This was started on September 11th, 2012.
One year ago today, at approximately 4 am, my sister, Chris’s parents, Chris’s best friend and I traveled to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware to watch Chris’s body come back to America from Afghanistan. How ironic that it also happened to be the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and here we were welcoming Chris back home in a metal box covered with the American flag. What many don’t want to remember- I don’t want to forget. I never do. As painful as it is, it is reality, it's who I am, it is my story, my husband’s story, our story, and some of the moments where I really learned what I am made of- the moments that have defined me.
I haven’t had this feeling in a long time- it’s a feeling I don’t want to have, a feeling I don’t want to remember…
See, as the one year anniversary of Chris’s death creeped up on me, I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t know that I would be transported in a time machine back to the very days when his death was fresh, back to the very day I was notified, and that I would experience the same feelings I had that I had forgotten about....they all came rushing back.
As I drove in the car with mom tonight in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, I felt a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time. I couldn’t place my finger on what that feeling was or why it was so familiar- until it hit me. It was the same feeling I had on October 13th, the day it all ended- the day after Chris was finally buried, and I was alone to face the world. As my sister and my mom said goodbye to me in that D.C. hotel room, I felt a fear and vulnerability like none other I have ever experienced before. I cried and I cried, and there I was to face the world- alone. Chris was gone, I had finished the job set before me, he was honored well, and now I had to return home, to the unknown, to the scary, cold and lonely world. I can’t explain to you how I felt in that moment, but I felt like an orphan, saying goodbye to my only sense of security, watching my family fade away into the distance, knowing that I would be alone and naked in the streets trying to find my way home. I knew in that moment that reality was setting in, and it was time for me to start my new, unwanted life as a widow. As much as they wanted to stay for me, and I wanted them to stay as well, I knew I had to do what I had to do, and I had to be weaned off of the support and see if I was strong enough to stand on my own.
The average time between death and burial in America is about 6 days. It took 33 days to bury my husband. 33 days of the hardest work- the most emotional and stressful days of my life. 33 days I had to learn to keep it together, to work through the pain, to struggle and fight to keep my head together- because my husband deserved all I had left to give him.
“Do you want a video of your husband arriving in Dover at his first dignified transfer?” WHAT????? I was asked this within twenty minutes or so of being notified my husband had just been killed in action. Was I really just asked if I wanted a video of his dead body coming back to America? I had no idea what they were asking me, but it seemed pretty messed up to me. At that point I didn’t even know what a dignified transfer was, or how familiar I would become with the process. The day after I was notified that Chris was killed in action, I was told I needed to get some sleep and be ready for the media to be at my door. I had less than 24 hours before the world found out my husband had fallen. The military demands that you have someone with you at all times, especially the night you are notified. I couldn’t do it- I had to be alone. I had to try and process all that was happening- the fact that my husband was in heaven, and I would have to live the rest of my life without him. With all of these thoughts running through my head, I didn’t have much time to fret what was ahead, I had to tell everyone I could, everyone that needed to know that Chris had been killed. It's not really appropriate for certain people to find out on facebook or on social media that their best friend, cousin, and etc was gone. I knew I had a long day (days) ahead of me, but there was absolutely no sleeping that Friday night on September 9th- there was no way. I wasn’t even tired. I remember that week feeling like my heart was literally going to explode. I had never actually had a pain in my heart before, a real, physical pain- but it was there. I remember asking my brother a few days later if my heart could actually literally explode. I really thought it was going to.
I remember watching the sun rise on the morning of the 10th, and thinking to myself I just wanted to put sweats on and not shower for days, but I realized I didn’t know who would be coming over, what would be happening, and whether I felt like it or not, I needed to be presentable. I had no choice. I had to the face the day, and it was coming whether I liked it or not.
