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The Pain of Uncertain News from Iraq

Some veterans and troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families back home, are writing about their war experiences for a project called Operation Homecoming. The National Endowment for the Arts will publish some of the memoirs in a book.

During the next year, Morning Edition will broadcast a series of Operation Homecoming commentaries. In the first installment, Melissa Herman, the wife of an Army helicopter pilot, describes hearing bad news about Iraq. Below is her essay:

One Day in February

There were several mornings when I was yanked from a deep sleep by the ringing phone. Before I answered, I knew it would be a family member checking on Mark because of something in the news. As soon as I heard "Hello," I knew what was coming next. "A helicopter was shot down. Have you heard anything?" Because most of our friends and family live in different time zones, they would see the morning news before I could even get out of bed. Usually I could reassure them, even under the fog of sleep, based on what details they could tell me. One February morning, that was not the case.

Just a week or so shy of my husband coming home, I get an early morning wake-up call from my sister-in-law. She saw on the news that a helicopter went down. She thinks the news reported it was a transport helicopter so that puts my mind at some ease. My husband, Mark, flies a Kiowa, which is not used for transport. I tell her this and succeed in calming her nerves. It's still early so I go back to bed.

I just started to fall asleep again and my best friend in Texas calls. Her first words are, "Have you heard anything?" The worry in her voice makes me nervous because her husband also flies Kiowas in Iraq. I'm suddenly hit with a feeling of dread that leaves my body cold and my heart racing. She says it was a Kiowa that went down and what area they were patrolling. After scouring the Internet, those are the only details we can discover.

I never think about the dangers of his job until something like this happens. If I dwell on it, I can't be a functioning member of society. But, as soon as a helicopter is shot down or crashes, it brings the reality to the forefront of my mind. The voice of reality in my head that I can usually keep gagged, starts screaming. There's no respite from the anxiety until more details are released and I'm sure that he is safe.

So, I go to work worrying about my husband and our friends. I know that he flies in the same area where the accident occurred and he had a flight scheduled around the time of the crash. It is very possible that he was in the helicopter that went down. Of course, no specific information is out yet and all day long I am left to my own imagination. This is very dangerous for me because I'm very good at playing "worst-case scenario!"

I think to myself, "I would know if he were gone wouldn't I? I would feel it." But then I wonder if that's even possible. Is it just some silly little girl's fantasy of how she and her lover are connected? Sure, people in the movies have these "feelings" all the time, but can I trust that? Will I really feel it if something happens to him? I doubt it, but it gives me a little comfort to tell myself that it's true. The cold reality is I will find out when men in uniform knock on my door.

While telling myself that I would know if something happened to him, I also seek reassurance from my co-workers. Starting as a statement, "I would have heard by now." It quickly becomes a question, "Wouldn't I?" The best they can do is say, "I would think so" or "I'm sure you would have!" The reality is I have no basis for comparison. With something like this, I get one experience. The only way to know how long notification takes is to be the recipient. Hoping to remain ignorant about this process, I am left wondering all day.

There are several phone calls to my "news sources" throughout the day to see if there have been any updates on the incident. All I want is a unit name or a troop. On a break, I call my girlfriend in Texas. Her husband has called her several times from Iraq to check on us. His worry makes me wonder if he knows something. Making one call a day from Iraq is difficult; he calls her four or five times this day checking for news.

When you really need to know something is when there is no information available. At least that's what it feels like. The media has few details and, unfortunately, what they do report only leaves room for speculation. I wonder if they realize the impact of their reporting. I imagine hundreds of wives pacing the floor as soon as they hear that a Kiowa has gone down. "What unit are they in? Where are they? Who is it?" These questions race through my mind as I'm sure they do other Kiowa spouses. If they only knew how many minds they could put at ease by just having one more detail to report.

I get home from work and the first thing I do is check my e-mail. There's a message from the commander's wife saying that no one in our troop was involved in the accident. Relief sweeps through me and I realize how exhausted I am from worry. I call my family to reassure them and then call my girlfriend to pass on what I know. I tell her the aircraft is not from our squadron. However, I miss one important aspect of my e-mail and she points this out to me. It specifies a troop, not the unit. She said the helicopter is from a different troop in our squadron. Our aviation family lost two men today.

Now that I know my guy is safe, I feel an overwhelming sense of relief. The relief soon turns into guilt though. I feel bad for being so happy that it wasn't my husband when I know that two families are out there hurting. It could easily have been me.

I try to imagine what they must have been going through. How does a family deal with this sudden loss after such a long separation? It might sound morbid, but I begin to examine the mortality of my own marriage. I think of how I would react to the news that my husband was killed. I am so successful at this that I can feel a little of the pain and shock that accompanies the news. It's easy to deny the reality and convince myself that it's not real. The thousands of miles that lay between us give me just enough distance to doubt what I'm hearing. I can say, "It's a mistake" or "They've got the wrong person." I cannot envision a life without my husband. It is impossible.

Then I imagine my reaction when the news comes and there is no denying it. Recalling every war movie I've seen provides me with graphic detail of the mangled aircraft. It makes my heart ache. Though it's not real, I can feel the devastation and hurt of knowing that I am alone. I feel trapped in a tornado: screaming, crying, angry, then numb.

Fortunately, this is all in my mind and I can come back to reality knowing that everything is OK. But, I hurt for the families who lost their husband/father/son/brother because their pain is real and they cannot escape the reality of what happened.

The remainder of my night is consumed with thoughts of my husband. I want to talk to him and make sure he is OK. I am concerned about the impact this has had on him because the incident hit very close to home. He often describes himself as invincible and I worry about how he might deal with the sudden realization that he is not.

It is frustrating to sit and wait to hear from him. I have no idea when that will even be because communication is shut down after an incident. So, I continue to wait. I do not hear from him this day. In fact, it is several days before he is able to call. I do not truly feel at ease until I hear his voice on the other line say, "Hey, baby."

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