January 29, 2016
Ten years have passed since the boots in this photograph made their way back to me from the military ER in Iraq. They were stuffed in a clear plastic bag, along with your dented helmet, watch and wallet, caked with dried blood.
At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to look at them. They were a cruel reminder of how our lives had changed, in an instant, with one roadside bomb.
During the past decade, these boots have been largely forgotten. Once or twice, I’ve almost thrown them out, eager to put the early days of your coma and grueling recovery behind us. Rediscovering the bag, while sorting the garage this fall, it suddenly struck me that the tenth anniversary of your Alive Day loomed. It’s the day you should have died, but instead came back to us.
My breath caught in my throat as I lifted the boots out to examine for the first time. They were still covered with Iraqi sand. There is a smudge of your blood on the right toe. I tried not to envision the moment when they frantically cut the laces in the process of saving your life. You were a journalist covering the war, not a soldier. Yet they treated you like one of their own. Those military medics, nurses and doctors are my heroes. Always will be.
This photograph of your boots is my gift to you today, January 29th. Happy Alive Day. With the passage of time, this image is now powerful in a terrible and beautiful way. It reminds me that a decade later, like so many military families in this country, we are all still standing.
We have survived … and then some.
As your wife, I am immensely proud of how you’ve taken our family’s tragedy and turned your journalist’s lens on the veterans’ stories. But you went beyond that. You used your experience to start a foundation to help injured service members and their families who were not getting the care and assistance they deserve from our country.
“A hand up,” you always say, “not a hand out.”
It’s been a brittle week. I’ve broken into tears more times than I can count. I snapped back at a grumpy lady on the YMCA treadmill (yes, me!). I am frayed and fragile, convinced that the body remembers trauma. It holds on to anniversaries with a cellular memory.
There is rarely a day that I don’t think about what happened. I imagine most military families and trauma survivors would say the same. They, too, might sacrifice a limb to take it all back, to erase the bad thing for the one they love.
Watching the way you have driven your recovery, your lack of self-pity and the absence of a “why me?” is humbling. There are times I have made you painfully aware that, once again, I have pushed aside my own writing projects to tackle something for the foundation. I’m sorry for those moments I’ve made you feel guilty about how your injury affected my life. All of our lives. I want you to know that aside from raising our four children, our advocacy work in the veteran arena will be the most important thing I will ever accomplish.
And I hope you know how proud our children are of you. They may giggle when you stumble over a word or tease you when don’t hear the joke (you always had selective hearing, by the way) but they are filled with admiration. Even if you don’t always see it.
Do things always happen for a reason? People use that phrase all the time, but I don’t believe so. No good father and husband, no son or daughter deserves this. Ever. It was an act of war. And it makes me in awe of those who raise their hands to go into areas of conflict when their country asks.
None of us can prevent the bad things from happening. That’s simply part of the rhythm of life. But the key is in how we respond … whether you choose to get bitter or get better. And it is a choice. So I want to thank you, ten years out from the worst day of our lives, for taking something awful and building something to do good.
Thank you for teaching this Type-A, multi-tasking wife patience, for reminding us of the gift of being present and the importance of telling everyone you love that you love them when you walk out the door. Because you never know.
There is so much more work to be done on behalf of our nation’s veterans. So let’s lace up those boots and get back to it.
And when you come home from reporting in Asia next week, this picture will be waiting for you, framed and ready to be hung. Let’s choose a spot where it can remind us how lucky we are, not only to have survived the dings and dents so far, but to have found one another.
I love you.