JENNIFER CARWILE stood at her front door scanning the street, cell phone clutched in her hand. In the early morning, another Dog Company wife had called her. “Something bad has happened,” she said, “but my husband wouldn’t tell me what it is.”
Lauren had said she didn’t know and Simone DeMartino, the Battalion commander’s wife, wasn’t answering her phones. Whatever had happened, Simone was probably busy dealing with it, Jennifer thought. But an unwelcome intuition rippled in her gut. She’d dropped her oldest daughter, Reece, off at kindergarten at 8 a.m. Now it was after noon, Avery Claire was down for a nap, and Jennifer was pacing her entryway, peering through the screen door at the street like a sea captain’s wife on a widow’s walk.
Since Donnie shipped out with Delta Company in March, Jennifer had checked the news constantly, even though Robyn Haskins, Shon’s wife, had advised her to stop obsessing. As a registered nurse, Jennifer was used to research, and she’d found that non-U.S. news sources were more forthcoming. That morning, she’d read on a foreign site that two ISAF soldiers had been killed in eastern Afghanistan.
It’s nothing, she’d told herself. There are thousands of soldiers there. But now as she stared out the screen door, she couldn’t get the report out of her mind.
WHEN THE BLACK HAWK touched down, medics hustled Joseph Coe into a tent. A flurry of faces, hands, and questions came at him.
“Where do you hurt?”
“Everywhere. My head, my arms, my back, my legs. I just freakin’ hurt.” “Do you know where you are?”
“Yes, in Afghanistan, at the aid station.” Coe saw a tangle of IV lines, heard orders barked out. “My L.T. Do you know what happened to my L.T.?”
Hands scissored off his ACUs and they fell away. “Do you know your name?”
“Yes. Coe. Joseph Coe. How’s my L.T.? He was sitting in the right seat of my truck. And my gunner, Paul Conlon. I haven’t seen him. Is he hurt?” It seemed to Coe there was a beat of silence. He tried to hike himself up on his elbows, make eye contact with someone. Hands pressed him back onto the gurney. More questions flew about the pain in his head, the pain in his back, what day it was.
Coe shot back questions about Conlon and Carwile—Where were they? Had anyone seen them?—but it was as though he were trapped in a glass bubble with his words bouncing off the inside. Anger swelled in his chest. He thrashed on the gurney, tried to throw off restraining hands.
“I’m looking for Lieutenant Donald Carwile! He’s a little bit taller than me! Heavier than me! He was sitting in the TC seat of my truck! Is he hurt?”
A woman in scrubs appeared before him. “Take it easy, Coe,” she said gently. “Take it—”
“Conlon! Specialist Paul Conlon! Shorter than me! Dark hair, buzz cut! He was my gunner! I haven’t seen either of them! Does anyone know who I’m talking about?!”
Coe’s anger melted down to seething rage. He wanted to scream, Don’t anyone f***ing touch me until someone tells me something! Tell me they’re fine, tell me they’re hurt, tell me they’re dead, but tell me something!
He didn’t scream, though. Instead, he went graveyard still. Because suddenly, he knew.
A WARM SUMMER RAIN pattered on the Carwiles’ driveway, whispering in the grass that sloped down to the street. From the screen door, Jennifer could see it was time to mow again. She’d never cut grass in her life until May, when she got a nastygram from the post housing office warning her about her knee-high lawn. She would’ve been mortified if Donnie got word in Afghanistan that she was letting the house go to pot.
That afternoon, she had plunked the girls in front of a Disney video and wrestled the lawnmower out of the garage. She muscled it up the overgrown slope, fighting it on the downhill to keep it from getting away and roaring out into the street. Determined to quash all future housing-office notices, Jennifer mowed down everything in sight, including the yellow-budded ornamental bushes in the flower beds. By June, she figured out that going sideways across the slope with the mower was easier. In her newfound confidence, she also let the flowers live.
Jennifer glanced at the clock on her cell. It was nearly 2 p.m. Something had happened. “Something bad,” the other wife had said.
She sighed and let her shoulders relax. If it was Donnie, she thought, they would’ve come by now, wouldn’t they?
Robyn was right. She had to stop obsessing. She was about to turn away from the front door when a car turned into her driveway. It was a black sedan.
AT THE CONLON HOME, morning and early afternoon ticked by like a metronome. The day was nearing an end. In the afternoons, Maria and her sister, Victoria, usually went to the gym together. Victoria was twenty years younger than Maria, more like a sister to Paul than an aunt. She arrived and tried to talk Maria into going, but Maria couldn’t. She didn’t say so, but she wasn’t leaving the house until she heard from both her boys.
“Okay, are you sure?” Victoria said. “Yes, I’m sure. You go, though.”
Dressed for a workout, Victoria left, shutting the door behind her.
A moment later, the door burst open again. “Maria!” Victoria’s face was white with panic. “There are two soldiers coming!”
Maria did not look outside. She knew who the soldiers were. Somehow, she had known all day that they were coming.
She put her hands on Victoria’s shoulders and smiled. “It’s okay,” she said. “You should go, though.”
Maria had gotten her baby sister all the way to the door, but it was too late. When she opened the door, two officers in dress uniforms stood on her porch. One wore the insignia of a chaplain.
“Are you Maria Conlon?” said the other one, the casualty officer. “Yes.”
“I have an important message to deliver from the Secretary of the Army. May we come in?”
Beside her, Victoria began to shake and cry. A preternatural calm enveloped Maria, though. A strength from somewhere else. Strength for her sister. She escorted the officers into her living room, where they sat next to each other stiffly, backs erect.
Maria thought they both looked like they’d prefer to be somewhere else, even in combat, anywhere other than where they were now. She didn’t want them there, either. She didn’t want them to say the words, didn’t want this moment burned into her sister’s memory.
Maria sat calm and dry-eyed. “Would you like something to drink?”
“No thank you,” the casualty officer said. He took a deep breath and began, “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, Paul Edward Conlon, was killed in action in Wardak, Afghanistan, on August 15. The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss ...”
Maria listened to the entire recitation. The chaplain gazed at her sympathetically. The casualty assistance officer looked prepared for a blow. She could imagine what they encountered in this grim job: shock, anger, hysteria. But she wasn’t going to make it any harder for them than it was already.
“Do you have any additional details?” she asked in an even tone. “No, ma’am,” the casualty officer said. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you very much, gentlemen,” Maria said, and stood.
The visitors took her cue and walked with her to the front door. She shook each of their hands, shut the door behind them, and locked the dead bolt. Then Maria Conlon fell to her foyer floor and started screaming.
–Read Lynn Vincent's feature story "Warfare vs. 'lawfare'" in this issue