HONOLULU, Jan. 29 -- Melanie House looked at her husband. John was looking at their son. And then she saw him wipe his eyes.
"Are you all right?" she remembers asking. Because John Daniel House, that tattooed, tough-guy, motorcycle-riding, Johnny Cash-worshiping Navy corpsman she had married, was crying.
Most of the 30 Marines killed in Wednesday's helicopter crash in Iraq had been based at Kaneohe Bay, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
(Lucy Pemoni -- AP)
"I just can't believe that's our baby," he said.
Petty Officer 3rd Class John House was in Iraq, 8,406 miles from his wife and child in Honolulu. It had galled him to miss the Christmas Eve birth of his first child, and now he was meeting 12-day-old James Cash House over a blurry Internet video connection. For a first face-to-face, it was woefully inadequate and unbearably precious. Three weeks later, House was killed along with 30 Marines when their helicopter crashed Wednesday in a sandstorm in western Iraq.
All but the flight crew were based here in Hawaii -- House at Pearl Harbor and 26 Marines at nearby Kaneohe Bay. Like House, all of the Hawaii Marines had endured the bloody assault on insurgents in Fallujah last fall. And like House, two of the Marines were fathers of newborns they never had a chance to hold.
This island experienced something of a collective shudder after the news of the crash. Yet relatively few here could claim a close connection to the lost. Several thousand Hawaii-based troops serve in Afghanistan or Iraq. But many are young and unattached. And officials here say that many service members with families send them back to mainland home towns to wait out their long deployments closer to a network of friends and relatives.
John and Melanie House were in that in-between stage, a family still on the way when he was sent for a second tour of the Middle East in September. So she stayed in Hawaii. And when John made friends with the two other fathers-to-be he had met, Melanie sought out their pregnant wives, who had also stayed in Hawaii, and they formed a support network of their own. Now, she said, "there's three babies that won't have fathers."
On a sunny Friday afternoon, the shades were mostly drawn in the modest military duplex that the Houses moved into in spring 2003. Melanie, a 27-year-old with high, angled cheekbones and a cascade of curly hair, fed and cradled James, a boy with his father's long eyelashes, as a constant stream of Navy officers moved through her living room to assist with funeral arrangements and deliver condolences. In between visits, she sat with her sister and her husband's parents and brother and sister, and they talked about John.
In many ways, their relationship and his transformation into a family man were interwoven with his Navy career. Raised in Ventura, Calif., he was still in high school when he considered joining the military, signing a contract with the Marines. But then he met Melanie, a student at another high school, when she came into the restaurant where he was working as a busboy.
"He said, 'I think I'm in love and I can't leave,' " recalled his mother, Susan.
He reconsidered a few years later. He had drifted through various jobs -- carpentry work, an auto-parts store -- but as he turned 22 realized he wanted a more stable career, with benefits. In December 1998, House joined the Navy and headed off to boot camp. When his parents visited a few months later, they found a changed man.
"They say the military either makes you or breaks you," said his father, Larry. "It really made John." He and Melanie recommitted to their on-again, off-again relationship. They wed in Las Vegas in spring 2000, more than a year earlier than they had planned, to take advantage of the Navy's benefits and increased pay for married sailors.
House loved his work as a medical corpsman but became even more gung-ho after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "It was like, 'I wanna go over there; I want to make my family safe,' " Melanie recalled. He got his chance in June 2002, when he was sent from Camp Pendleton in California to Bahrain and Kuwait with a unit of Marines setting the stage for an invasion of Iraq.
But six months later when he returned, he was nonetheless glad to be assigned shore duty at Pearl Harbor. Assuming he was back in the United States for good, the couple began planning a family. Melanie was six months pregnant when he was ordered to Iraq.
That second deployment began to sour John House on the military, his family says. He couldn't believe he was missing the birth of his first child. He was horrified by the bloodshed he saw in Fallujah -- rotting bodies in the street, his own Marines killed or wounded -- and disenchanted to realize that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction or connection to Sept. 11. He abandoned his plans to make a career of the Navy. His only goals were to stay alive and to make it home. His deployment was to end next month.
Melanie got a call from her husband last week. She thinks it was just before he got on that helicopter. "I'll see you in 19 days," he promised.
Now, in their Hawaii house, she is left with a few tokens of a man who was very excited to become a dad: the stuffed toy he had slept with under his shirt for two weeks so his son would know his scent when he returned. And the recordings he had made of himself reading "Goodnight Moon" so his son would know his voice.
"I've played it for James a lot," Melanie said -- even when he was still in utero. But so far this week, she added with a wince, "I haven't been able to listen to it."