A year ago today I shared a real life experience of mine that has and will shape the rest of my life - the day I found out my Husband, Hunter Hogan, had been killed in action - June 23rd, 2012 (4 years ago today). Today, I wan't to explain the days that followed.
After receiving news of Hunter's death, my sister drove me straight to my mother and step-father's house in Greenville, NC. I don't remember the car ride. I just remember calling everyone I knew and telling them that Hunter had been killed. My mother was the first person I called. She thought I was laughing because I was so hysterical. She couldn't understand a word I was saying. When I finally spoke the words clearly, "Hunter is dead." She burst into uncontrollable tears and denied it. "No." "They're mistaken." "He's not dead." It was even more heart breaking to hear her reaction. Hunter was my mom's first son. She had three girls, so when Hunter came along, she took to him like he was her own. She loved him more than I could explain. He confided in her when we fought, and shared so many unforgettable moments with her. Her disbelief cut me in half. I told her I was on my way to her, and then I hung up.
Next, I called my Dad. He was in California (where I am from), and coincidentally he was with Hunter's step-mom Shelly, and step-sister, Ally at the time. They flew to CA a few days before to visit UCLA, as Ally was thinking about applying there. My father offered to show them around LA. After taking them to all of the beautiful places he knew in LA, he took them to his favorite restaurant - The Reel Inn in Malibu (one I had promised Hunter I would take him to when he came home). When he answered the phone he was already crying. I said, "Dad, Hunter's dead." He said, "I know honey, Steve just called us." It was nothing but sobs, and that's all I remember. I could hear Shelly and Ally screaming in the background. How helpless they must have felt in a different state from Steve. We were all helpless.
I called my best friends Rebekah and Jordyn. Luckily, they lived near me. They both thought I was laughing as well, and once they realized what I was saying they both said, "Tell me where you are." I told them I was going to my mom's house, and they said they'd meet me there.
Finally, we arrived at my mom's house in Greenville. We pulled up to their house, and immediately my mom and little sister and step-dad (Hunter's Gunnery Sargent in the Marine Corps) opened the door to their house. I opened the door to the car, and took two short steps and fell to my knees. They ran to me and wrapped their arms around me. All of us crying and screaming in the parking lot. I remember everyone in the neighborhood came out of their houses to see what the commotion was about. We didn't care at all. Didn't care one bit. Nothing else existed but us and the incredible undeniable void we all felt. I don't know how long we were in the parking lot, and I'm not certain what order the next events happened in.
Meema and Papa (Hunter's Grandparents) were notified, and somehow they knew to come to my mom's house. They lived in the area as well. Seeing them made my heart hurt ten times worse, knowing that they lost their Grandson. Right after they got there, the Marines showed up. Several Marines were there, a Chaplain and the Lieutenant that called me on the phone. His name was Jesse Rogers. They walked up to the house and asked which one of us was Mrs. Hunter Hogan. I came forward, and of course they told me what I already knew. They said something along the lines of, "Mrs. Hogan, we regret to inform you that your Husband, Hunter Hogan was killed in Action this morning at 8AM in Helmand Province, Afghanistan." They told me that we had a lot of paperwork to go through, and asked if they could come in.
The Marines came in and we went over the legalities of what was going to happen. They told us that the next steps were to fly to Dover, Deleware, and that's where we would receive his body.
Next, my best friend Rebekah pulled up. I came outside to greet her and she was crying of course, she said, "Brittney, I'm sorry but you have to get in my car and listen to this song." I said, "I don't want to listen to a song!" (I was screaming and crying at the same time) "No, you have to. I've never heard it before, but it's on my iPod on shuffle and it played four times on my way over here. I think Hunter wants you to hear it." So I got in the car, and she played the song. The lyrics:
"But I will see you again
I will see you again a long time from now
And there goes my life
Passing by with every departing flight
And its been so hard
So much time so far apart
And she walks the night
How many hearts will die tonight
And well things have changed
I guess I'll find out in seventeen days
But I will see you again"
We were both crying hysterically. I asked her what the name of the song was, and she said "Hello, I'm in Delaware." She couldn't understand why I was crying even harder. I said, "are you sure?" She said, "yes that's the name". I couldn't believe my eyes. It was definitely Hunter trying to speak to me. Seventeen was our number and so was 23. When Hunter and I got married, I tattooed a 17 on my foot for his birthday, and he tattooed a 23 on his arm for my birthday. I went back inside and told the family what the song said, and then I stopped. Everyone looked at me extremely concerned, and just then I realized what the date was. It was the 23rd. He died on the 23rd. It may have little significance to anyone else, but everyone who knows us knew that realizing that was devastating to me. So I burst out into more tears, and then Jordyn and Rebekah gave me a bottle of Jack Daniels (mine and Hunter's drink) that they had picked up on the way for me. I opened it and started drinking, and thought about the words of the song I just heard.
