By Greg Jaffe
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 9:29 PM
HOPKINSVILLE, KY. - Rebecca Barton woke at 6 a.m. and reached for the BlackBerry by her bed.
The night before her husband, an Army first sergeant in Afghanistan, had asked her what she would like for her fast-approaching 30th birthday, and she had sent him an exhaustive list of all the things she did not want: a computer, a camera, sunglasses, clothes, television, iPod or any kind of electronics.
She was asleep when 1st Sgt. Robert N. Barton replied. "At least I know what not to get you," he typed. "You are always on my mind and in my heart. Always. Every minute of every day. I love you so much. I can't wait to see you. Have a good day today."
It was 11:20 a.m. in Afghanistan when Barton clicked send on the e-mail. Seventy-five minutes later, he and four other soldiers were killed when a massive roadside bomb destroyed their vehicle.
The news would not reach Rebecca for another 15 hours.
Rebecca met Robert in 2007, a few months before he deployed to Iraq for his second of three combat tours. Among his soldiers, Barton, 35, was known as smart, garrulous and irreverent. His first Army dog tags had listed his religion as "Infantry."
Barton's commanders described him as the kind of sergeant who pressed to go out on every patrol with his soldiers. "He practically lived on patrol," one of his company commanders said.
Rebecca liked the way he treated her shy, 12-year-old son from a previous marriage. "Tell Jason I miss him so, so much and want to come home and kick his butt in board games and basketball," Barton had written in that last e-mail home.
Rebecca read Barton's e-mail in bed and then rushed to begin her day. She dropped her son at her parents' house in nearby Hopkinsville, Ky., and headed off to her job in the accounts payable department of a large government contractor. It wasn't until lunch when she finally found the time to respond.
"I feel like I am being a pain about my Birthday," she typed. "I am not bummed about turning 30. I don't feel bad about that. I am bummed that you are not home."
Barton had been dead for almost 12 hours.
Rebecca, who has long black hair, a smooth, dark complexion, and a precise and private manner, checked her BlackBerry at work several times that afternoon to see whether her husband had e-mailed her before turning in for the night in Afghanistan. There was nothing. A few minutes before 5 p.m. she did a quick scan of the day's news. Ten U.S. troops had died in Afghanistan.
Word of Barton's death had begun to spread among his former soldiers, who were posting remembrances on Facebook. Fortunately his wife didn't have an account.
"It never crossed my mind that it was Bobby," Rebecca said.
She and Barton had recently bought a home in a brand-new subdivision, cut into the edge of a cornfield, a few miles from Fort Campbell. After his Afghan tour, Barton expected to land a two-year posting as an ROTC instructor at a university. Once he completed the ROTC assignment, he would have 20 years of service, enough to qualify for retirement. He, Rebecca and Jason would return to their home in Tennessee.
Around 5:20 p.m. Rebecca turned onto their street, lined with just-planted maple saplings wilting in the June heat, and noticed an unfamiliar navy blue sedan. Then she saw the two Army officers standing by her front door.
"Oh, [expletive]," she said.
"What, Mom?" her son asked.
"Nothing," Rebecca replied. "It is nothing. I need you to take the dog, and I need you to walk around the house until I come out and get you and don't come in," she said.
The Army chaplain sat with her on the love seat in the living room, while the other officer told her that Barton was "believed" to have been killed by a roadside bomb. The explosion had so completely destroyed his armored vehicle that they couldn't be sure. But witnesses and the vehicle's manifest both placed him in the truck, the officer said.
"I don't understand," replied Rebecca.
The officer repeated the story two more times, and the chaplain asked whether she wanted them to tell her son. She declined and stepped outside to find him.
"I had to catch him from hitting the ground," Rebecca recalled. "He just broke down."
Ten days after her husband's death Rebecca received an e-mail from Kitty Hinds, the wife of her husband's company commander.
Rebecca, who had grown up near Fort Campbell and was surrounded by family and old friends, didn't spend much time with other military wives. She barely knew Hinds.
"You have not left my mind," Hinds wrote. "I'm here and it seems always thinking about you . . . whenever you are up for company, let me know."
A few days later Hinds and the battalion commander's wife visited Rebecca's house. Her life had been chaotic in the days since Barton had been killed. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, his body had washed 120 miles down the raging Konar River. A soldier in Afghanistan then mistook one of the deceased for Barton. Rebecca had flown all the way to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, only to receive the wrong body.
In the three weeks it took the military to find and correctly identify Barton's body, she had to delay the funeral twice. Her florist quit on her.
"I am a Type A personality, and grieving for my husband wasn't on my list of things to do," Hinds recalled her saying.
Hinds let out a nervous giggle. "It feels wrong to laugh," she told Rebecca.
The two began to get together for beers every Wednesday night. Rebecca said Hinds is one of the few people who understands her "twisty darkness."
She also was drawn to Fort Campbell. The base holds a monthly "remembrance ceremony" for the 101st Airborne Division soldiers killed most recently in Afghanistan. Rebecca has attended all but one of them since her husband's death, sitting quietly in the back.
"Everyone deserves some honor," she said.