My family arrived from Cleveland later in the afternoon on September 10th, one by one piling into the house, hugging me with in somber faces full of disbelief and pain. Not soon after they arrived my sister and I were told we needed to get packing to head to Dover AFB, Delaware to receive Chris’s body, or as the military calls it “remains”. I hate that word. I was happy to hear he would be back so soon, because I wanted him out of Afghanistan, that treacherous country, so badly. I wanted him home- in the country that he lived so passionately for. After waiting all night for our flight, we were informed we would be leaving at 4 am on September 11th to go see Chris’s body come back to America. We spent some of the day on the 10th trying to find a dress for me or something nice to welcome Chris home. This may not make sense to you- but I wanted to look my best, I wanted to look beautiful for my husband when he came back. I had been waiting for this moment for months- to finally have him back- but just not this way. Not this way. This was not the homecoming I had dreamed of and played over and over in my head, but I still was going to give him the best of me.
This was the hardest night for me- my mom and my sister slept in the same room as me, and I kept crying and trying to sleep, but vivid pictures kept popping in my mind of my baby shot in the head. I literally couldn’t control my emotions. “Chris, no, not Chris”. “How could he have been shot in the head?” I remember feeling like a kid waking up from a hellish nightmare crying out these things, and my family trying to comfort me, but the images, the confusion, and the pain wouldn’t wane. This was a torturous night.
As my Casualty Assistance Officer (CAO), my sister Rachel, Chris’s parents and I arrived at the airport, it seemed like an eternity before we would finally board the plane, and even a greater eternity until we met Chris’s best friend Tyler at the airport in Philadelphia. During this time was right about when the world would be finding out Chris was killed in Afghanistan, and two other brave soldiers were as well. See, up until this point, I wasn’t even told who was killed with him. I didn’t know any details, and it was just starting to come out. My phone didn’t stop ringing from this day up until at least a month and a half later. It literally never stopped. As we exited the plane, I remember dreading the “death” picture that the news would publish of Chris. See, what most people don’t know is the picture that they publish of the soldiers posing in front of the American flag is taken to release to the media if they are killed in action. So, when they go to take this picture, they know it is their “death” picture. I had watched many other soldier’s “death” pictures released, and many of them had fear in their eyes, and the last thing I wanted to do is see this in my own husband. I didn’t want to see some kind of premonition on his face that maybe he knew he wouldn’t be coming home. My sister finally loaded it on her phone, and there is was. I breathed a small sigh of relief. He looked fine. He just looked tired and like he thought this process was dumb and he was ready to get it over with.
“Hello, Tyler.” There he was, Chris’s best friend, and the best man from our wedding. Tyler is one of the people who knew Chris the best. He spent 6 years in military school with him, they were roommates, and inseparable during those years. Well, Chris, Tyler, and their friend Zach. Zach was killed right out of high school, and now Chris. Tyler was now the only one left.
We all were greeted by an Army team ready to take us in a van to Dover AFB. It was a dreadful day, but yet there was a closeness about it-all of us together, experiencing this. Chris was supposed to come in at 5 pm, but after receiving a call from a friend we found out it would be at 11 pm. We arrived at the hotel and were greeted by a very professional Army staff of Chaplains and other personnel who brought us into a private room to explain what would be happening later that evening. They had us sign some paperwork, gave us $50 VISA gift cards to cover expenses and some hand knit "prayer shawls.'' I was asked if I wanted to allow the media at the transfer or not. I didn’t really understand what I was being asked in that moment in time, but I was given three choices. Either full media, no media, or a private taping of the transfer to be given to me and Chris’s parents that the media could end up requesting due to the Freedom of Information Act. I chose the third option. God knew what was best, and I am thankful I chose that option, because I was the only one of the five families that day to choose it- which meant Chris would come in alone, and no one else would be unloaded with him. I asked the Chaplains what happened after Chris died, who handled his body, where he was, and what the procedure was. I normally get pretty queasy with such details, but I wanted to know EVERYTHING. It was my husband, and I trusted the Army to take excellent care of his body, but I still hated not knowing, and I absolutely HATED that I wasn’t able to be there with him every step of the way. This is something I could never have understood before my experience losing Chris, but I wish I could have held him while he took his last breath. I wish I could have cleaned his wounds, cleaned the blood out of his fingernails, and been by his side as he made his journey back to America. But, I couldn’t.
