Vicky Weaver still feels a twinge of guilt when she recalls encouraging her daughter Rebecca, now 22, to join the Air Force after graduating from Fayette High School four years ago.
“Being here, she just had bad influences,” Weaver said.
She saw joining the military as a way for Rebecca to escape “the desperation of living in a small town and not seeing a way out.” Or worse, getting saddled with an unwanted pregnancy and a dead-end job.
Weaver, 52, a nurse who was left unable to work by back injuries suffered on the job, said she saw the military as the only way for Rebecca to afford college.
“Since I cannot work any longer, it was impossible for her to get any funding, and I couldn’t give her any money,” she said.
But for Rebecca, there have been no Saturday afternoon football games, late-night pizza runs or freshman-year romances. Instead, she has faced the grim realities of war and death as a soldier in Iraq. She packed cargo, drove a forklift and arranged for flights for soldiers returning home.
Healthy soldiers, wounded soldiers and dead soldiers.
Vicky Weaver thumbs through a well-worn stack of photographs in the two-story house just off Missouri 240, where the family has lived since Rebecca was in high school.
There’s Rebecca striking a pose in her Fayette High School graduation photo. Rebecca standing next to her dark-blue GMC Sonoma pickup truck at Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico. Rebecca smiling widely in the middle of a family picture, surrounded by her parents and all, but one, of her three brothers and three sisters.
Until she enlisted, Rebecca had never lived farther than 40 miles from home. Even then, it was only down the road in Columbia, where she lived for a year with her older sister Meredith while waiting for a track injury to heal. She wanted to be sure she’d pass the Air Force’s rigorous physical.
Rebecca completed basic training in June 2002 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. She then attended technical school before heading back to Missouri for a quick visit. Then it was on to New Mexico, where she was stationed for five months until she learned she was being sent to Iraq.
Vicky Weaver was more worried.
“I just wanted to go get her and bring her home and say, ‘You’re not going to do that,’ ” she said.
Rebecca’s entry into Kirkuk, Iraq, in June 2004 was a rude awakening to the constant fear she would soon face.
“We had gunfire at our plane before we were landing,” she explained. “It was a very scary entrance.”
Among the items Rebecca was responsible for shipping back to the U.S. were the clothes and personal belongings of soldiers who had been killed.
Her unit also worked with the mortuary to arrange the transportation of bodies.
“Being deployed and doing that is kind of shocking,” she said. “It places reality right in your face. I did see some things that I wish I wouldn’t have seen.”
Vicky Weaver remembered when her daughter first talked about her duties in Iraq.
“She told me that her job was to go to the morgue and pick up the bodies in body bags or plastic bags,” Weaver said. Rebecca would load the lifeless bodies into coolers to be shipped to Germany, and then home.
“I told her that I was very happy that it was her that was doing that because I knew she would give those people the respect and the dignified treatment that they deserved,” Vicky Weaver said.
Back on the home front
It is instinctual, rooted in biology for a mother to worry about her child, and that is what Vicky Weaver did.
“All of the time that she was in Iraq, I was a basket case. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think of anything else,” she said, adding that she spent late nights mindlessly munching from boxes of cereal and pondering the unknown dangers that faced her third-oldest child.
The Fayette mother recalled the agony of not being able to contact her daughter when she first left for Iraq, but once Rebecca was settled, communication was good. However, the ability to hear her daughter’s voice never allayed her fears completely.
“I would never erase the last (phone) message until I talked to her again,” she said.
At home in Fayette, Vicky Weaver lugged out a large oil painting by Rebecca of two horses that she had given to her grandfather, who had always meant to put it in a picture frame. When Rebecca found it in his basement, she framed it and brought it back home.
Sitting in her living room, Vicky Weaver ran her hand along the edge of the frame — a tangible reminder of her daughter’s absence.
When it came time to return to the United States in September 2004, Rebecca was able to leave a month early after a spot on a flight out of Iraq opened up. She called her mother as soon as she had completed all of her paperwork to leave. The two of them talked and laughed excitedly in a moment Rebecca described as “the best feeling ever.”
After she returned to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, she was given two weeks of rest-and-relaxation time in which she was required to stay in her room. It was anything but restful. Every time she’d hear one of her neighbors in the dorm slam a door, she’d instinctively jump up out of bed.
“Sometimes I’d get up and start looking for (my gear),” she said. Once on her feet, she’d take a deep breath, calm her racing heart and remember where she was.
Although the loud noises no longer bother Rebecca, she finds that even now, the shadows of what she experienced in Iraq fall over each day. She described watching scenes on the news and feeling as if she had been transported back to Kirkuk.
“I can smell the air. I can feel the armor on me. I can feel the heat and the sweat,” she said, describing the mingling of the fetid scents in the air in Iraq — oil, gasoline, trash and an odor that resembled burning hair.
Rebecca is scheduled to return to Iraq in six months. However, with her date to get out of the Air Force quickly approaching, she has both the feeling and the hope she won’t have to go.
If she doesn’t return, Rebecca will likely go to New York to join her boyfriend, Ozzy, whom she met while stationed at Holloman. He plans to be a New York police officer. She wants to go to college and study art.
“I’m ready for her to have a truly peaceful life,” Vicky Weaver said.