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A soldier's tale, as told by the wife

"The dark story of one soldier's fall into despair."

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Julianne finished loading the large moving truck and pulled the rear door closed. She walked down the rear ramp and glanced up at the only home she had known for the last twenty years. She glanced down the street to the rubble which was the house her first boyfriend and sighed. She allowed the memories of when she was thirteen years old flood her mind and then pushed them away. “What’s taking you so long?” she asked herself and walked up the stone steps and past the foot path lights to the porch and entered the apartment.

Julianne’s mother sat in an old wooden chair and stared at an old photo in a bronze frame. The photo was of her when she was younger and with a man in full military dress with his arms around her belly. He held her tightly, as she held his hands which were clasped around her.

The man’s hair was cut short, nearly shaved bald on the sides and thickened a little the closer to his service cap.

“Who’s that in the photo?” Julianne asked.

Julianne’s mother jumped after hearing her daughter’s voice. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was just remembering the past. Nothing you would want to know about.”

Julianne walked behind the chair her mother sat in and leaned her chin onto her mother’s shoulder. “He looks cute.”

Julianne’s mother smiled. “You think so?”

“Yeah,” Julianne said. “Does he have a son?”

Julianne’s mother laughed. “You know, I really don’t know,” she said. “But you wouldn’t want to date him if he did.”

“Why’s that?” Julianne rested her arms on the back head rest of the chair.

“Because he would be your half-brother,” Julianne’s mother said. “This man was your father.”

Julianne remained silent for a moment as she scanned the photo of the man and her mother. “My father?” she asked. “You never really talked about him. What happened?”

Julianne’s mother inhaled deeply. “The war happened,” she said. “The Army killed him.”

Julianne walked around to face her mother and found that her blue eyes were filling with tears. “Why do you say that?” she asked. “Did he die over there?”

“No.” Julianne’s mother’s voice crackled. “He made it back both times.” The right corner of Julianne’s mothers lip jerked to a smile at the thought of the man. She forced the smile away just as quickly. “Well he physically returned both times, he wasn’t the same person again.”

Julianne knelt down in front of her mother. “Tell me about him,” she said. “How did you meet?”

“It was the end of the summer and the beginning of the school year,” Julianne’s mother said. “I had the biggest crush on this blond haired idiot who never even noticed me in the ninth grade. Just before the tenth grade dance I finally built up the nerve to approach him and ask him out.”

“What did he say?” Julianne asked.

Julianne’s mother laughed. “He was a moron,” she said. “He had already had plans to go with another girl form our science class. She was a total slut.” Both women laughed.

“So what happened?” Julianne asked. “How did you get him to take you to the dance?”

“I didn’t,” Julianne’s mother said. “It wasn’t until later in the year that he asked me to another dance. Ms. Put-out stopped putting out and started leading him around by the nose. He only had the reputation that he did in high school, because he was dating the red head. Once that was over, so was his popularity.”

“So you were all he had left?” Julianne asked.

“Heaven’s no,” Julianne’s mother said with a dirty smile. “I had already moved on, he had nothing but himself. And he went to the dance alone.”

“Did you dance with him?” Julianne asked.

“Not at first,” Julianne’s mother said. “I was dating a tough guy from the football team. He wanted to go behind the stage and have a little something something. I told him no and he grabbed me by the arm and tried to pull me behind the stage where the DJ played his music.”

Julianne’s eyes widened. “Did a teacher stop him?”

Julianne’s mother smiled and looked down at the photo. “No, your father did,” she said. “He had been watching me from the far wall the entire night and when he saw that Nathan was being rough with me, he stepped up and told him to let me go.”

“Did he?” Julianne asked.

“Yeah. But only to take a swing at Jimmy.” Julianne’s mother glanced to her. “Your father’s first name was Jimmy. He had side stepped Nathan's fist.” She gave a short nasal laugh. “It was like watching a movie in slow motion. Jimmy brought his foot down on the back of Nathan’s knee and backed away. The teachers grabbed Nathan and brought him out of the school. He was suspended the next day.”

“And Jimmy?” Julianne asked.

“They were going to take him away too.”

“But?” Julianne asked.

