I hadn't heard from my wife in two months, but they told me that might happen.
When Monica first deployed (shortly after we moved to Fort Benning six months ago), the Army had all of us spouses of deploying personnel sit down for. . . I guess you could call it an orientation. We were told what to expect, how long our significant others would be deployed, who we could call if we had questions or concerns. That sort of thing.
There were only a couple of guys at the meeting -- one of them was Eric Bower. His wife Sarah was in Monica's unit -- the 138th Ranger Regiment.
"Hey, Ben," he said as the meeting broke up. "How're you adjusting to Georgia?"
"Not bad. Found a job yesterday."
"Hey, man, that's great. What're you doing?"
"Working for the police in Columbus. They needed someone to work on their vehicles -- not many guys around here know how to work on the old-school V8s. I lucked out."
The police in Columbus were still using ten-year-old Impalas and Chargers, mainly because they were faster than a lot of the new hybrids and electrics. I'd been crawling around cars of every stripe since I could walk, so I knew gasoline engines inside and out.
"This Monica's first deployment?" Eric asked.
Monica had just been assigned to the Rangers -- one of the few women ever to do so. Sarah was the only other one I knew of, but I'd heard there was one more serving in the 75th.
"Well, you need anything, man, you just give me a call. We'll go out and grab a beer sometime, yeah?"
"Yeah, sure thing," I said, smiling. I really had no intention of grabbing a beer with anyone -- I'd quit drinking two years before. Still, though, the guy was just trying to be friendly.
I heard from Monica every week or so for the first couple months of her deployment. She was in Russia, but she couldn't tell me exactly where. They told us to expect that, too. I figured from the news that she was at Camp Justice, but that was only a guess. Seemed like a lot of Army and Marines were based out of Justice, so I figured it was a good call.
I got to know a couple of the other Ranger spouses (or "Ranger Bitches," as Eric once called us) during that time. Cherie Rogan was married to one of the guys in Monica's chalk. She dropped by during the first week of deployment to introduce herself and make sure I was holding up OK. She apparently had been knocking on the door a lot, but I was in the garage working on one of our babies, a 1977 Camaro.
"Mr. Andrews?" I heard a voice from the open garage door.
I pulled myself out from under the Camaro and looked up -- a woman in her mid-40s, about 20 years older than me, stood there with her purse in one hand and a Pyrex dish covered with foil in the other.
"Um, hi," I said, standing up and wiping my oily hands on a shop rag.
"Mr. Andrews. Hi. I'm Cherie Rogan? My husband is Carl Rogan, one of the team leaders in your wife's chalk?"
"Oh, right. Hi, Mrs. Rogan. Sorry, I wasn't expecting anyone to drop by."
"Cherie, please. And don't apologize -- I would have called first, but I didn't see your number on the phone tree."
"Yeah, we just moved here. I must've forgotten that bit of paperwork -- wouldn't be the first thing I forgot to set up," I told her, smiling.
"So, what's this you're working on? Hybrid-conversion?"
"No, ma'am. This one's mostly stock. A couple of rebuilt parts from the mid 80s, but she still burns regular old-school unleaded," I said.
"You race these things?"
"Nah. Rebuild 'em, mostly. Monica used to race in her teens, back in Iowa -- that's how we met."
"Yeah, Roge -- my husband -- said she's a hell of a driver. He's got a lot of respect for her -- they all do."
I nodded. Unsure of what to say.
"Anyway, I just wanted to pop by and see how you're settling in. Brought you a casserole. It's vegetarian -- didn't know if you had any dietary restrictions."
Cherie handed me the Pyrex, and I thanked her.
"Um, I was just about to make some coffee. Want to join me?" I said.
Cherie and I talked for a couple of hours that day. It was the first time we talked, but it wasn't the last. She introduced me to the rest of the spouses of the guys in Monica's chalk -- introduced me to the community I didn't know existed.
Military spouses stick together, I guess. When Monica first enlisted, she'd joined the 82nd Airborne, but had never deployed overseas with them. We'd moved to North Carolina after she'd gone through Basic Training, but I had family there -- my brother and his wife -- so we mostly hung out with them while she was posted to Bragg. When she finished Ranger School and we got reassigned to Benning, it was the first time the two of us had ever had to move to a town where we didn't know anyone.
