June 8, 2005
✪ ✪ ✪
Lou is offline. The same message
greeted me each time I checked the computer screen in our bedroom. I knew I had
the computer volume cranked as high as it would go but I checked anyway. When Lou came
online and pinged me, I didnt want to miss the beep. Unable to sleep, I snuggled
up on the bed with Cassie, our black Lab mix. The four boys were still asleep upstairs.
The windows were open wide, welcoming the warm June breeze as it filtered through the
trees. The sun had yet to rise as I lay in anxious stillness.
Lou had been in Iraq for four days.
Wed managed a video chat the previous morning, and hed promised to call again but
hadnt. There was no way to sleep while imagining the worst.
Eyes closed, mind racing, I let
myself breathe the scent of freshly cut grass curling through the window screen. I
constantly replayed my memory from ten days ago; Lou in his desert camouflage uniform at
Fort Drum, kissing me good bye and promising hed be okay. How I had tried to believe
The sound of heavy footsteps on our
front steps jolted me upright. The clock blinked 6 a.m. Our bedroom window was next to
the front door and it sounded like a football team was out there. Cassie gave an
uninterested grunt when I shifted her off me to leap out of bed as the doorbell rang.
Oblivious of my threadbare blue
tank top and shorts, I ran down the short hallway into the living room entry. Looking
as shocked by my frantic entrance as I was at their unexpected appearance were three
men on my steps. They were in Class As, the formal military uniform. Behind them on my
lawn I had a glimpse of a man I thought was in a
2 Front Toward Enemy
white tshirt, studying the ground.
The three soldiers gaped at me through my screen door for a moment while I gaped back.
A sickening surge of fear coursed
through me as the worry Id felt all night about Lou, the shock of the doorbell at dawn,
and the realization of what these men signified collided within me. I launched back from the
door, smacking into the corner where the living room wall meets the front entryway. One
of the men was talking through the screen. Mrs. Allen? Mrs. Louis Allen? came to
me through the screams now bursting in my head. I was grabbing the wall and had my face
turned into it, trying to avoid this scene, avoid what it meant. I couldnt find the strength
to answer the soldier who insistently called my name. I was desperate to stop him from
saying what I already knew.
I was aware the soldiers had opened
my screen door and were cautiously approaching me as I clung to that wall. Maam
why dont you sit down? one of them asked softly. Maam, do you want to sit? I
didnt want to sit. I didnt want to look at them. I didnt want them to be here. My throat was
closing up. My chest felt like it was ripping apart, and when I opened my eyes, the three
men were spinning around with the rest of the room.
They would not go away, I knew,
until they carried out their mission. That mission was to tell me Lou was dead. The
predeployment meeting Lou and I attended covered the procedure and made it abundantly
clear that the only reason a military detail would show up at our door would be in the
worst case scenario.
The five minutes since my doorbell
rang seemed like an hour. I was still clinging to the wall, and the soldiers voices
registered an increased level of concern as they suggested I sit down. I was yelling at them, Say
it. Just say it! so they would get it over with and leave. It wasnt until one of the mens
shaved heads was in front of me, angling in to catch my words that I knew I was barely
whispering. He finally understood what I was trying to say and stepped back. I saw only two men
now when I cracked my eye open. They were silhouetted against the light coming in from
the door and I could not see their faces. But I could see they were ramrod straight at
attention as one of them read from a paper before him.
I caught the words, We regret to
inform you before I slipped back into a pathetic shell against the wall. Determined
to convey the message, the soldiers voice continued. I heard phrases like mortar attack
an officer had positively identified the body. Most of the rest was lost on me. All I
could think was that the body these men were referring to could not be Lou. Hed only been
there a few days, and I had just seen him so alive in our video chat yesterday morning. He
could not possibly be dead. This cannot be happening because I cannot handle it. Not Lou. Not us.
Not our family. Please, God, not us.
June 8, 2005 3
I slowly opened my eyes to see the
two soldiers standing close to me now, hands at their sides, a mixture of empathy
and concern on their faces. I looked at these two men so young and so serious, and I had
no idea what to do. I managed to stammer out the question What happened? In unison
they snapped back and one of them read from that paper again. Maam, killed in his
sleep is all I grasped of that announcement. I was seized then by the vision of Lou
lying in bed, and his world exploding around him. Of him exploding with it. So innocently
lying there asleep. But something about that didnt seem right, in addition to the news
It came to me that Lou would not
have been asleep when this happened, because he hadnt called me. I knew hed meant
his promise to call me before he went to sleep, and the only thing that would have
prevented him from doing so was if he was killed or injured before he went to bed. Which meant
perhaps they were wrong. Maybe it was some other poor guy who was killed, and Lou
was lying injured in a hospital somewhere. Because if he is dead, I prayed, please let me
die, too. Right here. Right now. This pain is more than I can take. I am not strong enough
to want to live through this.