Later that evening as we were eating dinner and anxiously awaiting Chris’s arrival, I received the most important phone call of my life. See, up until this point, I had only heard rumors, and bits and pieces of what happened to Chris. I was trying to keep my head on straight, but I could not fathom or understand how my skilled husband, a sniper, was shot in the head. I didn’t know where he was shot, other than the fatal shot- I didn’t know what happened- other than about 20 different rumors floating around, and I just wanted and needed answers.
“Hello”- his voice was shaky. “Hi, please tell me what happened. I need to know.” This was when I was told Chris was shot in the head twice, and once in the knee. (This was the original thought although not accurate)
”Did he have any last words?”
Many of you may be thinking I wanted to know this in case he might have said, “I love Jane.” Or, “tell her I love her.” Well, that is not why I was asking. I was asking because I know my husband, and I know that would not be the first thing out of his mouth. If my husband had any idea that the Taliban got him, he would be furious- he would be sooooo angry. I can’t even handle the thought of him knowing the enemy had killed him. Well, he didn’t, thank God. Chris was sleeping when he was killed- it was not his turn to be on guard. Chris feel asleep and woke up in heaven. I finally got a few answers, and felt a mild sense of relief in that area.
After dinner as we were awaiting Chris's return, I went back to my hotel room and talked to Tyler a little bit, making sure he was ok. We were all in so much shock, the atmosphere was indescribable. I went back to my room to get ready, I settled on a black blouse and black pants. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find a dress Chris would like. He was so picky, and nothing quite worked. I slowly got dressed and put my mascara on as my fingers shook. “He is almost here- he’s almost home.”
Eleven pm rolled around, and we were told to load on the bus. As we rode though the gates to get to the Air Force Base, I felt a sense of excitement, a perverse sense of anticipation that I was going to see Chris- he was there! Chris was there, on that base. He was there waiting for me. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to see him so badly, and shortly I would be with him. He just wasn’t alive.
As the bus pulled up to Dover’s waiting rooms, several men in uniform were waiting for us- all lined up horizontally, and as the bus doors opened, they slowly saluted us. I couldn’t handle this, and I just lost it. This is something I could never get used to during the process of burying Chris, and still can't get used to. I appreciate it, and understand the meaning behind it, but Chris was an enlisted soldier, and never was saluted in his life, and now in his death, I get this honor? I couldn’t handle it. It made my stomach queasy. I would give anything for him to experience this honor. We walked in the facility where we were seated in one of several “hospitality rooms." They were nicely decorated, warm feeling, hotel lobby looking rooms where we waited for our turn to go on the flight line and see our soldier arrive. It was nice, rather comfortable, and the staff was incredible. We were given coffee, tea, fuzzy blankets, and fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. My former boss from when I interned for Senator Inhofe, Lazer, also came to be there for us- one of the biggest blessing we could ever receive. He cared enough about us to drive all the way from Washington D.C. after work to be with us for Chris’s arrival.
The entrance to the Dover waiting room.
Flags at the entrance to the Dover Air Force Base waiting room.
The Dover AFB waiting room- where we sat for over 5 hours.
