Eddy Garvin's girl: 'At some point, it just gets easier'
Stars and Stripes August 18, 2010
This article was part of Stars and Stripes’ 2010 special five-day report “The Long Goodbye,” published as a five-day series August 16-20, 2010, as U.S. combat troops exited Iraq. Stars and Stripes wrote about the series:
“As he launched the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush laid out America’s goals: ‘to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.’ More than seven years later, whether the mission has finally been accomplished is far less clear. [In this series,] Stars and Stripes looks at the costs of the war through the eyes of Iraqis and Americans and asks: What difference did we really make?”
PEABODY, Mass. — He wouldn’t even shoot you with a squirt gun, yet somehow Eddy Garvin had become a U.S. Marine.
By September 2006, he was a lance corporal in Iraq.
By October, he was dead.
A roadside bomb near Fallujah widowed his teenage bride, Melissa, who had loved him since both were in elementary school.
Ten months after Eddy’s death, Melissa Garvin had joined the Army and was off to boot camp. She wanted to be a combat medic and honor Eddy’s sacrifice.
Some lauded her decision as a beautiful tribute.
“Godspeed, Melissa Garvin. May the winds of fate carry you towards what you desire the most,” one man wrote after her story appeared in local newspapers and on TV.
Her mother was furious — at the U.S. Army.
“I told them that they’re out of their minds,” Anna Rabideau said then in a Boston newspaper. “How can they accept her after losing her husband?”
Melissa Garvin’s story, like Garvin herself, is unique. Yet she’s shared the tragedy of 2,427 other Americans, mostly women, whose spouses have been killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003.
Like many of them, she was young, recently married, just starting out. Like most of them, she was blindsided by the loss, how much it hurt, how hard it was to bear. And like all of them, she had to find a way toward a new life.
Garvin never completed basic training. She was having nightmares. A week before graduation, Garvin was called into the commander’s office and told that given the nightmares — not to mention her mother’s opposition or any subsequent, adverse publicity — the Army was sending her home.
Garvin — who looks like Mariah Carey and sounds like Marisa Tomei — is still a little ticked off about it.
“I really didn’t have the option of staying,” she said.
“Thank God, thank God, thank God,” her mother added.
Garvin is 23 now and works as a nurse’s aide. She lives alone in a two-story white house on the corner, bought with part of her $500,000 widow’s benefits — or, as she calls it, “dirty money.”
“Everybody always says, ‘If I just had money.’ They think money buys happiness,” she said. “It doesn’t.”
Her mother remembers Garvin in the depths of her shock and grief, when she went from 150 to 98 pounds in weeks, when she said her life was over.
“Hated God,” Rabideau said. “I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown. My heart went out to her.”
The family is big and close and involved in each other’s lives. They talk on the phone several times a day, come to each other’s houses without calling first, or knocking.
“Have you ever seen ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’? That’s our family,” Garvin said.
Eddy and Melissa hadn’t been married long, not even five months, when he died.
The couple grew up together in the housing projects of Malden, a working class town on the Mystic River, just north of Boston.
They were best friends — inseparable, Garvin said, for the longest time. When she was little and had her tonsils out, Eddy was there for her. Eventually, their friendship turned romantic.
Eddy was a handsome young man, and no one thought so more than him, Garvin said.
“At school he would go in Scooby-Doo pajamas,” she said. “He was so sexy, it didn’t matter.”
He was always late — he had 62 late days his senior year — and was often in a little bit of trouble.
“In formation, when you’re not supposed to be moving, he’d be the one moving,” she said.
He was sort of a beautiful dreamer who made everyone happy.
“You always ate everything my mom made even when we wouldn’t eat it!” Melissa’s sister, Nicole, wrote in an online remembrance page. “You made my dad so very happy when you would stay up late and have long talks with him.”
Eddy dreamed of becoming a cook and owning a bed-and-breakfast in California. Melissa planned to become a nurse. Neither was much of a student; they were thrilled they had managed to graduate from high school. The military looked like a way out, and up.
There was just one problem: “Eddy wasn’t the military type,” Garvin said. “To go over there and shoot someone — that wasn’t him. Even with a squirt gun — he couldn’t do it.”
