Last summer, St. Petersburg Times reporter Jan Wesner bought two new chairs for her back porch: one for herself and one for her husband Mark, who wasn't there to enjoy it. • Mark, an Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel, was in Iraq, doing what he thought would be a 15-month tour as an adviser to the Iraqi military. He spent nearly every day "outside the wire" — working and living among Iraqi soldiers and risking his life to do it. • Jan — left alone to care for son Jace, 6, and daughter Rian, 3 — shared her experiences in Standing By, her blog on tampabay.com. She typed out many diary entries late at night, with Mark's empty chair next to her. • Jan and Mark, both 40, are used to being apart. But this was the longest, most frightening separation they had ever experienced. Here is the story of their year, told in edited excerpts from Jan's blog. • Mike Wilson, assistant managing editor/Newsfeatures
February 16, 2007
Mark left yesterday on the first leg of his journey to Iraq.
He should be out of the country by tomorrow morning.
I'm so relieved.
For weeks — no, months — I dreaded yesterday. I worried it would be horrible, that the kids would be a mess and that I would be a mess and Mark would be a mess and that we would say something wrong or not say what we wanted to say or not give each other the perfect kiss or the perfect look or the perfect goodbye.
We drove to the airport almost in silence, me babbling about the best way to avoid the rush hour traffic on the way home.
We were reminded yet again of the Band-Aid analogy I have used in the blog before — the longer it takes to pull it off, the more it hurts.
We wandered around the airport for half an hour. We looked at the artwork on display. We bought the kids candy. We asked someone to take our picture.
Finally, Mark and I stood facing each other, in a sea of businessmen and tourists and snowbirds.
There were no waving flags, no marching bands and no generals giving speeches. No one to shake his hand or wish him good luck or promise us he'd be safe. Just he and I, clutching each other, wiping away the tears.
The last thing he said to me was: "Band-Aids suck."
March 7, 2007
The blue folder sits in a fireproof box in the bottom of my closet, along with our birth certificates and marriage license and social security cards.
Among the papers
in the folder is this: "Burial Arrangements Worksheet."
An Army document.
One part is called "Disposition of Remains Basic Options." Mark has circled Option 3, which states that the Army transports the "prepared, dressed, casketed remains" directly to Arlington.
There's more: Do you want a religious service or military memorial ceremony? What clothes do you want to be buried in? What music would you like played?
Near the bottom of page 4 is space for "Other Special Request." Written on that line is this:
"Have someone give my beret to my son. My wife gets the flag. Give my airborne wings to my daughter."
March 15, 2007
The kids and I were having another discussion last night about how Daddy is catching the bad guys in Iraq.
I asked if they understood.
My daughter Rian, who is almost 3, said without hesitation:
"The good guys are
good and the bad guys are bad."
If only it were so simple.
March 18, 2007
My life since Mark left for Iraq has been a cocktail of emotions: Sadness, anger, excitement, fear.
But yesterday I experienced a new one.
Mark called as I was planning an impromptu St. Patrick's Day party. I was on my way out the door to Sam's to stock up on chips and crackers and cheese and beer. I was breathless from cleaning up the house and talking fast about our plans and rounding up the kids.
He said the only way he knew yesterday was different from the day before was that there was green corn bread in the chow hall.
April 1, 2007
I'm worried the kids are going to start to feel disconnected from Mark.
I know I don't talk about him enough. But there are some days when I just don't want to. There are some days — many days — when talking about Mark and Iraq and how long he'll be gone is painful. Physically painful. It hurts in my head and my bones and my heart.
And it hurts me that it hurts.
May 7, 2007
Mark called yesterday morning to tell Rian happy birthday. She's 3.
He had almost forgotten it was her birthday, until he saw a small Iraqi girl waving at him and his guys from the side of the road as they drove past in their humvees. The girl looked to be about Rian's age.
"Oh my god, I hope I don't get smoked on my daughter's birthday."
I told him: "That's OK. I already decided that if anyone in uniform knocks on the door today I'm going to tell them to come back tomorrow."
June 5, 2007
I saw Mark in a dream so vivid that I had to convince myself it didn't really happen.
I saw him walk over to the bed and lean over to get closer to me. I saw him — felt him — gently touch my back. I saw him cup his hand around my ear and then whisper quietly into it, like he didn't want to wake me. Then I saw him turn and slip out of the room, into the darkness. And the thing about it was, I have no idea what he said.
