By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009
So much now depends on the ring. For Kyle Harper, there are few other signs remaining of the life she should have had with her fiance. For the longest time, she kept the diamond engagement ring on her finger. It proved what the world at times refused to acknowledge: that she had mattered to Sgt. Michael Hullender.
When Michael was killed on a dusty road in Iraq, Kyle, now 27, got her first inkling from a roommate who told her Michael's parents had called. There was no knock on the door, no official phone call or notification. Later, when she tried to obtain the things he left behind -- an old T-shirt, his dog tags, little mementos from his quarters -- she found herself floating in legal limbo, with no rights to his effects or his name.
Even in a bureaucracy as large as the Army, there is no form you can fill out to verify love, to explain the messy details of life; only the marriage certificate counts. As a result, the military had to treat Kyle the way it does all fiancees -- as though she had no relationship with Michael. All the Army could offer were condolences. There would be no grief counseling, no casualty pay, no say in his burial.
Those rights fell to his next of kin. And even there, after his death, a few in his family sided with the military. After all, they pointed out, they had known Michael his whole life. She had met him only in his last years. Rifts formed. Words were exchanged.
In the end, all she had left was the ring he gave her and what it represented -- his promise and his love. Even now, two years after his death at 29, she wonders what to do with it. Sitting on her couch in Northeast Washington, she holds up the ring to a stranger. Sunlight catches the diamond, and she poses this question: What do you do with a promise that can never be fulfilled?
* * *
The military does not keep statistics on engaged soldiers or their partners. The closest thing is an obscure 2004 survey by a West Point researcher estimating that 25 percent of soldiers in Iraq have "significant others" who are not spouses. The stories behind those numbers vary along with each couple's reasons for not tying the knot. Some simply aren't ready; others don't believe in the institution.
For Michael and Kyle, it was a question of marrying for the right reasons.
They met in Alaska in 2006, while she was waiting tables at a ski bar. She had graduated from Georgetown University, where she was a women's studies major. He was an Army medic who had finished a tour in Afghanistan as a Ranger and was stationed at Fort Richardson.
What attracted her was how he seemed to walk right through the walls she usually put up against the world. By their third date, he was telling her, "You pretend you don't need anyone, but everyone needs someone to take care of them."
For months, they spent almost every weekend together and talked daily by phone. But a deadline loomed over their relationship. Seven months after they met, Michael was deployed to Iraq. A few weeks before he left, while driving her home, he turned to her and said quietly, "What would you do if I asked you to marry me?"
"I'd say no," she blurted out. They would be doing it for the wrong reasons, she insisted. Out of fear something would happen to him in Iraq. Out of fear they would grow apart while he was gone.
Instead, they vowed to write each other almost every day, to draw closer even while separated by the vast divide. Five months later, he returned on leave and asked her again, this time with a diamond ring he bought with hazard pay.
When she said yes, he slipped the ring on her finger and called his family to tell them the news.
* * *
It would be weeks before Kyle talked to Michael's parents again. By then, he had returned to Iraq and resumed his duties in a dangerous southern region known as the Triangle of Death.
Right before he left, they had considered a last-minute wedding. The benefits were huge: almost $2,100 more a month in separation pay and housing, plus health insurance for Kyle. But, again, they decided it would be for the wrong reasons. Once, the issue of wills and life insurance had come up, what would happen if Michael died. But neither wanted to talk about it.
Two months later, on April 28, 2007, a unit near Michael was ambushed. He rushed to help and died when a bomb exploded under his feet.
It was under those circumstances that Kyle met Michael's parents for the first time, flying to Georgia to plan his funeral with them. It was an awkward situation all around. His parents were divorced, but his father, Ren, opened his house near Atlanta to the entire family.
Ren made most of the decisions regarding Michael's burial. Kyle offered to help pick out the gravestone. Ren declined. Kyle insisted on speaking at the service. Ren gave her the okay, hoping it would help her achieve closure.
Ren and Michael's mother, Cindy, asked Army officials to give Kyle one of three folded flags from his burial. And for a while, that was how things stood, everyone too overwhelmed with grief to handle much more. Then the personal effects from Michael's base in Iraq came back.
Ren quickly laid down some ground rules. Kyle could have anything she had sent him in Iraq as well as anything related to their life together in Alaska. "I tried to be accommodating," he said. "I understood her issues and where she's coming from. I was pretty patient with that."
Kyle sent him a list of everything she could remember and then asked for one thing more. She wanted something that was with him when he died -- his dog tags or a killed-in-action bracelet he was wearing for a friend. That request turned out to be the breaking point.
Ren told her it was morbid and asked whether she really understood what dog tags were used for. She took his words as him telling her how she should grieve. They haven't talked since, preferring an uneasy silence to words they would regret.
When someone is killed like that, she said, a strange impulse creeps up among the survivors to rank their pain against one another's: father, best friend, sister, fiancee. It's a pointless exercise, though. In the end, everyone loses.
* * *
When Kyle moved back to Washington that summer, she carried what little she had of Michael's things onto the plane with her, afraid it would be lost from her luggage. She had spent the summer crying. At times, the pain was suffocating, like someone was sitting on her chest. She needed to find some way to move forward without feeling like she was leaving him behind.
She arrived in Washington still wearing the ring on her left hand. It represented the future she and Michael had sketched out, a plan she was trying to keep alive.
This is how it was supposed to go: He would retire from the Army and get a job as a SWAT team medic or physician's assistant. They'd use a VA loan to buy a place in Washington, where she would enroll as a graduate student at George Washington University.
She was determined to follow through on their plan and threw herself into classes at GWU. But sometimes the pain was unavoidable. Classmates and strangers would see the ring on her finger and get excited, asking her whether she was engaged. She never knew what to say. When is it ever okay to bring up your dead fiance?
Through the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, Kyle found other women to talk to and helped start an e-mail chain specifically for mourning fiancees. By e-mail, she asked all the questions she couldn't ask other people. The women told her how they dealt with the pain and what they had done with their rings.
Heeding their advice, on the anniversary of her engagement last year, Kyle moved the ring to her right hand.
* * *
The future is again uncertain. Kyle reached the end of their two-year plan this month, graduating with a master's in women's studies.
She still talks frequently with Michael's mother and one of his sisters. She keeps pictures of him by her bed and desk. "I still think about him every day," she says, "but that can't be all that I am."
She has asked other fiancees about dating but isn't completely at peace with the idea. Flirting with other men feels wrong. Maybe if a man pursued her on his own, she'd consider it -- a military man, though, who could understand what she has been through, what she is still going through.
For now, life is too busy anyway. She accepted a full-time job this month at TAPS and is diving into the difficult work of helping others with their grief.
"Mike was a medic and took care of the guys in his unit," she points out. "Now I can help take care of their families."
As for the ring her fiance gave her and all that it represents, she still doesn't quite know what to do with it. Last year, on the day they were supposed to be married, she finally took it off her right hand.
These days, she keeps it on a long antique necklace tucked beneath her clothes -- hidden from strangers, but still close enough for her to touch.