Over the next couple of months, I hung out with the other military spouses a lot, especially Eric and Cherie. I helped Eric rebuild a 1996 BMW 5-series his father had willed to him, and he helped me build a deck onto the back of my house (he worked construction at the time). Cherie would often have me over for dinner with her twin 10-year-old sons -- I watched them for a week while she had to go out of town to visit her sick mother. We all just kind of watched each other's backs.
When Area November was overrun, the rumor was that the 138th was there. We all stayed by the phones for days until Cherie started the round-robin -- all clear. She'd heard from Rogan. A day or so later, I heard from Monica. They were about to leave on a mission, and she wouldn't be able to contact me in a while. Like I said, they told me to expect that, but it still sucked.
"Are they sending you somewhere dangerous?" I asked her when she called that last time.
"Everywhere's dangerous around here, honey," she told me.
"OK. Somewhere more dangerous than usual?"
"You know I can't say anything. We'll be all right, Ben. This is what we're trained for."
"Just -- be careful, OK? I got the Roadrunner fixed. It runs great now, and you need to come back here and drive it."
"OK, Ben. I was going to be all reckless, but the lure of a 1972 Plymouth Roadrunner in mint condition has convinced me to play it safe out there."
"You know what I mean."
"Of course I do. Love you."
"I love you, too."
And after that phone call, I didn't hear from her for two months.
We did hear from the Army, though. Nine days after that last call, they brought us all back to the base and sat us down, all of us Ranger spouses. They told us that a detachment from the 138th -- twelve Rangers, including Cherie's husband, Eric's wife, and Monica -- had been officially reported Missing in Action.
"Missing in action doesn't mean dead," Cherie told me that night. I was over at her house for dinner with a lot of the other spouses. "They reported Roge missing in action back in Afghanistan. Didn't hear anything for three weeks, then, all of a sudden, he was on the phone wanting to talk to me and the boys."
"What'd happened to him?" I asked.
"Don't know. Classified, like so much Ranger stuff is. When you're married to the Rangers, this sort of thing happens, Ben. Stay positive. She'll be all right. You ever meet their commander? Major Evans?"
I shook my head -- and I didn't remember meeting a Mrs. Evans among any of the other spouses. I said so.
"You wouldn't. Major Evans isn't married. He's one hell of a commander, though. Ranger with the 75th back in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cop for a while, then back in and assigned to the 138th. He'll pull them through."
I hoped she was right. No, hoped isn't the right word -- I prayed she was, and I'm not a religious guy by any stretch. Never even been to church -- but when the Army told us that Monica's unit was missing, I suddenly saw religion's appeal.
Going to work was torture, but I still made it every day. I still crawled around in engines that hadn't been made for over a decade, applying liberal amounts of spit and bailing wire to keep them running like they were new. I deposited my paychecks and worked on fixing up the house with Eric. I fielded phone calls from Monica's parents, telling them I still hadn't heard anything. I sold the Camaro and bought a 1969 Dodge Charger in bad shape from a guy in Atlanta. I almost had it running again before I heard anything about Monica's unit.
And no. As much as I wanted to, I didn't start drinking again.
The call came just before Thanksgiving -- almost two months after the Army had declared her detachment missing. The Army called me; I'd learned from Cherie that a call was a good thing. It meant Monica was alive.
Monica and four other Rangers, including Rogan, had made it. They'd been rescued by a Marine convict unit. At least, that was the rumor. Monica finally got a chance to call me a week later, and it was the best phone call of my life.
Eric didn't get a call. He got a visit from a Chaplain and another officer.
The spouses stayed together and kept watching each other's backs, even those whose significant others hadn't made it. Eric moved in with me for a while -- I think it helped him to have someone to talk to.
I've heard it said that in war, it's not about the mission, or duty, or honor -- it's about protecting the guy next to you. Even though our spouses were the ones who joined the Rangers and went to war, it worked the same way for us back home -- it was all about watching out for the person next to you.