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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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After six months, Ian was transferred to Fort Hood, in Killeen. They'd be close to Becca's parents, and it was an easy move from Alabama. Becca taught. Ian trained. They talked about having children someday.
Then, in February of 2011, he was deployed to Iraq. It was Operation New Dawn, part of the 50,000 American soldiers sent to "stabilize" Iraq. For American military personnel, anyway, it was a relatively calm time. Some 67 U.S. service members died in Iraq that year, compared with more than 6,000 during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
They Skyped their way through those 10 long months. Becca started graduate school for a psychology and counseling degree, and found time to send letters and constant care packages. Ian flew dozens of missions and, luckily, never took any direct fire. She only heard from him about one scary incident.
"He'd landed and they were walking away from the helicopters," she says. "Something was shot at them very close and they had to run to a bunker." Once or twice, while they were on Skype together, Ian would have to sign off quickly to take cover.
But while Ian's experience was relatively tame, some aspects of Iraq still hit him hard. "The high stress of flying that machine that many hours, at night, just being under constant threat of attack," Becca says. And like many returning soldiers, Ian struggled to get used to daily life when he came home to Copperas Cove, near Fort Hood, on Christmas Eve of 2011. The sudden calm, the vast expanses of free time: It was all very disorienting.
"He wasn't reintegrating very well," Becca says. "He had a hard time with how fortunate everybody is."
"I miss Iraq," he'd tell her. "I miss the regimen of it. I don't know how to live in this world."
"Is that your wedding ring?" Bethany asks gently. She leans across the table and takes Becca's hand, eyeing the rock. It's a delicate leaf design with a spray of diamonds in the center.
"I just started wearing it again," Becca says. "It used to make me so sad for awhile."
Bethany and Suzanne nod.
The Unfortunate Friends: That's what they call themselves. Suzanne Baty is in her 50s, with the enviable skin and perfectly placed highlights of a Mary Kay saleswoman, which she happens to be. Bethany Peterson is a couple years older than Becca, with long blonde hair, a stylish denim dress and an identical sadness in her eyes.
They're here tonight, gathered around a plate of goat cheese tots at Tillman's Roadhouse in Oak Cliff, because six months or so after their loved ones died they joined a support group for people whose spouses have killed themselves. Bonded by their shared experiences and strong Christian faith, they kept meeting after the formal sessions stopped.
"The essence of this group is that we can say whatever we want," Becca says. It feels like the saddest party in the world. The waiter frequently looks like he's not sure what to do.
"When I met you, you were wearing his ring," Bethany says.
"The inscription says, 'I love you forever,'" Becca says. She didn't believe Ian when he told her he'd had it engraved, but sure enough, she dug out a magnifying glass and there it was, in tiny letters.
"I took mine off right after Mitch died," Suzanne volunteers. "It made me so sad to put it on every morning." It's sitting in her jewelry box at home.
Bethany lost her mom to a drug overdose last May. Suzanne's husband shot himself that March. He, too, was a veteran, who'd struggled with years of pain and depression following a car accident. Both women had trouble finding people to talk to before they joined the support group. Now, Suzanne says, "I run into so many people who have dealt with suicide in the last two or three years. And I think it's not talked about, because they don't want to be judged for it. The only way to change that is to let people know that somebody in that state of mind, they're just as ill as a person with cancer. There's just no cure for it sometimes."
It's just after Memorial Day. Becca is back from a weekend in Arlington, Virginia, with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a nonprofit for military families who have lost loved ones. Each year it holds a National Military Survivor Seminar, as well as a camp for children who have lost parents. Becca went to different seminars on grief, then rode on the back of a motorcycle in a bikers' procession that ended in front of the Vietnam Memorial reflecting pool. And for the first time in a while, she had to deal with hearing a 21-gun salute, when she inadvertently visited the Arlington Memorial Cemetery during a funeral.
"It was a really hard, horribly good weekend," she says softly. Suzanne and Bethany sit still and let her sort through her words. "I smelled him twice in the airport, and once in the street. It burned my nose, it was so strong."
Rocky Top Therapy in Keller offers equine therapy through their Horses for Heroes program. Great program for DFW-area vets. Ask for Brooke.
Thank you guys so much for reading. Becca also wanted me to mention that TAPS operates a national helpline for suicide survivors in crisis: 800-959-TAPS. She says, " If you are in crisis please call. Get help. Reach out. You are important."
This is why Pathways, www.createagreatlife.org , and "Soldiers Serve with Heart" have such an interest in helping those who return home to bring them ALL THE WAY HOME.
NVRS 5/5 well done, a sad story to read for sure. And sad to hear this is your last story for the Observer. Good luck you in your endeavors and let us know where you go. We must never let the Vagina rating die. I can only imagine what the new vagina writer for the observer will think the first time she sees that rating
@bvckvs Wow, you are so militantly anti-Christian. I assume that extends to all other religions. But thanks for at least being sensitive about it.
@bvckvs ... and that his soul in now burning in Hellfire for eternity for the heinousness war crimes he participated in.
... or for gross hypocrisy.
@DonkeyHotay Trolls...doing what they do.
@ScottsMerkin She'll have to decide, as I did, whether to be offended or amused. I'm glad I went with the second one.