March 9, 2008 – Laura Youngblood clutched her husband’s photo as she drove alone to the hospital. She’d become pregnant nearly nine months earlier, the day he’d left for training for Iraq. Hours later, after the baby was born, she placed the photo in the bassinet next to the infant he’d named Emma in his last letter home. He would never hold her.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis L. Youngblood, 26, had died two months earlier, killed by an improvised explosive device.
Laura Youngblood is just 29 years old, but she insists she will not remarry. Her life is her children, now ages 2 and 7. One day, she says, she’ll be buried in the plot with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I tell people I’m a happily married woman,” she says, crying.
Five years after U.S. troops invaded Iraq, there are many tears — though not everyone is crying. For the great majority of Americans, this is a war seen from afar. They turn off the news and forget about what is happening a world away.
Then there’s the other war, the one that’s a very vivid and present part of some Americans’ lives.
It’s the war that more than a million U.S. soldiers have fought, leaving nearly 4,000 dead and more than 29,000 wounded in action. The one in which thousands of contractors rushed in to serve and to make a buck — though some paid the ultimate price, as well.
Around military bases across America, vacations are planned around deployment schedules. Mini baby booms occur nine months after troops come home. Support groups for widows and injured soldiers have come together.
At small town National Guard armories, the focus has shifted from one weekend a month to filling out life insurance forms and packing a rucksack for war.
“‘How did I end up in this kind of a situation?’ There were a lot of guys that said that,” says Jeff Myers, 48, a tech sergeant in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard from Pillow, Pa. His lips still discharge shrapnel shreds, the residue of two roadside bombs he survived in 2004; a neurologist monitors the concussions he sustained.
In his job as a gunner guarding Army convoys, he saw men so paralyzed by fear they wouldn’t go outside the wire. He saw others die 15 minutes after he was chatting with them.
It’s not a matter of whether you will have to deal with things like irritability and nightmares after you get home, he says: “It’s how you deal with it when it does happen.”
And how you deal with your fellow Americans who experience Iraq from a distance.
Amanda Jordan, whose Marine husband was killed three days into the war, says she doesn’t know what bothers her more — the days that go by when no one speaks of the war, or the punditry. At a local diner she frequents with her 11-year-old son near their home in Enfield, Conn., she’s contemplated standing up and leaving so he doesn’t hear when people say Iraq was unnecessarily invaded.
“This is like my life. You’re saying my spouse, my child’s father, is dead for no reason,” says Jordan, a 39-year-old former paralegal who is studying to be a therapist specializing in grief. “That’s a pretty harsh thing to hear all the time.”
Some can tell you exactly when their lives changed.
For Hazel Hoffman, from outside Grand Rapids, Mich., it was when the phone rang and she learned her son, Josh, was shot by a sniper. He was left a quadriplegic, unable to speak.
“I cried so hard that I had tears of blood. I remember looking down wondering, where is all this blood coming from? And it took a few seconds for me to realize this was coming out of me,” says Hoffman, who has lived more than a year in an apartment with her son’s girlfriend near his hospital in Richmond, Va.
Suzanne Stack, 48, was soaking in the bathtub in their house at Fort Campbell, Ky., when the doorbell rang. There were two officers at the door.
Afterward, still numb from the news of her husband’s death, she walked her kids to the school bus. She sensed that people were looking at her fearfully, as if they were afraid they would be next. Even before the funeral, one spouse told her there was a waiting list for post housing. When would she be moving out?
“One day you’re one thing. The next thing you’re not. It’s really quite a shock,” says Stack, of Fredericksburg, Va., who now volunteers as an advocate for widows on Capitol Hill.
Walter Lajuane Williams, 33, of Fremont, Calif., was stoned when his turning point came. He was couch surfing, unemployed and in an abusive relationship after he left the Army, which took him to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even his service was criticized: “I had a person tell me, `How could you kill another person?'”
He went to the nonprofit Swords to Plowshares, looking for help finding work. A caseworker, wise to his drug use, took him aside. “I’m going to tell you candidly how I feel and what I smell,” he said. “I’m going to work with you. Don’t make me regret it.”
Williams now helps other vets find jobs.
“All we need is a chance,” Williams says.
Recently, an Iraq veteran came to Daniel Fox’s office and asked to take a screening exam for post-traumatic stress disorder a second time. He’d lied the first time, he said.
“When I asked him why he wasn’t honest, he said because I had just gotten home and everybody’s like saying, ‘Welcome home hero,'” Fox says. “And how could he tell him that this hero was not doing well?”