It was 100% Hunter immediately trying to connect with me. It gave me the smallest semblance of comfort, but at the time I couldn't feel much of anything, just a deep pain in my stomach that wouldn't go away, and didn't for months. And that's when the next chapter of my life began.
The next couple of weeks were hectic. I never went back to our house in New Bern, NC. I couldn't. I knew it would be unbearable for me to be at the place that we spent the last year making so many unforgettable memories. Instead, my sister went back to the house and got Hunter's dog, Hank, and a bag of clothes for me. She brought it back to my mom's and the next morning we were all off to Dover, Delaware to receive Hunter's body.
"So, there goes my life, passing by with every departing flight". I walked around the airport like a zombie with a bottle of Jack in one hand, drinking it straight from the bottle. I must have looked insane. I didn't care how I looked, I doubt I had makeup on. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror. I felt completely empty inside, and I knew receiving his body in Delaware would make me feel ten times worse, because that would make it real.
We got to Delaware, and Hunter's dad met us there. He didn't get there until about midnight, and I stayed up waiting for him on the couch in the lobby of the hotel. I didn't know how he would be. I couldn't imagine the heartache he was feeling losing his son, or the heartache Meema and Papa felt losing their Grandson, and Stacy & Danny losing their nephew. I wished I could make it all better, but I couldn't do anything. He finally got there, and we ran to each other and hugged and cried for probably a good solid 10 minutes. It was horrible, but there was a sense of relief to know that we had each other while going through this. He was so strong. A true Marine.
The next day, another family came to the hotel - the Mills. Their son Gino was killed the day before Hunter. They were in the same platoon, and they were friends. I never met Gino before Hunter deployed, but hearing the stories about him, it made sense that they were friends. It was hard to meet them. I remember not being able to do it until I had about four Jack N' Cokes. Looking back, I couldn't do anything without having several Jack N' Cokes. I wish I could have been stronger, and done it without anything, but that wasn't an option. I was immobilized.
That night we went to the landing strip at the airport in Dover to receive his body. I also needed alcohol to handle that. Especially because Hunter's mom would be there as well. I had never met Hunter's mom. Sadly, they hadn't spoken to each other for a couple years before he died. When I found out that she would be there, so many emotions ran through me. The first emotion was heart wrenching sadness for what she must have been feeling losing her only child, and regret she must have felt for not being on good terms with him before this. I was angry at her for not being on better terms with him. I couldn't understand it, but Hunter didn't really like to talk about it much. Regardless of what I was feeling, I knew I had to see her. When the plain landed, the Marines walked us out to the tarmac and we stood and waited. I saw her and with Steve behind me, he gave me a little nudge telling me it was okay to walk up to her then. So I did. She looked devastated. She opened her arms out wide and we gave each other a huge hug, both sobbing, I yelled into her ear (because it was loud outside next to the plane), "Thank you for giving birth to my Husband". And she said "Thank you for loving him." And that was all. I walked back over and stood next to Steve and my family, and the Marines carried Hunter out of the plane in a wooden box with a flag draped over it. It was a sight you'd only seen in movies, and wished that you'd never see in real life. It felt like a dream.
Hunter was buried in York, Nebraska in a beautiful Catholic cemetery that you can see from his Aunt Stacy's house. Several other people in his family are buried there and will be buried there someday. It was easy deciding where he would be buried. A little over a year prior, when we were visiting Nebraska, we were standing in front of his Aunt's house and he put his arm around my shoulder and said, "See those little dots over there on that field?" "Yeah." "That's the family cemetery. I want us to be buried there." So that was that. The rest of the decisions following were not as easy.
The next two weeks after arriving in Nebraska would be the hardest weeks of my life. I was only 21 and I had so many decisions to make. Planning the funeral was hard. I had a lot of help, don't get me wrong, but every final decision came down to me, and I just wanted to run and hide. The hardest decision I've ever had to make in my life was deciding whether or not to give Hunter an open casket or a closed casket. It took me about a week and a half to decide. On one hand, I didn't want to regret not seeing him one last time, but on the other hand, I didn't want how he looked to be the way I remembered him for the rest of my life. Jesse Rogers, my CACO (A Casualty Assistance Calls Officer) was a huge help with the entire process, and helping me make this decision. He was more than a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps guiding me through the legal process and the funeral, he became a friend to our whole family, as did Steve's CACOs. I finally decided to have an open casket at Hunter's funeral. Of course, there was the chance it wouldn't be possible because of the way he was killed, but the coroners were telling us it was possible. So Steve and I decided he would go in and look at him first, and if he thought it was okay for me, he would come and get me.