As I look back now, I am ashamed at
how weak I was. Ashamed at being the kind of mom who would rather die than see
her children through the devastation that awaited them. It was not the only time
those thoughts would cross my mind, that I would wish to die so I could escape my
worldescape the pain of what was happening around me. It is something I have since been trying
to make up to my kids, and have asked God to forgive me for.
One of the soldiers asked me if
there was someone I could call. Someone to come here and help me. My first instinct was
to reach for my husband, so this question seemed cruel. But I knew I had to think of
someone who could physically arrive in my home in the next few minutes, and my friend Claire
popped into my head. I needed to get her here before the kids woke up because I was
unable to get through this mornings routine alone.
I was shaking uncontrollably, and
grabbed one of Lous big shirts to cover up. The guy in the white tshirt turned out to
be a security guard from our private lake community. Hed escorted the soldiers to my
house earlier, and said he would take the men to Claires. I asked one soldier to guard my
house while my kids slept and had the others drive me to Claires house around the corner. I
rang her doorbell while pounding on her door. Claires husband, Mark, came down, wiping
the sleep from his confused eyes as he noticed the military uniform standing behind
me. I fell into the house, landing in a heap on the carpet at the bottom of their stairs,
whispering, Lou is dead. Then I sat with my head on my knees, rocking back and forth, sort
of gasping. He ran upstairs and I heard Claire scream.
4 Front Toward Enemy
She came to me and I asked her to
come help me get the kids off to school while I figured out what to do. She said shed be
right up, and I let the military guy drive me home. My kids were still asleep. It had been
twenty minutes since my doorbell rang.
The soldier duo accompanied me into
my kitchen, where I thudded gracelessly into a chair at our table. The chaplain,
as I learned the tallest, third uniformed guy was, maintained a discreet distance while I called
Chris Protsko. She was a friend whose husband was in Lous original unit currently
serving in Iraq. Shes the head of the Family Support Group and I was sure she would say shed
been in touch with people, that this was all a mistake. Instead, she was stunned when I
told her the news. One of the soldiers took the phone I extended. I could hear him quietly
explaining, Maam, killed in his sleep.
Claire arrived then, a light,
wrinkled tshirt and shorts combo on her short frame. Her eyes were rimming with tears,
and I noticed then I hadnt yet been able to let any tears of my own loose. Why arent I
crying? I wondered. Claire flipped her wavy dark hair away from her face and gave me a hug. I
asked her to stay inside, get the kids as they woke, while I went outside to let the
notification crew leave.
I stood outside in a patch of early
morning sunlight in our front yard, talking with the soldiers and the chaplain. One of
them told me he was going to Afghanistan soon, and I told him to be careful. One of them
was fighting back tears. Another had vivid blue eyes but that is all I remember of them.
They gave me their cardsIf there is anything we can do As the chaplain maneuvered his
card into my trembling hand, I saw and felt the first of my tears splash onto my arm.
I dont remember in which order the
boys woke or who greeted them. I do remember telling them I wasnt feeling well
so Claire would be driving them to school and preschool today. While Claire fed the boys
breakfast, I went to my room to make the phone calls. Realizing Lous parents were in
Maine, I called his sister Jen and choked on the words, Lou is dead. The military was heresaid
he was killed last night. She screamed, said, Im coming. And we hung up. Then I
called my parents. Same conversation.
The next hour was my first
experience of attempting to be a mom in spite of wanting to curl up and die. I made the
kids lunches and packed their backpacks in a state of disbelief and panic. Our oldest
son, sixyear old Trevor, was all smiles as he proclaimed how wonderful life was now because
its almost summertime, and summertime is always fun. And, he said, it is one day
closer to Daddy coming home. I could only hold my breath and stare at him as Claire nudged
them out the door past their Aunt Jen and Uncle Tom as they were arriving. Fiveyearold
Colin asked why Aunt Jen and Uncle Tom were here and I said we had work to do. I gripped
the stair railing and the pain hit as I watched all four
June 8, 2005 5
of my kids being driven away. I
realized their days of being innocent, secure children were over. In a few hours I would have
to tell them their father is dead.
My parents arrived, hoping I was
mistaken. Lous parents had been called by my brotherinlaw and were making the
drive from Maine to our Milford, Pennsylvania home. I couldnt stand to say the
words anymore, so Jen was telling everyone. Family trickled in and we were all so
helpless. What do we do now? There had been no army seminar about this part.
Finally, Lous parents arrived. I
watched them pull up in front of the house and slowly emerge from the car. They walked
around to each other, and Lous mom, a short Italian woman dwarfed by the height of his
sixfoottall dad, leaned into her husband. That picture of husband and wife
literally leaning on each other was the first, lasting visual glimpse I had of what would never
be for me again. The sound of my motherinlaws sobs preceded them across the yard as
they made their way over and gave me a miserable hug.
