Last night Clay and I were discussing our Cinco De Mayo plans (legit tacos and real margaritas at home because we literally can’t do anything else) as we brushed our teeth when we remembered the significance of the day. It’s not that we forgot – far from it – but 14 years later, May 5, 2006 has become a blade of grass.
On a bitterly cold morning on Fort Drum in February 2006, Clay and I sat in his Jeep savoring the last few minutes together before he embarked on his first deployment to Afghanistan. We were young, newly married, and ready to rip off the Band-Aid. One of the last things Clay said to me as he hoisted up his ruck after giving me one last hug was, “This will eventually just be a blade of grass in our backyard.” In over 15 years of marriage, we’ve acquired quite the lawn and each blade of grass tells a story. The following is one of them.
I have never been to war. I don’t know what it is like to leave behind the ones I love most and fight in a foreign country against an enemy embedded in the local culture. I don’t know what it is like to ride in a Humvee while taking enemy fire and scanning the road for IEDs. I don’t know what is like to be at a mountain outpost with limited supplies and incoming RPGs. I also don’t know what it is like to fly in a helicopter along the Hindu Kush while peering at the valley below. But I do know what it is like to cry into the shoulder of a departing soldier – unsure of what the deployment may bring. I know what is like to go months without hearing his voice – the only contact being letters stained with Afghanistan dirt or a brief email letting me know that he is okay. I know what it is like to get a phone call notifying me of deaths in the unit. And I know what it like to attend services for those killed in action. I don’t know war from my husband’s perspective but I do know war from mine.
During our time at Fort Drum, New York, Clay was assigned to 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment. The unit was our family for a over three years and we still regularly keep in contact with many people associated with 3-71 CAV, past and present. Clay’s first deployment was particularly difficult – filled with casualties, hardship, and 16-months of pretty much hell. The focus was on Iraq and the war was taking a turn for the worse in Afghanistan, without much notice from the media. In fact, I often heard, “at least he isn’t in Iraq” when people would find out Clay was in Afghanistan. I admit that during his first couple of months in country, there was a false sense of security. After all, it wasn’t Iraq…right?
Everything changed on May 5, 2006.
That day a CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed in the Kunar Province. Ten soldiers were killed, including four members of the 3-71 CAV. On board was 3-71 CAV Battalion Commander, LTC Joseph Fenty, SPC Justin O’Donohoe, SPC David Timmons, and PFC Brian Moquin.
The following morning, blissfully unaware of the events that had taken place on the other side of the world, I turned on the news around 9am. It was Saturday morning and I held a cup of coffee as I sank into our couch next to our chocolate lab, Lucy. It was my typical weekend morning routine – I had just finished taking her for a walk. The breaking news alerted me that there had been a Chinook helicopter crash in the Kunar province and the map pinpointing the location dominated the television screen.
My stomach sank.
The map focused on exactly where Clay and other members of the unit were located, at least last I heard – communication was far and few between. It wasn’t unusual for Clay to be in a Chinook on any given day so immediately my mind and heart went to that dark place you always try so hard to avoid during deployments. I remember posting a question to an online military support forum I belonged to at the time inquiring how the FRG (Family Readiness Group) notifies spouses and families about an incident involving the unit. I knew that our unit was involved in some shape or form.
Confirmation of my suspicion came around 10am that morning. I answered the phone – shaking because I was afraid of what I was going to hear. [Please note – what happened next is NOT protocol. Because of the nature of the crash and the fact that the Battalion Commander was killed, the script and call chain got off track]. I immediately recognized the voice of the key caller for our company and asked her if it was our unit. I am paraphrasing the response – I was told that there was an incident involving our unit, bodies were still being identified, and the Casualty Notification Officers would be making the rounds once identification was confirmed.
