After 5 years, Iraq war has changed little for some, everything for others
NEW YORK - Laura Youngblood clutched her husband's photo as she drove alone to the hospital. She'd become pregnant nearly nine months earlier, the day he'd left for training for Iraq.
Hours later, after the baby was born, she placed the photo in the bassinet next to the infant he had named Emma in his last letter home. He would never hold her.
Petty Officer Third Class Travis L. Youngblood, 26, had died two months earlier, killed by an improvised explosive device.
Laura Youngblood is just 29 years old, but she insists she will not remarry. Her life is her children, now ages 2 and 7. One day, she said, she'll be buried in the plot with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.
"I tell people I'm a happily married woman," she said, crying.
Five years after US troops invaded Iraq, there are many tears, though not everyone is crying. For the great majority of Americans, this is a war seen from afar. They turn off the news and forget about what is happening a world away.
Then there's the other war, the one that's a very vivid and present part of the lives of some Americans.
It's the war that more than a million US soldiers have fought, leaving nearly 4,000 dead and more than 29,000 wounded in action. The one in which thousands of contractors rushed in to serve and to make a buck, though some paid the ultimate price, as well.
Around military bases across America, vacations are planned around deployment schedules. Mini baby booms occur nine months after troops come home. Support groups for widows and injured soldiers have come together.
At small town National Guard armories, the focus has shifted from one weekend a month to filling out life insurance forms and packing a rucksack for war.
" 'How did I end up in this kind of a situation?' There were a lot of guys that said that," said Jeff Myers, 48, a tech sergeant in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard from Pillow, Pa. His lips still discharge shrapnel shreds, the residue of two roadside bombs he survived in 2004; a neurologist monitors the concussions he sustained.
In his job as a gunner guarding Army convoys, he saw men so paralyzed by fear they wouldn't go outside the wire. He saw others die 15 minutes after he was chatting with them.
It's not a matter of whether you will have to deal with things like irritability and nightmares after you get home, he said: "It's how you deal with it when it does happen."
And how you deal with your fellow Americans who experience Iraq from a distance.
Amanda Jordan, whose Marine husband was killed three days into the war, says she doesn't know what bothers her more - the days that go by when no one speaks of the war, or the punditry.
At a local diner she frequents with her 11-year-old son near their home in Enfield, Conn., she's contemplated standing up and leaving so he doesn't hear when people say Iraq was unnecessarily invaded.
"This is like my life. You're saying my spouse, my child's father, is dead for no reason," said Jordan, a 39-year-old former paralegal who is studying to be a therapist specializing in grief. "That's a pretty harsh thing to hear all the time."
Some can tell you exactly when their lives changed.
For Hazel Hoffman, from outside Grand Rapids, Mich., it was when the phone rang and she learned her son, Josh, was shot by a sniper. He was left a quadriplegic, unable to speak.
"I cried so hard that I had tears of blood. I remember looking down wondering, where is all this blood coming from? And it took a few seconds for me to realize this was coming out of me," said Hoffman, who has lived more than a year in an apartment with her son's girlfriend near his hospital in Richmond, Va.
Before Travis Youngblood left for Iraq, he and his wife watched a TV interview with a pregnant woman whose husband had died in Iraq. Laura Youngblood cried.
"I felt so sorry for her," Youngblood said. But then, "When my husband died, my first words were, 'I became her.' "
Today in nearly every room of her Florida house, there's a photo of her husband.
"It is hard. I feel bad for my son because he's 7. He doesn't know how to ride a two-wheel bike. His daddy was going to teach him," she said. "I can't do all the boy things that he wants to do."
She put together videos so her daughter will know the father she never met.
"I'm a survivor of the war. I'm a surviving spouse," Youngblood said. "That's the best way I can say it because every day you're surviving."