Lindsay Hollandsworth just wanted to lie in bed. The University of Michigan at Dearborn senior wanted to wear her pajamas all day and go to class with wet hair and no makeup. She wanted her fiancee, Christian Bakken, who had just been deployed to Iraq, to call.
“Once they leave, you’re lost,” Hollandsworth said. “All you can do is wait for them to call.”
Students like Hollandsworth juggle the stress of college life with the constant worry that a boyfriend or girlfriend, fiancee or spouse may not make it home.
And as President Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops to Baghdad looms, some service members are preparing for their third tour of duty.
An elementary education major, Hollandsworth spoke casually about her sorority and classes.
But when asked about Bakken, who left for Iraq in October, her gaze became wistful.
“The day he left happened in slow motion,” Hollandsworth said. “It started off as a beautiful day. Eighty degrees and the sun was shining. There was a short ceremony with some other families and then we said our goodbyes. I completely lost it. As he boarded the bus, tears were streaming down his face. Then storm clouds filled the sky and rain came pouring down. I had to drive home in that storm all alone.”
The couple met in January 2004. They hit it off immediately. Two years later they were looking at engagement rings.
Bakken’s grandmother was so struck by their commitment that she offered to give him money to move to Canada so he wouldn’t have to fight, Hollandsworth said.
A member of the Michigan Army National Guard, Bakken attended training sessions one weekend a month. He joined to earn money for college, never expecting to be sent overseas, Hollandsworth said.
But in May 2006, the phone rang.
Before Bakken left for Iraq, Hollandsworth went to visit him in New Jersey, where he was training.
“I got really sick on that trip,” she said. “I had a fever and couldn’t drive home, so I stayed an extra night. That’s when he proposed.”
Since Bakken left, Hollandsworth has realized how important it is to stay busy.
“You have to get up, you have to get out, and you have to live your life,” she said.
But the occasional blackout – when the military cuts off all communications between soldiers and their loved ones just after someone is killed so that the deceased service member’s family isn’t accidentally told about the death before the military can give an official notification- still makes her pulse race.
“I didn’t hear from him twice this week, so I assumed there was a blackout,” Hollandsworth said. “Blackouts always reiterate the danger of the situation.”
Although Bakken often makes light of the situation during phone calls home, he is aware of how the dangers he faces daily affect Hollandsworth.
“One time he sent me an eight-minute long video,” Hollandsworth said. “The first seven minutes were
of scenery. And then the truck behind them was hit with an (improvised explosive device) and blew up. Everyone in Christian’s car was silent, because they didn’t know if the other guys were dead.”
Hollandsworth seems optimistic about life after Bakken returns from Iraq. The couple plans to buy a house when his tour ends in October and marry early next year. He wants to get a job as a police officer after earning his undergraduate degree.
“You have to be honest with yourself that he might not come home,” Hollandsworth said. The only thing to do, she said, is try not to think about it.
Letters from Iraq
LSA junior Kate Eshman-Wissan and her boyfriend David Morland, a student at Central Michigan University, share a similar story. After meeting in high school, when she was a freshman and he was a senior, the two remained friendly but weren’t very close.
In 2004, Morland joined the reserves and was sent to Iraq.
“He had a going away party before he left,” Eshman-Wissman said. “After that, we communicated through letters and the Internet. I’m a history major so I made a big deal about writing him letters.”
Soon they were talking online every night. When Morland came home from leave, the two began dating.
“On his last night home, before he had to go back, we went for a drive,” Eshman-Wissman said. “I felt so privileged to be the one in that car with him, listening to him talk. He never said it, but I know he was afraid.”
After Morland returned to Iraq, the war became more personal for his girlfriend. She turned to religion to help her deal with the separation.
“I’m glad I have a strong belief in my faith,” she said. “I channel most of my anxiety through prayer.”
Morland recently returned from his tour in Iraq, but he will remain in the reserves until 2011. Eshman-Wissan said she is confident that they can survive anything.
“We value our time together all the more,” she said. “He risked his life for his country, but it cemented our relationship and we’ve made it through the tough times.
‘Every time the phone rings, I have to be prepared’
For Nursing sophomore Danielle Hiltz, meeting 22-year old Scott McKee was pure chance.
“He just showed up at my door one day,” Hiltz said. “I had some friends over who knew him and thought we should meet.”
McKee, a Marine, left to train in California shortly after meeting Hiltz. For the few months he was in training, he and Hiltz spoke every day. During that time, there were many false alarms and premature goodbyes as McKee came home on leave. The couple didn’t know when he would be deployed.
In November, he called to tell her he was leaving for Iraq the next month.
“I broke down. It was so unexpected,” Hiltz said. “We treated every goodbye as the real thing, but after a while I started to think maybe he wouldn’t have to go. I videotaped every time he left and now I have about six tapes of myself shaking and crying. But when I miss him too much they’re nice to have.”
Now they talk every three or four days unless he is away on a mission. Both Hiltz and McKee are looking forward to his homecoming in mid-April.
“He is always talking about the future, about wanting a family,” she said. “We have plans.”
But she said she is also prepared for the worst.
“I’m a logical person,” Hiltz said. “I know the reality of the situation. Every time the phone rings I have to be prepared. For now, it’s always him, but someday it may be bad news calling.”
Although Hiltz never pictured herself in this situation a year ago, she said she has embraced it.
“I keep my head held high,” she said. “You don’t have to support the war, but you do have to support the troops. They need your support.”
She is quick to mention that while she struggles, it is much harder on the family members left at home.
“I chose to be dating a Marine, to be in this situation,” Hiltz said. “But he walked into that office and signed himself up – his family didn’t choose that for him.”