There were two dirty socks strapped to Chris Whitman's pack in the picture sent round the world last week. They hung from the Clearwater native's dirt-dabbed bag, tethered at the heel, near where his name was scrawled in permanent marker. The soles were stained and damp. Whitman, the photographer wrote, was drying them in the Afghanistan sunshine. From 7,000 miles away, Jessica Whitman, 29, looked at the picture on her computer screen. To anyone else, they may have looked like just another Marine's grubby gear. But not to her. These were her husband's socks. "Aww," she said, taking a break from painting in her home near Camp Lejeune, N.C. "Those are the socks I got him for Christmas."
The Whitmans last saw each other in January, when the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment staff sergeant left home for the Taliban stronghold of Marja. She snapped pictures of him in his uniform with his 15-month-old daughter before he walked away.
This would be the 28-year-old's fourth deployment into a war zone — his last, into Iraq's Anbar province, ended in 2005 — and by now she had learned the best ways to stay sane.
"I can't just stay in bed all day and cry and miss him," she said. "I have to get up. I have to be mommy. I have to be happy."
So she paints the rooms of their new home. And she writes to him in a daily journal, which she'll send after filling the last page. And she filters out most of the day-to-day news from one of the war's largest offensives.
His family in Clearwater — mother, Lauren, 46, a costumer, father, Phil, 44, a St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue lieutenant, and four siblings, ages 11 through 17 — couldn't be more different. They have become superb researchers attuned to the Middle East, Lauren Whitman said, going so far as to learn the names of photographers, where they're embedded and whether the camouflaged troops in their pictures could include their man.
"We don't know for sure until he comes home," Whitman said. "But sometimes, we see him and say, 'Aw, that's Chris. There's only one jaw like that in the Marine Corps.' "
Wednesday morning's picture proved a nice surprise for all of them. Her son, and Jessica Whitman's husband, was fine.
His socks looked okay, too.
In December, around the time President Barack Obama spoke of the surge to West Point cadets and Whitman learned of his orders, Jessica Whitman began her Christmas shopping.
Her husband isn't easy to buy for. He loves woodwork, crafting shelves, benches and birdhouses, but is always imagining what the next big tool could do. But she doesn't know hardware. Her experience with the craft, she said, ends at the varnishing brush.
So she bought him some gear. And some movies, though she knew he had little time to watch them. And the socks, which some might call, as gifts go, a dud.
Not to a Marine. The thick, contoured socks, in the color of desert sand, are great for daylong patrols across Afghanistan's dirt roads. As opposed to the Marines' standard issue, in olive or coyote brown cotton, they won't give blisters or "get all nubby" in the wash.
On Wednesday afternoon, until Whitman saw the photograph, she wasn't sure how they'd held up. Communications to overseas, she said, seemed to dwindle as the fighting intensified.
Then the photo showed up. Another followed. Whitman is seen kicking in the door of a Marja compound, back foot digging into the dirt and his rifle at the ready.
And strapped to his pack, dangling in the sunlight, are his socks.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.