One day Miles asked me, "Want to see an Apache?"
I hesitated. When the U.S. invaded Iraq the year before, I was vehemently, vocally against the war. I was angry about the politics of it and angry at the lives lost—on both sides. I understood why Miles had joined the Army. After September 11th he felt like it was his duty. He said he wanted to step up so that someone else would not have to. I respected that and I was proud of him. But I struggled with the realities of the Apache. The Army calls them gunships; the pilots call what they do hunting. I looked at Miles beside me and his face was radiant. I agreed.
When we pulled into the parking lot alongside the exhibition field, I followed him across the grass.
"Here she is," he said in front of the helicopter.
I reached out to touch the side the way I might touch a strange animal. The metal had warmed in the sun and I flinched from the blistering heat. The helicopter was wasp-like and barbed, frightening, and it was all I could do to keep my feet rooted to the ground.
"You want to sit inside?" Miles asked.
I pulled myself up the side and lowered my frame into the front seat. The upholstery was rough beneath my hands. I slipped the straps of the seatbelt over each of my shoulders and had the feeling not so much of strapping myself in as strapping the Apache on. Through the front windows I saw the nose of the aircraft and the grass below. I took hold of the cyclic that rose between my legs and imagined what it felt like to sit in that seat, to shoot the guns, to fire the rockets. How to understand that the man I was falling in love with, a man who almost never cussed, who went to church every Sunday, who pressed his nose to the back of my neck as we slept, that this man would kill other men? Miles peered up at me from the ground, smiling.
"What do you think?" he said.
I held out a hand so he could help me down.
"I think this is a dangerous piece of machinery."
"I know," he said as he reached up for me. "Isn't it great?"
Four months after he deployed, two soldiers stood in my living room and one said to me, "On behalf of the President of the United States, I regret to inform you that your husband, Miles Henderson, has been killed in Iraq."
Much later my mother would say about this time, "You were so angry. At me. At the world." She was right; I was furious at everyone. The soldiers in Miles' unit, the ones who had survived; the government, whose political decision makers ordered men overseas but would never send their own sons to die; the American public whose Support Our Troops bumper stickers faded and peeled while everyone turned their faces from the war and forgot. Saddam Hussein; Osama bin Laden; George W. Bush, who years later would hold my fingers between his soft damp hands and when my escort tells him of Miles' death would say, "That's disappointing," who won't even have the gumption to say "I'm sorry." I was angry at all of them.
Amidst all this anger, I clung to a single idea—that in a two-man Apache, there was another pilot. Another wife was suffering the same way I was.
After a soldier is killed in combat the Army performs an official death investigation and a formal military briefing. At the end of our joint briefing, Teresa and I were told that the helicopter crash which killed Miles and John was the result of pilot error, and that therefore they would not receive the Purple Heart. It was a ruling I accepted and she did not.
Much later, when we were five, nearly six years, out I asked Teresa why it mattered so much that our husbands receive the Purple Heart.
"You can feel it," she said, "Some of my friends, even acquaintances, they go, 'Your husband never received a Purple Heart?' They don't say it, but you can see it. You're not part of this. Well, I am part of this.
"I watched my husband go to Desert Storm and I watched him go to Afghanistan. I watched him go to Iraq, and when he came home he didn't come home the way he's supposed to. My husband was a soldier. He gave his life. You sit there and you look around at the graves at Arlington and you see Purple Heart, Purple Heart, Purple Heart. And then you don't see it on your husband's grave. You're like, is he less of a hero because of it?"
There are more than a thousand widows of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the morning of Memorial Day, TAPS, the national military survivors conference, arranged a shuttle from the hotel to Arlington National Cemetery and our small group joined up at Section 60. We sat for a time without talking and then in the way of military widows we talked about the grim details of our husbands' deaths. This was the new language I had learned to speak, a lexicon of briefings and autopsy reports and partial remains.
"You said Tuc died in a helicopter crash?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah," Mindi said. "They got shot and went down hard."
"Did you get to see him after he came back?"
"I saw Sean," Laura said. "As soon as they got him to the funeral home."
"What was it like?" I said. "To see him, I mean."
"He was cold," Laura said. "They pack them in ice."
I imagined Miles' body gone stiff and cool, and I shivered. I ran my hand over the grass and felt the day's heat gathered there. To the east the brown waters of the Potomac churned toward the sea and I thought of rivers running red with blood. At Arlington the grave markers are white like ivory or bone or teeth. I looked at the young women beside me and considered the terrible knowledge they carry inside them, knowledge I carry too, and I felt a sudden responsibility to tell their stories, our stories. I wanted everyone to know the things we knew.
From Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson. Copyright © 2013 by Artis Henderson. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.