I have no idea how Steve was that strong. To me, losing a child is worse than losing a Husband. He did it though, and he did it as gracefully as humanly possible. He looked at Hunter first, and then he came to get me. Reluctantly, and with a belly full of breakfast Whisky, I walked into the room where Hunter was. I saw his long eyelashes sticking out over the casket, and I fell to my knees sobbing. I said I couldn't do it. I can't look at him. Steve picked me up and said, yes you can. So I slowly walked over to him.
I'm glad I saw him, but part of me wishes I hadn't. However, I probably would have regretted it more if I hadn't. It didn't look like him, to me anyway. I stayed their for about a minute. I put a love letter that I wrote him in his pocket, and put my hand on his chest. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. It was my worst fear, and it was not reality, and this made it true. There was no coming back from this. My Husband was gone.
The funeral was the longest day of my life, and the hottest. Hunter made sure it was 106 degrees out there for us. I wore a black dress and my hair up in a big ridiculous 1960's style beehive, because Hunter loved that. Haha. Looking back at the pictures, I looked crazy, but I know he appreciated it. I somehow worked up the courage and stopped the tears just long enough to sing "At Last" by Etta James in the Catholic church after Mass for him. I'm not sure how I did it. His casket was right in front of the stage with an American Flag draped over it, so I know he heard me. He loved when I sang that song. He used to make me sing it every time we had a party or people over, by the time I was drunk of course, which always made it sound terrible. But he loved it, and he looked at me with a big smile and hung on to every last word like I was the singer in his favorite band.
We had the reception at the Elk's Lodge, which had deer heads and elk heads hanging on the walls, which was perfect for Hunter, being the master Hunter that he was. He would have loved it. We had it catered by Chances 'R, Hunter's favorite restaurant in York. Someone in the town who was at the funeral picked up the entire tab out of the kindness of their heart, and remained anonymous. All of our friends and family were there. All of Hunter's marines were there (except for the ones he was deployed with. They were all still in Afghanistan). And we listened to all of his favorite songs and sang them at the top of our lungs and cried all night.
The patriotism that town of York showed was unheard of. I think just about every person that lived there was out lining the streets waiving an American Flag during the procession. I wish I could personally thank them all for giving Hunter that honor and showing so much support.
The day after the funeral, everyone had gone home, and I settled into Hunter's room at Steve's house. I remember being glad that everyone had left because I was so tired, but I had never felt so alone in my life. This horrible feeling rushed over me, the same feeling I got when I got the phone call just two weeks before that Hunter had been killed. I almost passed out, and I had to calm myself down. It was the first time in my life I considered suicide. I didn't care whether I lived or died anymore. I still had so many amazing people in my life, and probably even more then, I loved my family so much, and I knew that eventually I would get out of this, but I was just so scared for how long it would take. There isn't a formula that says your heart will stop being broken exactly 3 months or three years after you lose your Husband. I wished their was at that point. I had never really been depressed before this either, so I didn't know how to handle it.
A couple nights later when I was sleeping, Hunter called me from Heaven. I had a dream that my phone rang, and it was his ringtone and picture that popped up and it said "Husband Calling...". I answered the phone in complete disbelief, and said "Hunter?" He said, "Hi Baby! I'm so sorry I had to go. I love you so much." I said. "Hunter, how are you calling me? How are you using the phone?" He said, "Baby, I'm Hunter. I do whatever I want." I laughed and said, "I love you and miss you so much." He said, "Baby, it's so beautiful here. I can't wait for you to see it." That was it, and then I woke up crying uncontrollably. The phone call sounded distorted like it really did come from Heaven. I loved it. This made me feel a lot better. I just needed to know he could see me and that he wasn't completely gone.
Ever since then, he's given me sign after sign that he's still with me. All of his friends and family have heard from him as well. Everyday is hard, but it's getting better. I drank Jack Daniels for a long time, and still have one for him every 23rd of June. Finally, though, it's all making sense more and more. I finally feel like I have a purpose. And I know that God put me through this because I'm supposed to help others going through the same thing. I know that God and Hunter will continue to bless me and support me through my journey with Virago and my life, and it feels good to know that.
Even though I know that this is what I'm supposed to be doing, I still struggle every day and find it hard to keep motivated. Life is so hard, and somedays you don't feel good enough, or smart enough, or fast enough. That's why I try to remind myself that we are not guaranteed tomorrow, and live each day like it's my last.
It's amazing what losing someone so close to you can do for your perspective on life. Don't wait until it happens to get this perspective. It's obtainable now. Treat everyone with kindness, and love fearlessly. Every day is a gift. Enjoy it.