Victoria and Norm were high school sweethearts who married just before he left for Iraq. Photograph courtesy of the Anderson family
On a Wednesday night, I finished my shift at the restaurant a little early. That was good—it meant more time for drinking. I stopped at a coworker’s apartment to toss back shots of Jack Daniel’s. Sufficiently buzzed, I drove to the Treehouse, a bar near where I was living in the Baltimore suburbs.
The bartender stood in an opposite corner of the bar chatting with a pretty girl. On the TV above him, a story flashed about a Marine who had died. I tried to read the captions, but my mind was hazy and my eyes were tired. About a year had passed since I’d come home from Iraq in 2004.
The bartender came over without a newly poured beer. He stared at me, rubbing his palms. “Hey, Dario,” he said. “This woman over here just had her husband killed in Iraq. Could you . . . .” He didn’t need to finish.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
I took the long path toward her, curving around the length of the bar. I stepped beside her and she looked at me, confused. A few of her friends were with her; they watched me, too.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m a lance corporal in the Marines. I heard about your loss. I’m here for you.” She closed her eyes. Then she dropped her head into my chest and hugged me. I had no idea what I should do.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
The Marine Corps is small. There are only a few degrees of separation between any two people who wear the olive-drab green. There was a chance I knew her husband.
“Victoria Anderson,” she said. “My husband was Lance Corporal Norm Anderson.”
The first time I heard that name, in 2002, I was working as an aide at the Marine Recruiting Substation in Towson. When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, I had been attending Marine combat training. It seemed stupid to just be a reservist—the “one weekend a month and two weeks a year” warrior I had enlisted as during peacetime. With Afghanistan action under way, I wanted to fight.
I asked about volunteering for the infantry or any active-duty combat job, but my reserve unit in DC turned down those requests. So I took the only full-time Marine position I could find: recruiting assistant.
No one wanted to sign up for war in a mostly healthy economy. In my three months in the recruiting office, someone walked in asking to be a Marine only once. We found everyone else by dialing lists given to us by local schools, holding pull-up competitions or other events, wandering through malls and high schools, and giving incentives such as guaranteed promotions to the poolees—young men and women who had already decided to join—if they got their friends to enlist.
It was my job to make a first contact and get someone to set up an appointment with the recruiters. “Hey, dude, what is one hour of your time compared against the rest of your life?” I would ask. “We just want to give you some options for your future. How does that sound? I think it would be stupid to say no.”
Next: "In a place called Al Qa'im, he stopped a suicide bomber."
Next: Josh is killed in a sniper attack.
Victoria and I talked for hours. Her thoughts were fixated on Cindy Sheehan, an antiwar activist whose son had died in combat in Iraq. Victoria cursed Sheehan for protesting the war, using the private pain of her lost son as a torch. Victoria thought Sheehan’s crusade had cheapened the memory of our nation’s war dead. “He made his choice,” Victoria said of her husband. “He did what he loved and saved others’ lives.”
Victoria and Norm had been high-school sweethearts, but Norm had kept a distance from her after joining the Marines. They only married just before he left. Victoria now understood why he had pushed her away for so long. He had wanted to save her from this heartache. But she was happy that they were married, if only for a few months. “I can have that memory for as long as I live,” she said. I had never before seen someone smile and cry at the same time.
Victoria and I exchanged numbers before we left that night. It made sense to give each other a lifeline. A few days later, she showed up at the restaurant where I waited tables, and this became a weekly routine. We never talked about Norm’s death or my combat experiences. She was just checking in on me and, in a weird way, I was counseling her. It seemed that none of the other people in her life could understand the isolation and pain of losing someone they loved in combat.
She told me about her customer-service job at a BMW dealership and her plans for the future. I talked about going out and partying. In several months, I would be in Iraq again, so I had no other goals. We also talked about relationships. My girlfriend had left me when I returned home—I had scared her away with my intensity and self-destruction—but I felt inspired by Victoria’s love for Norm. Maybe I could recover and reach out to someone, even if I did deploy again. I wanted to know how.
A few weeks after our first meeting, she came into the restaurant early in the afternoon and started drinking hard. A couple of empty cocktail glasses were on her table by the time I walked over. “Josh is dead, too,” Victoria said—a sniper had killed him. Another person I had helped enlist was gone.
I remembered when I first met Josh. As a recruiting assistant, I had traveled to his cousin’s small house—she was considering enlisting—in the woods of the rural part of Baltimore County. He was there, too. “Do you want to shoot something?” he asked, pointing to the large field just beyond her home. I knew then he would make a good Marine.
I ended my shift as quickly as I could, but Victoria was gone by the time I returned. I went back to the Treehouse to get drunk.
I couldn’t bring myself to attend either of their funerals. I’ve never visited their graves or the high-school football field they once played on or the memorial of their wall-mounted jerseys with the retired numbers 26 and 33. I don’t even like to remember their existence—though when I do, I remember them as heroes.
I never sought out Victoria again. Facing her would mean reliving all the trauma. She never contacted me again, either.
People tell me I didn’t do anything wrong and I shouldn’t feel responsible for Josh and Norm’s deaths. But I did make mistakes—both as a Marine and as a civilian.
I’m in graduate school now, and I do some substitute teaching on the side. An automated call came for me yesterday. A voice recording asked if I wanted to teach an English class at Hereford High, Josh and Norm’s alma mater. I held the phone with a shaking hand. The question kept repeating: “If you want to accept this assignment, press one. . . . If you want to accept this assignment, press one. . . . If you want to accept this assignment, press one. . . .”
After two minutes, it hung up on me.
For information on the memorial fund in honor of Norman Anderson and Joshua Snyder, visit anderson-snyder.info.
This article appears in the May 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.
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