Still, she said, “I think he thought he was going to go over there and make a huge difference. He’d say all the time, ‘If I don’t go, somebody else will have to go.’ ”
Eddy’s will didn’t take long to read. All it said was, “See my wife. She’s it.”
But he’d left detailed instructions for her. She was to call his estranged father and tell him that his son had forgiven him.
She was to have him cremated.
She was to buy the house they’d always planned to have.
She even bought and wrapped all the gifts on his Christmas list.
She did everything he asked. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. She could be abrasive when dealing with funeral directors and others, even volatile.
“My mother would literally walk in before me and say, ‘I apologize in advance for my daughter.’ ”
She navigated her way through much of the military bureaucracy, once ordering a general’s aide to “wake him up and give him a cup of coffee” when she’d phoned for information and was told the general was asleep.
She was told about all her benefits just hours after learning her husband had been killed.
“They come and say, ‘Here are your benefits. Here are the papers. Keep them safe.’ ” she said. “Like I know where those papers are? I don’t.”
She doesn’t remember being told her husband was dead. A week or so later, a Marine called to tell her a piece of Eddy’s leg was missing. If they found it, should they send it or dispose of it?
“I’m like, ‘How big?’ ” she said. “Is it a quarter of it or is his whole leg gone?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a medic,” she remembers the Marine saying.
Her husband’s dead body was the first one Garvin had ever seen. He was lying in a casket at the service before he was cremated. She took one look and saw how much makeup he had on.
“Oh my God! He looks like Michael Jackson!” she said. Then she collapsed.
She worried that Eddy, if he’d killed anyone in Iraq, might not go to heaven. So she asked her priest, the one who had baptized them both. The priest told her that killing would not disqualify Eddy from heaven if it was for the greater good.
She said it made her less angry, thinking that insurgents in Iraq also believe they’re killing for a greater good, that it will get them to heaven. Using that logic, she believed he died for a cause, and was not a victim of random violence.
“I can see both sides. I’ve always been like that.”
The year after Eddy died, Garvin embarked on a life-changing project. She decided to raise money for an endowment in Eddy’s name to send kids to Boy Scout camp in New Hampshire.
“The Boy Scouts meant so much to him,” she said. “It’s how he saw the beach for the first time.”
The first of three fundraisers was held in April 2007. Garvin gave her first speech.
“The first year we sent 18 kids,” Garvin said. “It helped me move forward.”
Time passed. She tried going out with a man. That night she dreamed that Eddy came home.
“I dreamed he was walking up the stairs and saying, ‘I never really died. How could you move on?’ ”
More time passed. Garvin started to notice she had moments of contentment.
“At some point, it just gets easier,” she said. “You think about them all the time still, but happily.”
Good moments started to edge out the bad ones.
Garvin can talk about Eddy now without crying, show the room she’d devoted to Eddy, with his photos and military memorabilia on one wall and the poem she’d written lettered onto the other wall. But she doesn’t like to linger there.
“I used to sleep in here,” Garvin said. “Now I want nothing to do with it.”
She used to visit the cemetery where Eddy’s ashes were several times a week. Now, she goes less often.
She regrets getting a tattoo of his dog tags on her right torso the day he was cremated.
Garvin started feeling more comfortable with people who knew her only as Melissa, not as “the widow.”
“It’s so much easier,” she said.
She has new things to think about, a new man in her life. And she’s pregnant.
“I told my mother, ‘I’m the only one who’s moved on from Eddy’s death,’ ” she said. “I feel like even now there are a lot of people still in deep mourning for Eddy, who feel like I should still be in that position.”
Eddy’s death forced Garvin to grow up fast, her mother said.
“It definitely made her a stronger person,” Rabideau said.
“See, with Eddy, he was so outgoing, I could hide behind him,” Garvin said. “I definitely think [his death] made me more aware of how much freedom isn’t free, how short life is, how much soldiers do for us.”
As she moves on with her life, she knows she’ll never fully let go of the past.
She’ll never marry again, she said. And some images of Eddy still linger in her mind.
“If a patient dies, you have to take everything off them, put them in the body bag and take them to the morgue,” Garvin said of her job as a nurse’s aide.
But that’s a part of the job she has to leave to colleagues.
“I can’t do that,” she said. “Because I think of someone doing that to him.”