July 2, 2007
Mark and I talk on the phone once a week or so. He e-mails me nearly every day. Often it's just a short "Am good, love you." Other times he tells me to give the kids hugs, or he wants to know if the latest household disaster is resolved (malfunctioning garage door, yes; leaky shower, no).
But my favorite e-mails from him are the ones where he talks about work, his feelings and life in general, just as he would if he were right here next to me.
• About the blog:
"Read your blog and it hurts a bit, but I really, really want and need to know that stuff."
• On spending huge chunks of his day riding in a humvee: "I will just say that humvees are pieces of s---. ... I am firmly convinced that if we had bought ours in Florida we could return it to the dealer under the lemon law."
• On being away: "Of course I miss the big things, but the small things hurt the most because that means that I am not participating in your lives."
• On what foods he misses: "I have been craving saltine crackers to eat with chili and tabasco. I can get chili and tabasco here, not a f---ing saltine in sight!"
God, I miss that man.
July 9, 2007
I often feel like I live my life in two different worlds. There is the me I present to the outside, the one where I say everything is fine, the kids and I are getting along great, things couldn't be better.
Then there is the me that can sleep only when sheer exhaustion takes over. The me that rarely eats, that most days accomplishes only the most basic tasks.
These are the times when it seems like this day and this week and this war will never end.
These are the times when I drink too many beers and smoke too many cigarettes.
These are the times when this deployment consumes me and I feel like I have nothing left to give.
July 23, 2007
Friday night as I checked to make sure my front door was locked, I looked outside and saw a car I'd never seen before. It was parked in front of my house with its headlights on.
I could barely make out the silhouette of the person in the driver's seat. He appeared to look at something on a clipboard, then flip through a stack of papers.
He's making sure he's at the right address, I thought. He wants to confirm that he has Mark's correct name and rank. He's wondering if he should get a neighbor to come to my door with him.
He sat out there for 20 minutes. I crouched in the corner of my dining room window, watching.
At one point I went to check on the kids and swore I heard a noise right outside the door.
As I stood still in the hallway, waiting for the knock, the car drove away. I went to bed but it was a
long time before I slept.
August 17, 2007
As of today, Mark has been in the war zone for six months.
I've been thinking about this day for weeks, about how I would feel and what I would write here.
But I don't feel much different than on any other day. It's just another Friday gone by, another day at work and taking care of the kids and feeding the cats.
Another day where Mark slips further and further out of our lives.
September 5, 2007
I tell you everything, and I'm not going to stop now.
OK, here goes . . .
I wrote about this way back in January ("Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder"), but I hadn't thought about it much again until very recently.
Now, all of a sudden, it's everywhere.
I've become obsessed with reruns of Sex and the City. Brad Pitt stares back at me from a dozen magazine covers. I can't keep my eyes off the twentysomethings playing volleyball at the beach.
Oh, and the guy who works at the bagel shop near my daughter's school? I've suddenly decided he's hot.
I think you know what I'm saying here, people.
It has been 202 days.
September 19, 2007
We recently found out that Mark's 15-month tour has been shortened to a year. My first reaction was, of course, immense relief.
But as the days went on I started to think:
I'm not ready for this.
There's this teeny, tiny little part of me that's disappointed he won't have to stay in Iraq for an extra three months.
These days I do what I want, when I want, how I want. I hang out with my girlfriends and feed my kids Spaghetti-O's right out of the can. The house is a mess, I rarely put laundry away and I hardly ever go grocery shopping.
That'll all change when he comes back. I will be married again. Marriage takes work. Work I haven't done for 12 months. Work I'm not necessarily looking forward to.
October 31, 2007
When Mark left, I was filled with dark thoughts. I wondered whether he would survive and on some days I even wondered if our marriage would survive.
Then came the days when I wanted to forget all about him. I wanted to forget that we were married, forget about this deployment and all the ways it has affected our life.
For several months, I rarely talked about him to my friends or mentioned him to the kids. I didn't send him letters or care packages, and I stopped telling him I missed him.
I didn't realize it then, but I think I was experiencing something psychologists call "anticipatory grief," a way for the mind to prepare itself in case he didn't come back.
If I pretended not to care, it wouldn't hurt so much if something happened to him.
But now that he'll be home on leave in a few weeks, I'm letting myself remember how much I love and miss him.
I'm opening myself up to the idea of life with Mark again.
November 29, 2007
Scenes from yesterday, when Mark arrived home from Iraq for 15 days of leave:
8 a.m. — Mark calls to tell me he'll land at Tampa International Airport at 3 p.m.