I remember very little about the rest of the day. I watched the news. Foolishly hoping to catch a glimpse of Clay, if anything, to prove he was alive. I prayed. I cried. I listened for the slam of a car door. For a knock on the door. I had no idea if my husband was dead or alive. I kept in contact with close friends whose husbands were in the same unit but a different company. I answered calls from Clay’s parents and his sisters. My parents kept calling to check in on me and checked airline tickets in case they had to fly up because, well – you know.
The day went on and I didn’t hear from Clay, the FRG, or worse. I’m not sure how I fell asleep on Saturday night but I did. I woke up Sunday morning and got ready for church because I didn’t want to be at home alone any more – jumping at the sound of footprints. The phone rang just as I was putting my earrings on. I was informed that all the bodies were identified and the next of kin had been notified. I was also told that the Rear-D would hold a briefing about the incident later that afternoon on post.
That Sunday morning phone call from my key caller meant Clay was alive. Nobody ever came to the door. He wasn’t onboard. I can’t recall a time that I ever cried harder than I did that morning. I made phone calls. I thought about the families that did hear the car door, the footsteps, the knock. At that point, I still had no idea who was onboard the helicopter or whether other units were involved.
I went to the Rear-D briefing later that day at the post chapel. The atmosphere was heavy and damp. The Rear-D commander approached the podium with tears in his eyes and holding a piece of paper tightly between his hands. We all immediately fell silent – desperately wanting any shred of information about our husbands. His voice cracked as he began reciting the names of the fallen in the unit – the men that were alive a mere 48 hours earlier. SPC Justin O’Donohoe. SPC David Timmons. PFC Brian Moquin. And then emotion overcame his voice as he read the last name – LTC Joseph Fenty. The gasps were audible. The commander had been killed in action.
He was the man that stood up front during the Pre-Deployment Brief and explained the mission earlier that year. He told us he was going to do everything in his power to ensure that our soldiers came home. He was the man whose wife just gave birth to their daughter the month before. He was the man to whom Clay looked up and proudly served under. And he was the man who was killed in action on May 5, 2006, along with nine other soldiers.
The next day.
My cell phone rang Monday morning on my way to work. Unknown popped up on the screen – meaning there was a 98% chance it was Clay. I can’t remember the last time I heard his voice prior to the phone call and it was the first contact since the crash – the communication blackout had been lifted. He had managed to get his hands on a phone and only had a handful of seconds to talk. I wish I could recall more about that conversation. I remember just glimpses of I love yous and static-filled silence because we didn’t know what to say. I told him I thought he was dead. He said didn’t know how to respond to that. I didn’t know how to respond either. I blinked back tears when the line went dead a few seconds later. I wouldn’t hear from him again until the next wave of KIAs in the unit a little over a month later.
Later that week I shook the hands of the families of those men at the memorial service. Wives. Parents. Girlfriends. Brothers. Sisters. Up until then – I had no idea that it was even possible to feel so heartbroken for someone else while simultaneously being so incredibly thankful that it wasn’t you standing in that receiving line. There were more deaths in the unit during the deployment. More notification phone calls. More memorial services. But just like many other firsts – I will never forget my first notification phone call.
Furthermore and more importantly, I will never, ever forget the brave men of 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment who lost there lives during that treacherous 16-month deployment – LTC Joseph Fenty, SPC Justin O’Donohoe, SPC David Timmons, PFC Brian Moquin, SFC Jared Monti (Medal of Honor recipient), SSG Patrick Lybert, SPC Brian Bradbury, and 1LT Ben Keating. I am thinking of them and their families today. And I will continue to think of them for the rest of my life. I will never forget.
Clay and I talk often about that deployment. Talking helps. Our vasty different experiences during those 16 months have shaped who we are today and the couple we have become. Same with subsequent deployments. Our bond is unbreakable. Little insignificant quibbles mean nothing, especially when I think back to that day. The military can be a dangerous game for marriages and many do not survive. But those that do are incredibly strong and woven with lessons that typically can’t be learned in regular everyday life.