I have never been to war. I don’t know what it is like to leave behind the ones I love most and fight in a foreign country against an enemy embedded in the local culture. I don’t know what it is like to ride in a Humvee while taking enemy fire and scanning the road for IEDs. I don’t know what is like to be at a mountain outpost with limited supplies and incoming RPGs. And I don’t know what it is like to fly in a helicopter along the Hindu Kush and peering at the valley below.
But I do know what it is like to cry into the shoulder of a departing soldier – unsure of what the deployment may bring. I know what is like to go months without hearing his voice – our only contact being letters stained with Afghanistan dirt. I know what it is like to get a phone call notifying me of deaths in the unit. And I know what it like to attend a Memorial Service for the fallen. I don’t know war from the soldier’s perspective but I do know war from the homefront.
During our time at Fort Drum, New York, Clay was assigned to 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment. The unit was our family for a over three years and we still regularly keep in contact with many people associated with 3-71 CAV, past and present. I have discussed on this blog about Clay’s deployments to Afghanistan. His first one was particularly difficult – filled with casualties, hardship, and 16-months of (pretty much) hell. The focus was on Iraq and the war was taking a turn for the worse in Afghanistan, without much notice from the media. In fact, I often heard, “at least he isn’t in Iraq” when people would find out Clay was in Afghanistan. I admit that during his first couple of months in country, there was a false sense of security. After all, it wasn’t Iraq…right?
Everything changed on May 5, 2006.
Everything changed that day. That is when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed in the Kunar Province. Ten soldiers were killed, including four members of the 3-71 Cav. On board was 3-71 Cav.’s Battalion Commander, LTC Joseph Fenty, SPC. Justin O’Donohoe, SPC David Timmons, and PFC Brian Moquin. You can read more about the crash at The New York Times.
I turned on the news around 9am on Saturday morning (May 6, 2006) while holding a cup of coffee – my typical weekend routine. CNN reported that there had been a helicopter crash in the Kunar province and referenced the location on a map. My stomach immediately sank, because I knew that was the area where Clay and other members of the unit were located. And it wasn’t unusual for Clay to be in a Chinook on any given day. Lost and unable to make sense of what I was feeling, I posted a question on an online military support forum I belonged to about how the FRG (Family Readiness Group) notifies spouses and families about an incident involving the unit. I think I just knew. I knew that our unit was involved in some shape or form. I called both my parents and Clay’s parents to tell them about my concern.
Confirmation of my suspicion came around 10am that morning. I answered the phone – shaking because I was afraid of what I was going to hear. [Please note – what happened next is NOT military protocol. Because of the nature of the crash and the fact that the Battalion Commander was killed, the script and call chain got off track]. I immediately recognized the voice of the key caller for our company and asked her if it was our unit. I am paraphrasing the response – I was told that there was an incident involving our unit, bodies were still being identified, and the Casualty Notification Officers would be making the rounds once identification was confirmed.
I remember very little about the rest of the day. I watched the news. Foolishly hoping to catch a glimpse of Clay, if anything, to prove he was alive. I prayed. I cried. I listened for the slam of a car door. For the knock on the door. I had no idea if my husband was dead or alive. I kept in contact with friends whose husbands were in the same unit but a different company – they didn’t receive the same phone call I did. I answered calls from Clay’s parents and his sisters. My parents kept calling to check in on me and checked airline tickets in case they had to fly up because, well – you know.
The day went on and I didn’t hear from Clay, the FRG, or worse. I’m not sure how I fell asleep on Saturday night but I did. I woke up Sunday morning and got ready for church because I didn’t want to be at home any more, jumping at the sound of footprints. The phone rang around 9am, just as I was putting my earrings on. I was told that all the bodies were identified and the next of kin had been notified. I was also told that a briefing about the incident would be at 12pm on post.
This meant Clay was alive. Nobody ever came to the door. He wasn’t onboard. I can’t recall a time that I ever cried harder than I did that morning. I made phone calls. And then I went to church. I thought about the families that did hear the car door, the footsteps, the knock. At this point, I still had no idea who was onboard the helicopter or whether other units were involved.
I went to the Rear-D briefing later that day at the post chapel. The atmosphere was heavy. The Rear-D commander had tears in his eyes when he stepped up to the podium. We immediately fell silent – desperately wanting any shred of information about our husbands. He read from a piece of paper. His voice cracked as he began saying the names of the fallen – the men that were alive a mere 48 hours earlier. And then emotion overcame his voice as he read the last name – Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Fenty. Disbelief spread like wildfire in the chapel…the commander was killed in action?
He was the man that stood up front during the Pre-Deployment Brief and explained the mission. He told us he was going to do everything in his power to ensure that our soldiers came home. He was the man whose wife just gave birth to their daughter the month before. He was the man to whom Clay looked up and proudly served under. And he was the man who was killed in action on May 5, 2006, along with nine other soldiers.
My cell phone rang Monday morning on my way to work. Unknown popped up on the screen, meaning there was a 98% chance it was Clay. I can’t remember the last time I heard his voice prior to the phone call and it was the first contact since the crash – the communication blackout had been lifted. I wish I could recall more about that conversation but I can’t. Just glimpses of I love yous and periods of silence, for we didn’t know what to say. I told him I thought he was dead. He didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know how to respond. I blinked back tears. The phone call lasted less than 10 minutes and then he had to go. I wouldn’t hear from him again until the next wave of KIAs in the unit a little over a month later.
I will never forget that feeling.
There were more deaths in the unit during the deployment. More notification phone calls. More memorial services. But just like many other firsts, I will never forget my first notification phone call. And I will never, ever forget how I felt that day, waiting for word whether Clay was dead or alive.
Furthermore and more importantly, I will never, ever forget the brave men of 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment who lost there lives during that treacherous 16-month deployment – LTC Joseph Fenty, SPC Justin O’Donohoe, SPC David Timmons, PFC Brian Moquin, SFC Jared Monti (Medal of Honor recipient), SSG Patrick Lybert, SPC Brian Bradbury, and 1LT Ben Keating. I am thinking of them and their families today. And I will continue to think of them for the rest of my life. I will never forget.
Clay and I talk often about that deployment. We talk about LTC Fenty and 1LT Keating a lot. We also talk about the others too. Talking helps. Our vasty different experiences during those 16 months have shaped who we are today and the couple we have become. Same with subsequent deployments. Our bond is unbreakable. Little insignificant quibbles mean nothing, especially when I think back to that day. Knowing that Clay is alive and well is enough to make me forget about a silly little sock on the floor or shaving cream on the counter. The military can be a dangerous game for marriages and many do not survive. But those that do are incredibly strong and woven with lessons that typically can’t be learned in regular life.
If you wish to learn more about the mission during that particular deployment, here are a couple of interesting articles featuring 3-71 Cavalry…
You can also read Jake Tapper’s book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.
May 5th will always be a day of remembrance for us and many others associated with 3-71 Cavalry. War is ugly. Let us never forget that.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae – 1915