“But, I told them that he protected me for Nathan. That Nathan was trying to get me to go behind the stage with him,” Julianne’s mother explained. “It was the biggest reason why he was suspended.”

“He should have been sent to jail,” Julianne said. “That was attempt rape.”

“It was his word against mine and he was on the football team. They made the school a lot of money with their fancy stadium.”

Julianne frowned. “That isn’t right.”

“That was how it was back then when they had school sports.” Julianne’s mother smiled. “Now it’s all academia and real learning.”

“Still,” Julianne tried to protest. “So what did you do afterward?”

“We danced,” Julianne’s mother said. “We danced the entire night away. I had my prince charming.” Another tear formed at the corner of her eyes. “I lost my prince when he went to war.”

“Why did he join the army?” Julianne asked.

“Money,” Julianne’s mother said. “He didn’t have any to go to college with and he so wanted to go. He wanted to become an engineer, wanted to build things.”

“So what happened?” Julianne asked.

“He went to basic training, he wasn’t allowed the job he wanted in the military,” Julianne’s mother said. “He tried to get into communications, but instead they made him into a ranger. Jimmy didn’t talk much about what that actually meant or what he would have to do. Only that he didn’t like it and didn’t want to be deployed to do it.”

“He didn’t want to kill people?” Julianne asked and watched her mother nod.

“When he was allowed to return home after basic training and that Ranger school, he came home changed, angrier,” Julianne’s mother said. “He would curse more; he would pick arguments more often. I thought it was something that he would just get over, that he would learn to readjust.”

“But he didn’t? Did he?” Julianne asked.

Julianne’s mother shook her head side to side. “No, you don’t get over what they do to you,” she said. “We got married and moved to Texas where we lived for a while. It was hard moving away and harder still living as a spouse to an enlisted soldier on post.”

“You couldn’t live off the base?” Julianne asked.

“No, we were too poor to live off post,” Julianne’s mother said. “Anything I did wrong was reported to his superiors, they would write him up, deduct pay, they even threatened him with something called an Article fifteen.”

“So what did you do?” Julianne asked.

Julianne’s mother smiled. “I played the good house wife. I got a job on post, learned how not to make the officers and higher enlisted mad at me and report anything I did wrong to Jimmy’s superiors. It was all one big game that they played between the different units.”

Julianne tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “A game?” she asked.

“Yeah, a game to see who could get the other unit’s enlisted into the most amount of trouble,” Julianne’s mother said. “It was a game played by officers and higher enlisted and the lower enlisted suffered at their hands.”

Julianne cringed at the idea of being used as a pawn in someone else’s game. “I don’t think that is very fair.”

“It isn’t. But that is what they do,” Julianne’s mother said. “A short time after we arrived in Texas, Jimmy started receiving orders to be away from the house for a week at a time. He would always return tired and worn out.”

“What did they have Jimmy do?” Julianne asked.

“All kinds of things,” Julianne’s mother said. “The Army had them running through bad weather, crawling in the mud and sand to being eaten by fire ants.”

“Why would anybody put up with that?” Julianne asked.

“Jimmy wanted to provide for me, he wanted to go to college and he was told that this would be the best way to do it,” Julianne’s mother said.

Julianne shook her head from side to side. “I couldn’t do that. They couldn’t pay me enough to do that kind of stuff.”

Julianne’s mother smiled. “You’ll do all kinds of things when you meet the right guy and want to provide for him,” she said and exhaled the rest of the air in her lungs. “We had a number of fights over him being gone so long and so often. Really I was being unfair at the time, but I was young and I was watching our youth pass us by.”

“So what made you leave him?” Julianne asked.

“Jimmy was deployed a few months after I got my job at the Base PX.” Julianne’s mother paused for a moment. “We all were afraid for our husbands and wives. When your father came home, he wasn’t my Jimmy anymore.” A tear began to run down her cheek as she gazed at the photo of Jimmy. “He was different, angrier all the time.”

“Why?” Julianne asked.

“It was the war. The war killed your father. It killed a lot of fathers and mothers. He...” Julianne’s mother began to choke up. “Excuse me. While Jimmy was at war, he lost some of his friends that he had made. On one mission he lost three friends when a Humvee was destroyed by a bomb. He was almost killed when another bomb destroyed his Humvee.” Julianne’s mother began to stare blankly as she recalled what she knew of what Jimmy suffered during the war.

