Mike died that you would find somebody.’ They were my greatest supporters. And they already loved Gus. He was already a part of our family. This was a no brainer for me.
I struggled with Gus being my secret-not so secret boyfriend. I had this organization that I’d founded as a widow of an active duty service member. I was afraid. I had lost my identity as a military spouse and then I found one as a military widow. It allowed me to talk about Mike and honor him. We were afraid of what our friends might think of our relationship and the judgement that would come. In July 2016, we broke up when I realized I needed time. Ten days later, he left for Nepal with his team and during those three months I recognized all of the things I was doing wrong. I thought I was honoring Mike every day but by not honoring Gus at all, was I really? By having someone in my life who wanted to love us, take care of us and honor Mike, yet I wasn’t willing to let him in – could I be dishonoring my late husband? I used to resent the ‘widow’ title but then I found myself not wanting to let it go.
I prayed so much and I came to the conclusion that I just needed to love Gus, and show him that he was a priority. He got back from Nepal and he was still very angry with me. We met a few times to talk, took it slow and then one day I boldly told him that we were going to get married. I knew the response could have broke my heart but he was worth it.
We were worth it.
He laughed and told me softly that I had to be crazy. One month later, Gus got down on one knee on the docks in Seattle, in front of our favorite Oyster Bar (Elliotts) and asked me to marry him. Two months later, we were married in Rhode Island among our family and friends. The priest who married us had married my parents, baptized Gabriel, did last rights for Mike and his funeral in Arlington, and had confirmed and married Casey and Sandy (Mike’s friend who was with him in Germany). It was perfect.
Thanks to Michael’s kind-hearted 1st grade teacher, Ms. Petruska, my boys decided to call Gus ‘Dad’ the moment we stepped off the altar, and have not called him anything but that since. They wanted and needed a father in their lives so badly and I don’t think I realized that until then. Michael and Gabriel both repeat Ms. Petruska’s words often – ‘We have a Daddy in Heaven and a Daddy on earth.’
A month after Gus and I married he deployed to Afghanistan. I woke up every morning and prayed that Gus was alive. He was so good about messaging me whenever he could to ease my mind, even though I never shared with him my fears. His heart and mind just works that way and he is always considering the times and moments I may go through in this journey and how they may be affecting me. He is constantly striving to make life easier. I pray I do the same for him.
I won’t tell you that I didn’t struggle through those six months but I can tell you I found peace in God’s plan and chose to continue to trust that His plan was greater than mine. Tragedy and loss does not have to define you or dictate the rest of your life. My story didn’t end with the loss of Mike; it began with a new chapter of hope and my choice of joy. It continued with honoring Mike and Gus giving me the greatest gift… he never makes me choose as he continues to give me the freedom to love them both.
Five years to the day that Mike touched American soil in Dover, Delaware for his dignified transfer, I landed in Washington, DC with Gus, for the Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year events with Military Spouse Magazine that would change my life. Five years to the day that Mike was flown back to Joint Base Lewis McChord to land at Grey Army Airfield, I was awarded the overall Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year. I know it’s right where I need to be, that God’s timing is perfect, and that Mike would be so proud of me. And I also know I couldn’t have done any of this without Gus or my children.
Tragedy did not dictate my life in a negative way. My goal is that other people can see that, and feel that. I remember looking at other Gold Star Spouses like Lisa Hallett and thinking, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ And I want other people to look at me and find hope, too.
Mike was very proud to sacrifice his life. And I am so proud to honor him.
Arlington National Cemetery is where my friend Andrea suggested a fundraiser for those who supported us and ultimately where The Unquiet Professional was born. So many organizations supported us, from the volunteers with the USO who carried my kids through the airport, the Green Beret Foundation being there for everything, or wear blue: run to remember, where I found a healthy and meaningful way to heal. I wanted to be able to pay that love back.
We now provide healthy and empowering opportunities for Gold Star Families, Veterans and their families. When Andrea suggested fundraising, she saved me that day. She saved me from the possibilities of not being able to live out my grief in a positive way. I heal as I strive to help others do the same with my ‘twice in a lifetime love’ by my side every step of the way.
Memorial Day is my favorite holiday of the year. We feel Mike’s presence and his loss every single day no matter what life brings us. But on Memorial Day, everyone thinks of all of our fallen heroes. People say when you’re having your bbq and your beer you’re not remembering the sacrifices, but I say celebrate. Celebrate their lives. Remember them.