Grieving a loss, celebrating a birth and returning to duty

When she saw the police at her door she knew he was gone. As the Chesapeake, Va., police ticked off the details of the motorcycle wreck that took her fiance's life, Rachael Leite wept and clutched her swollen belly.

Jessica was due in exactly a month.

The baby is now a warm, sleepy 9-pound bundle trying to learn to use her neck.

Leite is a 21-year-old insomniac who spends her nights crying and worrying.

How will she raise this baby by herself? she wonders.

And how will she avoid deployment?

The Naval Reserve enticed her two years ago with promises of a $40,000 sign-on bonus, free school and travel.

Leite had just graduated from Wesley Chapel High School, lived at home and was trying to juggle community college courses and part-time work.

She watched the Iraq war unfold from behind the counter at Panera Bread and moonlighted as a ghoul in Busch Gardens' annual Howl-O-Scream spook fest.

A tall boy from Riverview with brown curly hair and hazel eyes worked as a ghost in her haunted house. Shawn Slone, then 19, stalked the guests fearlessly but clammed up around Leite.

She liked him.

"I kissed him one day and that was it," she said.

When Leite enlisted in April 2007, after a few months of deliberating, Slone had started saving up for a ring.

Leite didn't get the sign-on bonus, but she was pumped at the thought of boot camp, being part of the effort in Iraq and the benefits of military life.

Slone proposed in her father's den. They were surfing MySpace.com when he spun his computer chair towards her, showed her a diamond ring and asked if she wanted to get married.

"I just looked at him and said, 'This is supposed to be done on your knee in a restaurant, but yes,' " Leite said.

"He was the right person to hand her off to," said Gary Leite, 52, Rachael's dad. "It was kind of like he was one of my own."

The next week, she shipped off to Virginia to work at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth. Slone followed her a few weeks later. Soon after he moved in, they got a surprise.

The peanut in the ultrasound was named Jessica. In between his jobs at U-Haul and Sears, Slone got to work assembling a crib and a bassinet.

"Her room was together before I was even showing," Leite said. "He loved her before she was here."

Amazing what impending parenthood will do to two 20-year-olds.

They talked about life insurance policies, beneficiaries, wills and war.

"When I got pregnant, we knew the chances of me being deployed," Leite said. "It was inevitable."

As a medical assistant in the Reserve, Leite is trained to work on the front lines. Her unit was sent to Iraq once while she was pregnant, and she knew it was just a matter of time before they were deployed again.

But if anything happened to her in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever the Navy needed her, Slone was there to take care of Jessica.

"It wasn't something I worried about," Leite said. "I knew she'd be safe with him."

He bought the motorcycle in June, when gas hovered around $4 per gallon.

They were working three jobs between them in preparation for Jessica's arrival. Gas prices were eating up their baby money.

Compared to a car, the motorcycle sipped gas.

"Fourteen dollars a week sounded better than $43," Leite said.

Slone promised his fiance he would wear a helmet, boots, jeans and a protective jacket at all times. He had been riding since he was 16 and swore he would be safe.

At 4 p.m. July 15, Leite woke up out of the blue from an after-work nap.

Five minutes later, a 1997 Chrysler turned left into Slone's path as he drove home from work. Slone died instantly from the impact. The other driver was cited for reckless driving.

Leite came back to her father's home in Wesley Chapel on emergency leave, and then maternity leave. She asked the doctors to induce the baby early. Jessica was due Aug. 15.

"I didn't want our baby born on the one-month anniversary of his death," Leite said.

On Aug. 13, doctors laid the baby on her chest for the first time, and it all came out.

Joy. Grief. Fear.

"How am I going to do this by myself?" Leite asked herself through tears.

Jessica looks like Slone, more than anyone expected.

"I look at her and I see him," Leite said. "It helps and then it kills me."

The pregnancy was a surprise, but now she understands.

"Someone was giving me a little piece of him," she said. "I am sure down the road, I'll find out why he had to leave."

People tell her that babies perceive things, supernatural things. Sometimes Jessica looks into an empty corner and smiles. Sometimes her heinous crying fits just stop out of the blue.

Today, Leite's six-week maternity leave is up. She, her mom, Lisa, 44, who lives in Zephyrhills, her sister Morgan, 18, and Jessica return to Virginia.

For the next four months, she is scheduled to finish her active duty at the Naval Medical Center. In January, she enters the Naval Reserve for eight years.

"After she's a year old I could be deployed at any time" Leite said, cradling Jessica. "I don't want her losing both her parents."

Leite isn't even close to healing from her fiance's death.

"I'm still stuck on that day," she said. "I'm still waiting for him to come home."

When she gets to Virginia, Leite will apply for a hardship discharge from the Reserve. She has paperwork from doctors and therapists. Her dad is talking to Sen. Bill Nelson's office to see if they can help.

The Navy grants the hardship discharge, which is considered honorable, when a family crisis occurs that cannot be resolved in a reasonable amount of time, Mike McLellan, a Navy media manager, wrote in an e-mail.

He could not comment on Leite's situation.

About 130 have been granted each year since 2005. So far, 91 sailors have been awarded hardship discharges in 2008.

"If I don't get the discharge, I am just going to keep fighting it until I do," Leite said.

She could always go AWOL, she joked.

"That's not an option, Rachael," her dad said. He was serious.

Leite didn't say anything. She held a bottle of formula to Jessica's mouth and stared at her daughter.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

Grieving a loss, celebrating a birth and returning to duty 09/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 12:04pm]

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