For her 10-year wedding anniversary, Crystal West did something special.
She took out the trash.
Her husband, Marine Major Jason Monroe West, was deployed to Afghanistan in February. She said, “About 10 weeks ago, I thought, ‘I’m going to be so happy when I don’t have to take the darn trash out.’ So Thursdays became my favorite days of the week because every time I would hear the trash truck go by, I would think, ‘OK, only 9 more...8 more...” Even her children, Shelby, 8 years old, Emma Lee, 7 and Colton, 5, and their teachers at John Sevier Elementary joined in counting down the trash days.
September 1 was the final trash day.
While the trek down the driveway of her Northfield subdivision home with the trash bin was a momentous occasion, it was a lonely one. “I didn’t expect for my 10 year anniversary that I would be by myself, but, you know, its one of those sacrifices.”
In the last decade, she has become accustomed to making sacrifices as her husband has served throughout the country and the world.
After their Sept. 1, 2001, wedding, the newlyweds went on a honeymoon to a remote cabin outside of Denver. They left on the morning of September 11 in a rented convertible Mustang. Crystal said she remembers a carefree drive of listening to CDs with the top down. They stopped at a convenience store where Jason saw the clerk watching news of the terrorists’ attack on TV.
Crystal said he came running out of the gas station and told her to turn on the radio. From that point on, she said, everything changed. “I saw a side of him I’d never seen before. He was very intense.”
She knew he would not be deployed because, at that time, his job was training candidates. “He wanted to go, and he couldn’t, but I felt relief that he couldn’t go, that I got to keep him home for a few years. Then, I felt bad.” She said the wave of emotions drifting from fear to relief to guilt is common for military wives.
Days later when they returned to their home at Quantico Marine Base near Washington D.C., she said the city was still smoldering from the attack on the Pentagon.
For their first three years of marriage, they lived at Quantico Base, where Jason trained candidates at the Officer Candidate School. By their first anniversary, Crystal was pregnant with daughter, Shelby. In 2004, three weeks after their second daughter, Emma Lee was born, the family packed up and drove across the country to the Mojave Desert in California. Emma Lee turned one-month-old the day they arrived.
Jason was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, in January of 2005. Shelby was 2-years-old and Emma Lee, who had turned 4 months old, rolled over for the very first time right before he left. Jason didn’t see her again until she was 11-months-old. She took her first steps a couple of days after he returned. Crystal said Emma Lee made sure he didn’t miss those two big milestones. A month later, the couple discovered they were expecting what they refer to as their “Iraqi souvenir,” son, Colton.
Following active duty as an infantry officer in 2006, Jason joined the Civil Affairs Group (CAG). The Wests came to Blount County in 2007, and, a year later when his contract work ended, they decided she and the children would stay while he worked at Quantico for a year at the War Fighting Lab. Crystal said East Tennessee felt like home and the best place to raise their children.
She said her local support system includes girlfriends, neighbors and her church family at First United Methodist Church, Maryville. “I told (pastors) Larry and Brenda that I’m going to get through this deployment one sermon at a time.”
Memories of his tour in Iraq lingered for Crystal. Jason was an infantry officer in the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, that lost 30 men and saw over 100 men wounded, including several amputees.
In 2004, just two months before Jason’s deployment, a close friend was killed in Iraq. “That was a reality at that time. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we could lose him.’ When you’re 26, you shouldn’t have to know what your husband wants for his funeral.”
In 2006, another one of Jason’s friends, Captain Tyler Swisher, was killed in Iraq. That April, Colton was born three weeks early on Tyler’s birthday. Crystal and the kids visited Swisher’s wife this past weekend on their way to Camp Lejeune.
The mom said this deployment was a challenge with three children who all understand that dad might not come home. “I’ve had to deal with the hard questions. I never promise them that he won’t die. And that’s one of those things, you don’t want to make a promise you can’t keep.”
Crystal said at a recent check-up at the pediatrician, “Shelby told the nurse, ‘You know, I’m happy on the outside all the time, but on the inside, I’m really scared and sad.’ That was hard for me as a mom.
“I allow myself a good 5-minute cry about once a month, but there have been a couple of months that have been harder than others.”
She was most scared on May 2, the day Osama Bin Laden was killed. “He is stationed in a strong hold for the Taliban, and I just feared that they were going to come after him with a vengeance.”
She has prepared her children for the toll that war has probably taken on their dad, “I told them, ‘Sometimes soldiers come home from war with scars you can’t see.’ So we’ve had the PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) talk. ‘You know Daddy might get mad sometimes and its not you, its not him, its just because he’s been to war.’”
Crystal is a stay-at-home mom because she said being flexible and staying focused on the family is important for military spouses. “As a wife, its my job to make sure not only are my kids not feeling the strain when daddy is gone, but also when he gets back. I want to do everything in my power to make this transition.”
The mom tried to create what she describes as “happy moments” while Jason has been away. Throughout the summer, she took them fishing, swimming and to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. “I don’t want them to look at the year 2011 as just the year dad left, so with birthdays I went all out.”
To pass her time, she became what friends refer to as “Deployment Martha,” after Martha Stewart. “I do crafty things to keep my sanity.” During his deployment, Crystal painted the living room, dining room, the girls’ bedroom, the master bedroom and bathroom.
Even so, Crystal said she’s not handy. “Its very typical with military wives. They’ll all tell you that if something is going to break, it’s going to break after he leaves.” She has had to replace the dishwasher and the lawnmower. On her vehicle, the passenger-side window does not go down and front heater broke.
She said the greatest challenge is parenting alone. “I’m a single mom with a husband. It’s me against three.” As her children came running in the house after school on Friday, she said, “The enemy is small, and they know where I live.”
Even with the ups and downs, Crystal said, when her husband called, she always reassured him that all was well on the home front. “When you get that 5 minute phone call, you don’t want to burden them.” She said they were able to talk or email about once a week.
When Jason returned from Iraq six years ago, Crystal was concerned about his homecoming, wondering if her young daughters would recognize him. On Friday, she said, “This go-around, I don’t have to worry about it. I know those three little kids are going to go running to their Daddy, and I can just picture it in my head.”
To prepare for the homecoming, she said, “First, I had to get my roots done. I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten a lot of grey hair in the last seven months. I gotta look good. I can’t look as haggard as I have felt.”
Crystal and her children left Sunday for the trip. Jason landed on U.S. soil on Tuesday night at Camp Lejeune.
The kids have taken off from school to be with him while he completes his warrior transition training there. The family also plans to visit Arlington National Cemetery to pay respect to the fallen soldiers, many of whom were Jason’s Marine comrades.
Crystal expects the family to return to Maryville sometime around Sept. 18. Her Northfield neighbors are ready to welcome the soldier home with signs and flags.
She doesn’t anticipate Jason going to a war zone again. “He’s been to Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, so I’m good. No more.”
She said when the family returns home with Jason, “There will be the Honeymoon phase but that doesn’t last.” Everything from big decisions to little routines will be an adjustment, but she said with a laugh, “His looks help him out. If he wasn’t so easy on the eyes, I’d get annoyed with him a whole lot more.”
Crystal envisions simple joys with her husband back at home. “I’m ready to just sit back and watch him be a dad.”
In a phone call from Camp Lejeune after Jason got back to the U.S. Tuesday, Crystal said, “The kids are loving having Daddy home, and I slept the best that I have in months.”
She looks forward to Sundays with Jason. “One of the things I miss terribly is sitting next to him in church.”
Thursdays will also hold meaning, because on those days, Jason will be the one taking out the trash.