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Not home for the holidays

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Mary Emily Wood said she’ll do “all the usual things” as she celebrates Thanksgiving with her in-laws.

She’ll eat a big meal with the traditional fixings and count her many blessings. She’ll help her mother-in-law clean up, then relax and gear up for an early morning of Black Friday shopping. But part of her will be in Iraq.

That’s where Mary Emily’s husband, Army Sgt. Donald Wood, 26, has been stationed since March. He was in Pawleys Island on leave for two weeks, but had to leave Saturday. They have been married for 13 months.

Mary Emily, 27, grew up at Pawleys Island. Her parents, Dan and Sherry Richardson, live in Waterford Heights.

This is Donald and Mary Emily’s first combat deployment since they became a couple five years ago.

“It’s very hard not knowing what he’s doing or if he’s OK most of the time, but it puts things in perspective,” Mary Emily said. “When you only get to talk to each other a couple of minutes a day, you learn to get down to what’s really important — you’re safe, I’m safe and the I love yous. People normally save ‘I love you’ for last, but we do it first.”

Though Donald and Mary Emily have spent most of their brief marriage in separate countries, they know more about each other’s day-to-day thoughts and activities than many couples who live in the same house.

They talk several times a day on Donald’s days off and nightly on the days he works. Donald is a crew chief maintaining Apache helicopters. By the time he finishes his shift, goes to the gym and showers, it’s about 9 p.m. in the eastern U.S., so Donald and Mary Emily set up their computers on tables 7,000 miles apart and eat together or pay bills.

“We do those mundane things I miss doing with him,” Mary Emily said. “It’s interesting to see what other couples fight about now. It’s like, ‘Wow, if I could only fight with my husband.’ ”

While Mary Emily and Donald value every chance they have to talk, they’ve had some unpleasant and difficult conversations since his deployment eight months ago. They’ve had three deaths in the family in that time.

“Those conversations are the hardest because I want to reach out and hug him and do the grief thing, but I can’t,” Mary Emily said.

The couple said they’ve learned a lot about communication in a short period.

Mary Emily and Donald supplement conversations over the phone or Skype with messages and photos throughout the day. Mary Emily sends Donald pictures of meals she’s having, things she buys, her nails after a manicure, and random other things. She also keeps him updated on what’s going on with family and friends, celebrity news and other happenings she thinks he might be interested in.

A lot of it’s “just silly stuff,” Mary Emily said, but to Donald, it means a lot. It helps him feel connected to those back home, he said, helps him get through each day in a harsh and hostile area.

Donald said a lot of people stationed overseas don’t want to know about things like what their loved ones are eating back home, but he’s of a different mind.

“It’s nice knowing what’s going on,” Donald said. “It’s almost like I’m still there and it’s nice knowing she’s carrying on.

“I told her when I left, she had to carry on and have as normal a life as possible, so it’s nice hearing day-to-day the normal things she does, meeting friends for dinner and stuff like that. It kind of helps, knowing she’s not sitting at home all the time just waiting for me to get back.”

The frequent exchange of daily minutiae made it easier for Donald to transition when he returned to America this month, he said. And it eliminated a need for catching up when he was reunited with his wife.

Mary Emily also sends frequent care packages. After getting a cookbook about food that can be prepared for shipment overseas, she experimented with a making cake in a jar.

“It sounds good in theory, but after several failed attempts, I think we’ve decided cake is better eaten fresh,” she said.

While Donald is overseas, Mary Emily said she’s been “floating.” She quit her job in corporate management, left her home in Raleigh and has been visiting friends and family around the country. She won’t settle again until she can do it with Donald, she said.

“We had built a life in Raleigh. There was no real reason for me to be there without him, and looking around our home and seeing our things was too overwhelming. I still don’t want to go back. It’s our home and it doesn’t seem like much without him.”

When Donald’s leave came up, he told Mary Emily he wanted to spend it in Pawleys Island, though his family is in Ohio. Mary Emily said she first brought him to her childhood home four years ago and he’s wanted to go back as often as possible ever since.

They got married on the beach in Litchfield.

Donald spent much of his leave fishing, cooking out and enjoying the ocean, but the best thing was being surrounded by family and friends, he said.

He said, it was “overwhelming to finally see green grass again and trees that aren’t half dead; to see normal life again.”

As much as he enjoys the sand on Pawleys Island, he said he wasn’t looking forward to getting back to the Iraqi desert.

Things are getting better there, he said, morale is improving and a lot less things are going wrong, but “it’ll be nice knowing I’ve only got three months left.”

Next to being able to reach out and touch her husband, Mary Emily said one of the best things about having him home was seeing people thank him in person for serving his country.

“I get thanked all the time for his service, but seeing him get thanked is wonderful,” she said. “People should be thanking him. He’s a real life hero and what he does for millions of people he’ll never know is humbling. I think people take it for granted a lot of times. People forget we still have people over there.”

Donald said he wants people to know that hearing from folks back home means a lot to him and other soldiers serving overseas.

“We thoroughly enjoy the thoughts and prayers we get,” he said. “It’s good knowing there are people back home thinking about us and supporting us.”

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