“Was he alright?” Julianne asked.

“No honey. He wasn’t,” Julianne’s mother said. “They wouldn’t send him for medical treatment in Germany, so he had to heal on his own. Their doctors said it wasn’t anything major and that the ringing in his ears would have stopped or the headaches would go away or the tiny bits of metal wouldn’t be a problem. He was lucky to have all of his body parts still attached and that the glass didn’t explode into his face.”

Julianne cringed away from her mother ever so slightly. “How can they do that?”

“They could do whatever they wanted with you,” Julianne’s mother said. “They removed his wisdom teeth in theater. They found out that he still had them and he was ordered to have them removed or face an article fifteen.”

“They could order you to have surgery?” Julianne face turned beat red in anger. “I can’t believe that.”

“The enlisted had a saying.”

“Oh? What?” Julianne asked.

“That they were property, not men,” Julianne’s mother said. “They couldn’t drink, they couldn’t have sex they couldn’t watch porn. They had to be perfect little men and when they were shot at, they had to be allowed to return fire. That was what really made Jimmy made.”

“What did they do?” Julianne asked.

“They ordered your father not to return fire at something that they called a snipers' nest,” Julianne’s mother explained. “Jimmy wouldn’t explain everything to me and when I would stop him to ask a question, he would get angry with me. He would act as if I should have already known things that he was talking about. He would later apologize for being angry.

“It wasn’t your fault that you didn’t know anything,” Julianne said.

“You have to understand, war changes you, and it makes you angry all the time,” Julianne said. “It is why I said that my Jimmy died when he went to war. The army took him from me. You were too young to remember him, but he started to drink, not just beer but the harder stuff. At first it started with one drink a night to take the edge off, then two, then four.” Julianne’s mother stopped talking for a moment. “It got so bad that when I heard that he was being deployed again, I was actually happy. I thought that being away from the alcohol would do him some good. But it was already too late. I found that I had fallen out of love with him and midway through his deployment I began to see another man.”

“You cheated on Jimmy?” Julianne asked and saw the hurt look on her mother’s face.

“I needed someone; anyone,” Julianne’s mother explained. “This guy I worked with always would find time to listen to what I had to say. I woke up the next morning with him in the bed where Jimmy slept. I felt so dirty that next morning that I showered for two hours and sat in the tub with my chin dug into my knees crying. A few days later I filed for divorce and took you back to your Grandmother's.”

“How did Jimmy take that? You filing for divorce?” Julianne asked.

“He signed the custody paper work and the Army sent us half of his pay until he was finally kicked out of the military,” Julianne’s mother said. “He never came looking for you. He didn’t call, he just kept away. He stayed in his little world and I think he preferred it that way. In some ways I think he thought that he was protecting us from himself.”

“He never asked for a photo? Nothing?” Julianne asked.

“I think if he had...” Julianne’s mother paused to clear her throat. “He would have come looking for you. I don’t know what happened after he left the military. The checks just stopped, and from what the police told me.” She inhaled deeply and fought to control her breathing. “He was found with an illegal hand gun and a bottle of alcohol.” She glanced back to the photo. “He had shot himself in the side of his head. In his left hand was a photo I left of you. I wanted to leave him something of you. I had left a number he could have used to contact me for more photos, but he never called.”

Julianne’s eyes began to water as she watched the tears just roll down the side of her mother’s face. “He felt ashamed?”

Julianne’s mother nodded. “I think he hit bottom and couldn’t get back out of the bottle after he lost everything when the military kicked him out. The military paper work said that he was disrespectful to authority, always fighting, getting into trouble with the law. He was a mess and alone.

“But they have help for them,” Julianne said. “All of that VA stuff you hear about on the TV.”

Julianne’s mother smiled. “Not back then and still it isn’t enough. You can’t fix them; you can only change what and who they are so many times. That is why the VA pays so much in benefits to these veterans. They can’t hold down a job and they can’t relearn how to be totally part of society again. The High school recruiter doesn’t tell you, he didn’t tell Jimmy that.”

Written by RobertHildenbrand
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