10 a.m. — He calls back to say he's gotten an earlier flight and will be in at noon. It's about a 30-minute drive from my house to the airport. I haven't showered.
11 a.m. — Arrive at TIA. My #&%$ car will not go into park, which means I can't get the key out of the ignition. I put on the emergency brake, walk away and hope for the best.
11:15 a.m. — Get to the Delta check-in desk. I show them my military ID and say my husband is coming home, and they immediately give me a pass to get out to the gate. The process is amazingly simple, and everyone is very nice and helpful.
12:35 p.m. — The plane is here. We are standing in a way that Mark will see us immediately when he exits. The kids are holding their "Welcome Home Daddy" signs. Everyone is smiling at us. And then we see him. And he sees us. We run to where he will enter the waiting area. The kids slow down. They stop. They look at me. I go to Mark and put my arms around him. The kids walk over and do the same. They don't say anything. A couple of people walk up to Mark to thank him and tell him they appreciate what he's doing.
12:50 p.m. — At baggage claim, the kids are all over Mark. They want to tackle him and tickle him. They're talking so fast we can barely understand them.
4:30 p.m. — We're home and the kids are playing outside. Mark and I sit in the driveway and watch. A couple of neighbors come out with their kids, and everyone pulls up a chair. "Welcome to my life," I tell Mark.
9 p.m. — Mark and the kids are all sound asleep. And I think, I'll sleep pretty soundly tonight, too.
December 3, 2007
Yesterday afternoon, Mark fell asleep on the couch watching football, the kids played outside and I spent a couple of hours on my laptop.
We're acting like everything is normal.
But it's not.
There's a tension between Mark and me. I am in some ways holding back my emotions, not wanting to get too close to him because he's only going to leave again, not wanting to upset him because he's here for only two weeks and this is his first time off in 10 months.
And I feel guilty. I so badly wanted everything to be perfect and special for him when he came home, but I haven't done anything to make it that way.
I think he's OK and we're OK, but I don't know for sure.
I don't know what he wants or needs or feels. The only thing I do know is that it's going to be a long time before things really are normal again.
December 18, 2007
Mark went back to Iraq last week. Before he left, we talked about his leave and whether it had been worth it for him to come home so close to the end of the deployment.
I was undecided on this — and still am. In many ways, it would have been easier for me to just push through to the end without having to go through another goodbye.
But, as Mark kindly reminded me, it's not always about me. Leave was about him and the kids and giving us a chance to start to reconnect as a family.
To that end, it was a success. The kids of course loved having Daddy home and made some great memories.
And for our part — mine and Mark's — we decided we were relieved to realize that, yes, we do still like each other.
December 28, 2007
Mark was just here on leave a couple of weeks ago, and very soon this deployment will end.
He'll be home.
You'd think I'd be calm, happy, relaxed.
But instead I am at perhaps one of my lowest points of the entire year. I can't sleep or eat. I'm back to smoking and drinking too much. I feel helpless and lonely and sad and scared.
I'm terrified that if I let my guard down, something horrible will happen to Mark.
January 12, 2008
The deployment's over. He's been back, safe and sound in our house, for 12 hours.
I thought I understood the emotional and physical toll the past 14 months took on Mark and me and the kids. I've written about it so many times.
But only now am I beginning to truly realize how deeply affected we were, how so many times we were drained of every ounce of energy, and how much distance grew between us.
One minute I feel this discomfort around Mark, like there are things I don't know about him anymore.
And the next I feel just like I've always felt with him — like he's my best friend and my soulmate and nothing could ever come between us.
March 18, 2008
Mark's been home just over two months now.
We are, slowly, merging our lives back together. He's back at work at MacDill Air Force Base and we're getting into a routine of being a family again. Experts say it takes a year for families to return to "normal" after a long deployment.
We've both compromised to make it work — I sit out on the back porch a little less often than I used to, and he sometimes joins me. He encourages me to spend time with the friends I grew close to while he was gone, and I try to be patient when he wants to just sit on the couch and watch TV.
Yet my nerves are still raw much of the time. I think a lot about the soldiers who didn't make it home and wonder why we got so lucky.
I think about whether he will go back to Iraq and the ways this deployment affected him.
At the same time, I'm afraid that at some point I'm just going to blurt out to Mark that I liked my life better when he was gone, that I liked not having to share the kids or the bed or the bathroom or my time.
That's not really true, but there are moments when I think that way.
I told someone the other day that
the emotional roller coaster doesn't stop once a deployment is over, it just slows down.
And then I thought: Isn't a good ride what life is all about?
Jan Wesner can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.