Lightening started to strike and we were told that we had to wait for it to wane before the transfers could continue. Well, we waited from 11 pm until 4 am in that place until they finally resumed flights, and it was finally our turn to line up and get back on the bus. I breathed slowly as we pulled up to the flight line, trying to control my tears and emotions with every ounce of my being. Never in my life have I felt so many emotions running through my veins. Never in my life have I been so tested to see what I am really made of- if I can make it through, if I can survive this horror. As I stepped foot off of the bus, there he was. It was a dark, rainy night, and the plane was massive! A huge Evergreen Airlines Cargo 747 with the lights shining on it, and one flag draped casket raised high on a lift. There was one lone soldier standing next to him saluting him. I’m surprised I didn’t faint. Every emotion I never knew I had went through my body as I slowly walked the flight line and took my seat. How could Chris be in that box? How could that be? That can’t be him. I just talked to him three days ago. I kept replaying the scenario in my head over and over again- Chris getting shot in the head and being in that cold, metal box. As they slowly lowered the lift Chris was on, I clung onto the very life inside my being- trying hard not to let it be snatched from me. I felt like someone punched me in the stomach with a steel fist. I couldn't breathe. As the lift reached the ground, the only thing I wanted to do is run up and hug the casket. I wanted to get close to Chris, to make him ok, to fix everything for him. I needed to touch that casket. But I couldn’t. As the six soldiers picked him up in unison and walked him to that plain, white truck to load his body, I felt my life, my dreams, my heart shatter like a glass vase on a concrete floor. I felt such sympathy for Chris. I felt limp; I felt helpless. I wanted to make it better, to tell Chris I loved him, to fix it, but he was gone.
They loaded Chris into a white truck, they shut the door and drove off to the mortuary. I cried the whole way back to the hotel as we all sat on the bus surrounded by the most somber silence you could ever experience in your life. We arrived back at the hotel and said goodbye to Lazer. He ended up going to work the next day in the same suit he had come in from the day before because he stayed with us the whole night through. He was our guardian angel that day. I slept for maybe two hours that night, woke up from a soggy sleep, and packed up to go back home and face the chaos back there. I felt like I had just come out of surgery. I had no energy, could barely grasp my surroundings, but once again, I had to snap out of it. I had the biggest mission of my life ahead of me- I had to make sure Chris received all the honor he deserved. He trusted me to take care of him in his life, and in his death. What a great honor, and what a great responsibility.
We had to say bye to Tyler, but knew we would see him soon for the funeral. We boarded our plane, and Rachel sat down in the seat next to me. “Rachel, they didn’t seat us together- what about the person who is supposed to be sitting here.” “I’ll handle it Jane.” As the guy wandered back to his seat, he looked at us with confusion. Rachel asked him nicely if she could please switch seats. He said a harsh no. She explained to him that we really needed to sit together. He said no again. She said, “My sister’s husband just died and we really need to sit together.” He finally said ok, and made his way to the back of the plane. That ride was horrible. I just cried and cried and cried. When we got to our first layover, I got a call from the local news. See, seven soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard were killed before Chris, and I had the opportunity to watch the families throughout their grief process, and how the news handles it and etc. They normally find a school teacher to interview because the family is too distraught to do interviews. And that is totally fine. But, with Chris, I wanted to make sure people knew exactly who he was, and the only way to do that was for me to do the interviews myself. I was his wife- the closest thing to him, and it was just something I had to do. Well, the news told me they were airing the story that night, and if I didn’t want them to run a generic story on Chris, they needed to meet me at the airport to do the interview. Oh boy. I was a mess. My makeup was in my carry-on, and I had been crying and hadn’t slept at all. I have never had to reach more into my soul, pull myself together, and see what I am made of more than this moment. I did NOT want to do that interview. But I had to. As I exited the plane and walked through the door into the baggage area, there were cameras filming me. I freaked out! This was not what I agreed to. I would do a nice sit down interview with them, but I wasn’t going to play the, “Watch the widow get off the plane crying” game. Nope. The media apologized and took me outside to do a nice interview. I sucked up my grief and it went well. Chris’s brother Nick also did some wonderful interviews that day, letting the world know what an awesome brother he had. We did our very best to represent Chris well.
Here are the interviews from that day :
Next up is the Tulsa dignified transfer- when Chris's body came back home. When the community lined the streets with American flags, and the police escorted us to the funeral home where I got to lay eyes on Chris for the first time.
Here are some of the actual pictures of Chris's first dignified transfer at Dover AFB.