Thanks to Rich Watson for this post in a continuing two-month series from APU creative writing students.
We are a military family. We have lived and suffered the long months apart due to long tours of duty in Iraq. In 2007 I was wounded in a blast that took my career from me, and left me a broken form of my former self. Traumatic brain injury, the most common injury our troops face in this war. The enemy likes to use improvised explosive devises to attack us from a distance so they may retreat with less risk to themselves. I have been in a vehicle struck eleven times by these violent explosions during my two tours. My career ended with that, and several other injuries throughout my service.
Many soldiers come home broken; war changes you even if you don’t seem to notice. It is the little things that make civilian life so much different. I still catch myself scanning the roadside for rubble, and thoughtlessly avoid a pothole. I am hyper vigilant. For me, the war is everywhere, even though it has been several years since I have actually been in the thick of a glorious firefight.
People often thank me for my service; it is hard to say anything in return. To be appreciated by a stranger is a feeling that is very difficult to describe. It hits me in the heart. I often think to myself that I am not the one who deserves the thanks. It would be my wife and kids who suffered more than I by far. My wounds were physical and mental, theirs knowing that our time together is limited
Following my return to the states my wife quit her job to take care of me full-time. She never questioned the decision. She took me to every appointment, cared for me through the worst of times. The angst of not being with my unit and the loss of peers and friends I had promised to bring home and failed was almost too much to bear.
Soon Christmas was upon us. With the loss of income due to Tonya not working, it was going to be hard. We didn’t have the income to meet the level of debt we were in at the time. We didn’t even have a tree, and with much discussion we planned to scrape together enough for each child to get one present. Things were tough, and with children ages 9 and 7, a tiny Christmas was killing me inside. I couldn’t provide for them what they truly deserved.
One day a large law firm in Seattle called the people at the hospital with the Wounded Warrior Project asking how they could help during these holidays. The representative told the caller about us: how bad things were and how we could barely meet bills, let alone groceries, and even gifts for the kids. We later received a call from the law firm representative, and they informed us that they would be taking care of Christmas for us. They asked for a list of all the things we wanted. We sent off a list with a few things the kids had asked for that we couldn’t manage to get for them. They called and told Tonya that the list was too small and they needed more. So she added a few extra toys and shoes for the kids. This time they called and asked about us. Tonya explained that we only hope for a few things for the kids we couldn’t provide. But after talking for a while she mentioned I really had wanted a stand mixer as I loved to cook, but she asked for nothing.
Finally they called and just asked about the kids their sizes and what they liked. She also called me and asked what Tonya wanted, as she refused to ask for anything for herself. I told them she wanted something to listen to music on. It was her way to unwind and we didn’t have a stereo besides in the car, and often my appointments and operations during my recovery were very long. About ten days before Christmas they called again and asked us to meet them for lunch. They took us out to a nice Italian place, and asked a lot of questions about us, back to the days of how we met, how we were able to stick together through so much hardship. I told them the story of how we had met and how I came to fall in love with her, all by phone and internet chatting during my first tour, and how I proposed the moment we met the first time in person. This brought the ladies to tears and they could see how much we loved each other, and how we complement each other so well.
After the meal we walked out the cars and they pulled up next to us with two vans and a sedan. They were all loaded with presents. Tonya burst into tears. We had a large SUV and it was loaded, packed every useable space, the cargo top carrier as well, packed to the point we had to tie it closed. Tears rolled down our faces, and I held my wife close as she sobbed.
This gesture and the sheer amount of generosity that these people had gone to was beyond what we could have ever dreamed. They hugged us and everyone was crying. Then the woman we had spoken to on the phone so many times handed Tonya an envelope. Inside were checks to cover a couple car payments, insurance, and enough gift cards to cover groceries for more than four months.
We had been given a tree by our friend and neighbor who had an extra. When we arrived home there were so many gifts that the tree kept getting lifted off its stand. There were literally hundreds of presents. Every time I looked at all that kindness I got very emotional.
Come Christmas morning, the kids went wild. Sure enough there was a stand mixer for me amongst the gifts. And a small package for Tonya. She carefully tore opened the wrapper to find a chrome plated IPOD with a screen to watch movies and enough memory to listen for days on end. She didn’t even try to hide the tears. She lifted it up to show me when she saw the engraving on the back: “For Tonya for everything you do.” She burst into tears. I couldn’t have said it any better myself. She is the glue that holds us together, unwavering, and dedicated with her whole heart. This was a Christmas we could have never dreamed about, spent together fully aware how fortunate I was to even be alive to watch these precious moments.
After retiring, I wanted badly to give back. We started a small volunteer nonprofit to raise money and items to help the wounded and their families get through the tough times. Last year we adopted two deserving families and rounded up some community support, and gave a similar experience to two families’ right here at JBER who were going through much of what we had gone through ourselves.
This year we wanted to do more. We have been working for months gaining interest and support from many sources and our goal is to take care of Christmas for at least 25 wounded soldiers and their families here at JBER. The project is called Christmas 4 heroes, and this is how we are paying forward the amazing gift we received and the kindness that was shown to us. Recovering from war is stressful process. The holidays don’t make these struggles any easier. And if we can bring joy to those in need who paid so heavy a price, perhaps one of them might consider paying it forward someday when they are back on their feet and in a position to help others.
Rich Watson is a student at APU.