By: Sean Peters
Reprinted with permission from his Tumblr account.
I’ve been meaning to post this for some time but I haven’t done it because it’s hard. Some of y’all have posted your stories of loss and how it’s affected you. This is mine.
As background: the setup for this is that I went to Texas A&M and joined the Corps of Cadets in preparation for my military career. Freshman year was quite a lot like going to boot camp… for a year. Sure, there were intervals. We had a Christmas break, spring break, Sundays off, Saturdays off if there wasn’t a football game, etc. But in the meantime there was a lot of military activity. Uniform inspections. Formation twice a day. Pushups. Situps. Running. Mountain climbers. More pushups. Some considerable amount of getting screamed at. Learning to spit-shine shoes. Polishing brass. Not to mention the academic efforts involved in trying to get through your first year at college.
So there was a fairly high level of stress involved here. And while all this was going on, it was emphasized that your whole class was in this together. If anyone fucked up, the whole group sucked it up. It was expected that if anyone was having trouble, his classmates were going to carry his ass if necessary. So what that meant was that we developed a very strong bond with each other. I haven’t seen most of my classmates in a number of years but I would still take a bullet for them.
In addition to the freshman year stress, we had both lived through a bunch of heartache our junior year, when due to a bunch of political bullshit, we were both sweating what our cadet positions were going to be our senior year. We were roommates and spent some considerable amount of time crying on each others shoulders about the whole thing. In the grand scheme of things, this was really pretty meaningless, but it meant everything to us at the time. By the time this picture was taken, it was settled. I was going to get the position I thought I was going to get, he was going to be assigned one level lower, but was ok with it. We were on top of the world. And we could not have been any closer.
Right after the picture was taken, the term ended. Joe was an Army cadet, and in what was called the Simultaneous Membership Program… meaning he was in ROTC and the National Guard at the same time. So he was looking forward to a summer training program with the Army National Guard. I was due to leave for midshipman cruise in mid-June.
So a few days after this was taken, we went home, him to Dallas, me to Waupaca, WI. We talked by phone once or twice. I was aware that he was going to be leaving for summer training before I was, and was trying to figure out what his address was going to be so we could write (this was waaaaayyy before there was an Internet). I was never quite able to straighten that out, though.
Then: I’m asleep in bed one night, and the phone rings. It’s like 0100. By the time I’m fully awake, I can hear mom already heading for the kitchen to answer (again, waaaayyy before wireless phones, we only had one phone in the house). I hear her voice, talking low, then she comes to get me. It’s for you, she says.
Of course the obituary came later. That night, it was just Carol, Joe’s mom, crying and telling me he had been killed in a jeep wreck that day.
I was poleaxed. Because, you know, I had just been with him. The next week or so was a blur. I had to get to Dallas, do a wake for my best friend, be in the funeral (where, at the age of 20, I became a pallbearer for the first time), get on a plane back home, and get on another series of airplanes to the western Pacific for my cruise.
While I was deployed we pulled into the Philippines, Singapore. Thailand, and Hong Kong. All of this should have been fairly exciting for someone who had never been anywhere before, and to some extent it was. But mostly I was just kind of numb. After a month I came back home and promptly came down with pneumonia. I was down with that for several weeks, recovered, and went back to school. I thought I was ok.
But I wasn’t. I was able to do my military duties without too much difficulty, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough about academics to really get the job done. I wound up the fall semester with less than a 2.0 and on academic probation. This was sort of a wake up call.
I applied myself really hard the spring semester, and given that football season was over, I had more time to apply to academics. I got pretty good grades. Life was looking kinda good. I thought I was ok.
But again, I wasn’t. I rolled into my fifth year (yes, I packed four years of education in to five years of actual attendance, mostly because I changed my major, but partly because I was kind of a fuckup as a student). I thought I was over Joe’s death. But I wasn’t. I cried a lot. Drank a lot. Blew off class a lot. Net result: failed statistical mechanics. Failed thermodynamics lab. Got a D in quantum mechanics. Got indifferent C’s in everything else. Got hauled before the Colonel (CO of the NMCROTC unit) to explain myself. Of course there was no excuse. Was informed that I was heading to the Fleet one way or another after one more semester, so I’d better either unfuck myself or I was going to be wearing a crackerjack uniform.
So I did. Unfuck myself, I mean. Made up stat. mech. Got good grades in quantum. Threw myself at the feet of the dean and got him to accept some other courses in lieu of thermo lab. All this took time to arrange, and I was sweating it until a few weeks before graduation/commissioning, but I pulled it out, and walked across the stage. As was usual at the time, I was commissioned on the spot and got temporary orders to the NROTC unit, doing office work. After that I reported to the Surface Warfare Officer School Command Pacific, San Diego, CA, in early July 1987, for accession training.
That’s the story. So, 27 years later, it’s over, right? Mostly. I go for months at a time now not needing to think about this. For the most part, it’s like it didn’t happen. But: please don’t call me late at night, because a ringing phone after bedtime still scares me to death. Every now and then, I still get choked up. Because he died and I wasn’t even there to help him.
There are times, even at this late date, that I wish I could just forget about all this. But in the end the sadness is wrapped around all my memories of him. It’s all I have left. If I were to stop hurting over this, it would be the same as if I stopped caring. And I can’t.
I tagged a couple of y’all who have lost people, no doubt there are others. Some recently, some farther back. All I can tell you is that yeah, it never stops hurting. But after a while it’s not as bad. Even if it fucks you up a lot, eventually if you keep going you can live.
I hope this is helpful to someone. I’ve got to stop now, though, I’ve got something in my eye, again.