Fox, 47, works for the Department of Veterans Affairs as a case manager, assisting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. For a year, Fox, an Army Reservist, worked as an intensive care nurse at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany; the injured would be airlifted from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fox and his fellow nurses called themselves the ICU angels on the ICU angels tour. To lighten the mood, they made T-shirts with the slogan. Their bravado just helped mask their intense emotions.
“You had a mom and dad and the new wife with the babies in their arms standing in the door of this patient’s room and he’s got a gunshot wound to the head,” says Fox, of Wichita, Kan. “How do you explain that to them? You can’t console them.”
“After a while, you go home and you cry about it,” he says.
He used to be more macho and unemotional. Today, “I have more sympathy, more compassion,” he says.
Lt. Col. Douglas Etter’s job was sympathy and compassion. Etter, a minister, was a chaplain with the Pennsylvania National Guard in Al Anbar Province; his battalion lost 13 soldiers and two Marines.
He laid his hands on some of the men and delivered last rites. One morning, after he memorialized two of the dead, he says his stoicism dissolved; jogging by the Euphrates River, he cried.
In blunt newsletters home, he chronicled what the troops were seeing and experiencing, from delivering shoes and school supplies to happy Iraqi children to the story of a dead soldier wrapped in a flag by his fellow soldiers in the middle of a firefight because nothing else was available.
“As excited as we are to go home, many are equally afraid,” he wrote in one of his last letters.
When Etter himself returned on leave to Pennsylvania to officiate at the funeral of a close friend, he turned to his wife and said he wanted to go home.
“I said, `OK, get in the car. Let’s go home,'” said Jodi Etter. “And you said, ‘No, my home in Iraq. I just want to go home.'”
When his tour was over, and he went with his wife to buy furniture for their new house in Lebanon, Pa., he had to remind himself that it was important to her — even if it seemed trivial to him after the war. He drove fast, and bought a BMW so he could do it. One day, Jodi pointed out that he was drinking more.
With time, his life settled down, and he came to feel that his months in Iraq were a time of growth. Now executive director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Veterans Affairs, Etter says a deployment is like a magnifying glass.
“Personalities that are strong become stronger,” he says. “Personalities which are weaker are made to become weaker.”
Phil Nesmith came away from Iraq with a certain clarity.
It wasn’t the money that lured him to Iraq, he insists. He was like most of the U.S. troops he was living with at the time — idealistic about the mission.
He had been an Army paratrooper, but now he was among the first group of government contractors to arrive in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. His task was to help get telecommunications running.
At night, rockets flew into their compound. Sometimes they missed and hit apartments nearby, killing Iraqis. On the ground near where he was sleeping, a young officer shot and killed himself.
Violence did not account for all the stress. While he was there, Nesmith says, his relationship with his girlfriend of three years ended and she got pregnant by another man. “Pretty much every other soldier around me, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever, had left them or they suspected them cheating on them.”
It was hard. “You’ve left your life and you’re wanting to maintain some kind of connection with that, but everything you left behind is continuing on even though your life is kind of suspended while you’re there.”
As he left Iraq, he crossed paths with a contractor who bragged about what he was going to buy with the money he was going to make in Iraq.
“I was just like, well, `You know, everybody’s got their reasons, but I’ve got to ask you this: You lose both your legs, is that $160,000 going to be worth it?'” he says.
By that point, Nesmith says he knew what he wanted, what was important. He wanted to backpack through Australia, visit Montana, and go to photography school.
He did all three.
He had taken pictures in Iraq. Now he took some of those shots and manipulated them to look like they were taken in the Civil War era. They were shown at Washington, D.C.’s Irvine Contemporary Gallery in Washington, D.C., and priced at $1,500 each.
One photo depicts a single soldier standing alone in the desert. It reminds him of his own plight. “I knew I was on my journey back and when I got there I was going to be alone,” Nesmith says. “No one was going to understand what that year was like.”
Another photo, his favorite, is of an Iraqi flag flying outside a government utility office. Some Iraqis had just put it up. It was a time of optimism.
But now, he says, “it just seems like a more naive time, when you thought there was so much more that could possibly happen.”
Before Travis Youngblood left for Iraq, he and his wife watched a TV interview with a pregnant woman whose husband had died in Iraq. Laura Youngblood cried.
“I felt so sorry for her,” Youngblood says.
But then, “When my husband died, my first words were, ‘I became her.'”
Today in nearly every room of her Florida house, there’s a photo of her husband.
“It is hard. I feel bad for my son because he’s 7. He doesn’t know how to ride a two-wheel bike. His daddy was going to teach him,” she says. “I can’t do all the boy things that he wants to do.”
She put together videos so her daughter will know the father she never met.
“I’m a survivor of the war. I’m a surviving spouse,” Youngblood says. “That’s the best way I can say it because every day you’re surviving.”