It had now been about seven hours
since my doorbell rang, and I was as ready as I would ever be to tell the boys. My
mom drove me first to kindergarten. I was a mess in the office, blabbering to the
openmouthed woman at the desk that I needed to get Trevor right now. Soon, he was walking
toward me, his big blue eyes looking warily up at my teary ones as I leaned over to pick
him up. I carried him to the nurses office and told him something really, really bad
happened. I told him a bad guy killed daddy. Daddys body died, so Daddy had to leave it and
go to heaven. We would never see him again here on earth. Trevor clung to me and we
were both crying. I just held him tight and prayed for the strength and courage to get us
through this. I told Trevor when he was ready, we had to go tell his brothers. He said, Lets
Mom drove and I sat in back holding
Trevor. I had called ahead and the kids preschool teachers were waiting with Colin. I
sat in the parking lot with him on my lap, and Trevor standing with his arm on my
shoulder. Colins normally overexpressive face was as blank as Id ever seen it. It was as
though the news froze him from the inside out and I could not stop the tears now pouring down my
face. Panic filled me as Seanie, our threeyearold, walked out. How can I say this
again? Am I doing this right?
I squeezed Sean onto my lap with
Colin and told him Daddy died. We would never get to see him again. His little
face, which looks so much like Lous, crumpled. The damage to my children seemed enormous and
cruel. Their childhoods were now over. Oneyear-old Jeremy would never know his
father. Lou would miss his youngest sons first sentence, and his childrens whole lives. The
boys worshipped Lou. He wasnt a perfect dad, but pretty close. He was so proud of
them and looking forward to being their dad forever.
4 Front Toward Enemy
I sat on a log in the parking lot
with all three boys now on my lap. Jeremy was napping inside. We would come back for him
later. For now I focused on telling Trevor, Colin, and Sean what happened as best as I
could. I held on to them and promised them I would spend the rest of my life taking
care of them, and their dad would help me from heaven. I assured them he would never have
left if he knew he wouldnt get to come back, and that he had tried really, really hard to
stay in his body so he could come back home to us. But his body was too broken for him to
be able to stay in it, so God let him come to heaven. I told them daddy would be able to
watch over us from heaven, and sometimes we would see or feel something beautiful or
happy. That would be Daddys new way of hugging us.
I just sat in the shade with them
and talked. They asked me some questions like Did it hurt Daddy? Every nerve in my
body shrieked in pain when Trevor asked me that. I answered their questions and did my
best to reassure all of us we would be okay. I would get the answers I didnt have now
and we would all learn how to be happy again one day. But for now, I told them, Its
okay to cry.
Once we ran out of things to say
and the boys were ready to go, my mom drove us home. Eventually, darkness crept
over the house. The military never reappeared. We had been told from someone in Arlington
that another official notification detail would come to see Lous parents, but by 10
p.m. we gave up. Lous parents were understandably upset to be overlooked by the military.
That would soon become a common feeling from then and a common practice of the military.
Gradually, the mass of family and
friends at my house began to leave for the day. After Lous parents left to drive the
hour to their home, it was just Lous sisters Vicki and Jen staying that night with me. I sat
up on the glider swing out front. Lou gave it to me for Mothers Day one year. I loved that
swing. Once, when I was alone, I was suddenly aware of a comfortingly burning warmth
swelling from within me. It was as though Lou were wrapped around me, sending love and
strength from a place I could feel, but not see. Afraid to lose him, I froze and
concentrated on nothing but the warmth. I wanted so badly to believe it was real. The front door
creaked open as Lous sisters came out to check on me. The warmth ebbed away, but the
comfort lingered for a while. We talked and cried for a few minutes before they went back
in. I remained out on the swing, rocking the rest of the night away.
The display on my cell phone read
4:32 when crunching gravel and two headlight beams sliced through the dark
stillness of the early morning. I was still on the swing, wrapped in our comforter as I
watched the delivery guy lean out his car window and slide
June 8, 2005 7
the local paper into our box by the
driveway. I waited for the guy to drive away, then walked slowly to the box.
My heart was pounding as I unrolled
the paper and saw us on the front page. I looked like some washedup, stringyhaired
blonde crack addict with four morose children, on the swing in front of the one patch
of chipped paint on our house. TEACHER, FATHER OF FOUR, KILLED IN IRAQ screamed
out the headline above the picture. It was the first of several stories that would
run in papers all over. Lous death and the circumstances surrounding it would soon become
one of the most notorious cases in the United States military. It would introduce us to
the world of the military justice system, and mire us down in the role of victims. But
not yet. For the time being, we were under the impression an Iraqi had killed Lou. We could
not fathom how this could get worse and, had we been told what was to come, probably wouldnt have believed it anyway.