Hi everyone. Today is one of those days where my post is going to be a bit more personal than normal. Three years ago today, on June 25, 2011, my husband and love of my life, Dimitri, was killed in combat in Afghanistan. I can’t stop that day from playing over and over again in my head, so I figured if I finally put it to words I may be able to free the memories from my head. So if you bear with me, here is a what June 24-26, 2011 was like for me.
June 24th: I knew the mission was going to be bad. It was a brigade-level mission, with all battlions involved somehow. My battalion leadership had a battle update brief in the late morning/early afternoon of the 24th, and Operation Hammer Down was the main topic of discussion. I knew that Dimitri’s unit was going to be the main effort, and hearing all the details about what was supposed to happen made me sick to my stomach, and I had to leave the meeting because I started crying. A major in my unit came into my office afterwards and told me that I needed to make myself more calloused, because this was war and I can’t act like that, and that I need to disassociate my personal life from the mission. Easy for him to say because his spouse was not about to be dropped off in a hornet’s nest of insurgents in the mountains of Afghanistan.
A little while later I finally got to talk to Dimitri. He was extremely busy with the last minute planning and coordination for the mission. We got to talk for just a few minutes before another major came into my office, who absolutely had to have is ORB (officer record brief) updated right then and there. I remember being so angry that he thought his duty assignments on a piece of paper was more important than me saying goodbye to Dimitri. I got off the phone and helped him, and prayed that I would be able to talk to Dimitri again to say a proper “see you later” (we hated saying “goodbye”). He called me a little while later and we got to talk for a few more minutes, but then a Soldier came and got him because the Afghan forces that were supposed to go on the mission with his platoon showed up at a different entrance of the FOB and everything got confused. He had to hang up quickly to take care of the link up, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to speak to him again. Luckily he called back that night right before they left on the mission. I remember wanting to stay on the phone with him forever. I knew that if we hung up and if he left that something bad would happen. He reassured me that everything would be fine.
June 25th: I woke up with a pit in my stomach. My classmate, friend, and Afghanistan roommate Niki was starting her trip back to the US for her block leave, so I was alone in my room. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, or if I even ate breakfast, because I likely wasn’t hungry because I was so anxious. My friend Theresa and I (she was also in Afghanistan at the time) emailed back a forth a little bit. She went through some really terrible things while she was there, and she understood why I was so anxious. I turned in my SIPR (secret) computer that day because I needed work done on that one and well as my NIPR (normal) computer, but figured I would turn the SIPR one in so that in case there were casualty reports I wouldn’t see them. I kept going downstairs to the S-3 TOC (tactical operations center) where I could track what was going on. It all seemed surreal. I kept going down there to try to find out what was going on, but eventually to told me I couldn’t come downstairs anymore because I was going to make myself crazy. As the day progressed I found out that Dimitri’s company had sustained casualties. I knew that some had been injured and one had been killed. The likelyhood of it being Dimitri was so small though, that I tried to comfort myself using probability and statistics. I wrote my dad an email saying that I knew something bad was going on. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t focus on anything. As the evening progressed I went over to the brigade headquarters (there was an actual bathroom in the building, and it was much closer than the bathroom trailers we were supposed to use). As I entered the building I saw the brigade S-1 (personnel officer) talking to my battalion commander. They looked at me with this pity in their eyes that I will never forget. Normally they would joke around with me whenever I saw them, but they didn’t this time. I thought that was odd, but continued on towards the bathroom and then went back to my office. I had no interest in eating dinner, but a captain I worked with made me leave the office and go to the dining facility with her. I had no appetite at all, but I hadn’t really eaten all day so I toasted a bagel and was half-heartedly nibbling on it when my battalion command sergeant major showed up. He told me that the battalion commander found something wrong with out personnel accountability numbers (one of my many jobs as a personnel officer for a battalion), and that he needed to talk to me immediately. I went with him and as soon as I rounded the corner into the battalion commander’s office I knew what had happened. He was standing with the brigade command and the chaplain. The brigade commander told me what happened, and my brain could not process what he was saying to me. I remember sliding down the wall to the floor in disbelief. I always thought that Dimitri was strong enough to fight through anything, but he wasn’t. He really was just a man, despite my thinking that he was invincible. The next few hours were a blur. I called my mom, who was in England, and told her what had happened. She had been visiting my dad at Oxford, but had gone a trip to the coast by herself. They immediately started coordination to come back to the States. I remember going back to my room to try to pack some things up. My friend Tracy helped take care of me, and all my Soldiers did what they could to help me. It’s all a blur. I remember looking at myself in the bathroom after crying for hours, and I hardly recognized myself.
June 26th: After staying up almost all night I was finally able to get out on a C-130 plane to Bagram. My friend Tracy flew with me, and once we got there we met up with Niki. My unit leadership had gotten the word to her of what happened. She became my escort for the rest of the trip, and got me to the next stop, which was Kuwait. She took care of coordinating everything, while I was a bit of a zombie trying to think clearly and try to figure out what was going on. We finally left Kuwait and made it to Germany, where I was able to sleep for a few hours on a bed in some room at the airport. We were put in first class on the way back to the States, and somehow the flight attendants knew what happened. One even wrote me a kind note and handed it to me, saying that she was praying for me. I cried off and on, and slept off and on. We landed in Atlanta and I was finally reunited with my brother, who was there with my aunt and cousin to pick me up. If any of you have ever visited Atlanta by plane, I’m sure you remember the long escalator that you have to ride, that has the giant picture overhead of the children playing in the water at Centennial Olympic Park. I’ve gone up that escalator so many times, but now the only one I think about when I fly home is what it was like to arrive home from Afghanistan. The USO was there, and there were little girls handing out boxes of Girl Scout cookies to Soldiers arriving home. I was still in my uniform and there were all these people trying to celebrate with me because of my arrival home safely. They had no clue that the reason I was crying was because I was home 9 months too early because my husband had just been killed the day prior. I wanted to push them out of the way and scream “No! I don’t want your Girl Scout cookies! I am not happy to be home! I wish I was still in Afghanistan because that would mean that Dimitri was still alive!”
We stopped at Chick-fil-a on the way to my grandparents’ house. I was finally hungry and wanted some Southern food. My parents arrived back from England a few hours later. And the memorial service and funeral planning began shortly after. I remember being asked what sort of casket I wanted for Dimitri. The wooden one or a flashy sleek gray one? How the hell does one make the decision for the “right” casket for their husband? I chose the sleek one because I figured Dimitri would think it was cooler. We had never discussed death before, so I had no clue of what he wanted or where he wanted to be buried.
Nothing will ever prepare you for losing a loved one. I can’t believe that it’s been three years since it happened. I don’t know how I’ve survived three whole years without him physically here. I’m so thankful to the family, friends and strangers who have helped me along the way. Your love, prayers, gifts, dedicated workouts and everything else has truly helped me get to where I am today. Three years removed, I’m starting to feel like my entire life with him was just a dream. I can still remember his kiss, remember his hands, remember his scars, but the memories are getting hazy. It scares me that I don’t cry every day anymore. This year I’m going to try and allow myself to be happy and celebrate the 5 amazing years I was blessed to spend with this amazing, funny, loving, driven, courageous, selfless man. He’s given me the courage to run marathons, decide to leave a well paying job in order to pursue something I truly love, and choose happiness when I can. I miss you so much Dimitri, and I pray you’re smiling down on me from heaven, happy that I have continued to live my life to the fullest. Life is too short not to. I’ll see you again soon, my love.