From the front to the inbox

Times Staff Writer

Marine 1st Lt. Vince Montgomery sent an e-mail to his wife, Anne, after a Cobra helicopter crashed in Iraq, killing two pilots from his Camp Pendleton squadron.

This one really hit home, he wrote. Anne is good friends with the wife of one downed pilot. The two young mothers see each other several times a week, and their daughters — both toddlers — play together. Anne replied, telling her husband that she had been with the pilot's wife minutes after the woman learned the news.

I was glad I could be of some comfort to her. ... She's doing ok, she's still in shock. ... Everybody is still in shock though, this wasn't supposed to happen. ... Everyone was supposed to come home. War fighters and their families half a world away are e-mailing one another from battlefields, aircraft carriers and desert encampments, an unplanned — and unprecedented — benefit of modern warfare.

Some of the missives are everyday queries. Is the lawn getting mowed? How's that new asthma medicine? Other e-mails capture regret over sharp words and a desire for reconciliation. For Anne and Vince, their missives are chronicles of a relationship deepening with the trials of war.

"I've fallen in love with him all over again," said Anne, 25. "You take everything for granted. Why didn't we hold each other a little longer?"

Anne, who works part-time as a geography teacher at San Clemente High School, checks for e-mails at least six times a day. "We hadn't expected e-mail — it's been such a blessing."

Vince, 26, began e-mailing his wife in January, shortly after he shipped out aboard the amphibious warship Cleveland.

I think I have an inner ear infection because my balance is all off. Oh wait, I'm on a ship that has the relative stability of a drunk [college boy]. I get more of a beat down trying to take a shower than I ever did in SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape] school. Imagine me balancing on a beach ball wearing Rollerblades in the shower trying to lather up — that's about the size of it! Later he wrote:

It was fun trying to eat dinner tonight. My dish was literally trying to run away with the spoon. In another e-mail, he typed:

I am going to start swimming home tomorrow. ... I'm getting tired of the boat. I should be there in about 227 days (I'm not a fast swimmer). It took several weeks for the Cleveland to reach the Persian Gulf. Just before Vince got off the ship, he sent e-mail to his parents in Eagan, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul. He told them not to worry, that he was doing what he loved and living every boy's dream. He told them that every little boy wanted to be G.I. Joe and that now he finally was.

Vince also wrote to Anne and their daughter Samantha. In most of his e-mails to her, he'd called her by a nickname. But this missive was different. He used her real name.

I am sorry to say that this might be the last e-mail I'm able to send, as we are getting ready to go in country soon. I will write whenever I get the chance, but if you don't hear from me for a while don't worry. ... I'll do everything in my power to come home to you when this is all over. I know this has been tough on you, and I don't expect it to get any easier over the coming weeks and months. I want you to know that no matter what happens I have always and will always love you. Words cannot express how much you mean to me and what joy you have brought into my life. I am forever grateful that you agreed to share your life with me. Never forget how much I love you. Give Sam a kiss and hold her tight. ... Tell her that Daddy has gone to work. Vince and Anne were high school sweethearts. He was a wrestler, she a cheerleader for the wrestling team. They married after college. He joined the Marines and became a pilot. She became a teacher, with a passion for scrapbooking and homemaking — which prompted Vince to call her Martha Stewart.

It was no secret that Anne wasn't crazy about his job. He flew a Cobra — an assignment that meant he was either the pilot or the gunner in the attack helicopter.

She would have preferred that Vince had a 9-to-5 desk job. But she knew her husband was a dedicated Marine. He was commissioned four years ago. He married her wearing his dress blues. He tattooed his right arm with a bulldog bearing a U.S. Marine Corps banner. His left arm had a tattoo that read Veni, vidi, vici, Julius Caesar's words: "I came, I saw, I conquered."

When Samantha was born, Vince was conquered. He called her Sam or "my little buddy." He'd come home to their Oceanside apartment, change out of his flight suit and wrestle with Sam.

Before Vince deployed, he made a video of himself talking to Sam. This way, he hoped, she'd remember him. When Anne and Sam went to the dock to wave goodbye, Sam kept blowing kisses and yelling for him to get off the boat and join them, "C'mon, Daddy, c'mon!"

Without Vince, Anne felt as if she had lost her momentum. "He is my best friend, and I feel like half of me is missing," she said.

It was for Sam's sake that Anne pulled herself out of bed and carved out something of a routine.

Two days before the war broke out, Anne dreamed about her dead grandmother. She asked her grandmother to watch over and protect Vince. When she woke, she felt calm and relaxed.

Days later, she got an e-mail from Vince, describing a close call with Iraqi soldiers.

The incident actually served us well, as it forced us out of our comfort zone and we are now savvy to the enemy's tactics, he wrote. The ones who shot at us we regrettably showed mercy to (as they put down their weapons and began to wave white flags). ... It is tough to abide by the laws of war when the enemy doesn't — but we do because we must give these people the benefit of the doubt. It is frustrating yet comforting to know we are doing the right thing. I assure you that we will do everything in our power to avoid similar situations during future missions. Anne stopped watching the news. She focused on the portion of her life she could control: e-mails and packages for Vince, preparing classes and romping with Sam.

She found it comforting to be with other pilots' wives. It was as though their anxiety was a language that only other military spouses could understand.

One wife, Deon Ford, had become a close friend. Before their husbands shipped out, the two families spent time together. They used to joke about their similarities. Vince and Capt. Travis Ford were Midwesterners, athletes, and each had owned a black Labrador named Lady. They joined the Marines, became pilots in the same squadron and had baby girls.

As college students, Anne and Deon had both worked as waitresses at Applebee's restaurant. Both became teachers and married young. Travis and Deon's baby, Ashley, is 14 days older than Sam.

On April 4, the wife of Vince's commanding officer phoned and told Anne to go to Deon's house. A call like that only meant one thing. Without asking, Anne immediately knew.

Travis Ford, 30, was dead. So was Capt. Benjamin Sammis, 29. The two Camp Pendleton Marines had been killed in combat when their helicopter crashed near Ali Aziziyal, southeast of Baghdad. Later, Anne Montgomery sent an e-mail to her husband.

I was with Deon until she fell asleep last night at about 12:00 and then went to be with the other wives. It was nice to be with everyone, we all just sat around and cried for about two hours. I haven't really stopped crying since I ran out of here last night to go to Deon's. And I feel guilty because I'm crying for her and Ashley, but I was crying with relief that it wasn't you.

That's when Vince wrote:

I wish I had some words of comfort, something, but I don't. This one really hit home. I was talking with Travis before his division went out. We were talking about you and Deon and the girls. He was telling me that the girls had become good buddies. He was in good spirits, and many of the Marines here thought that he was really in his element ... he was proud to be here and he was having a good time doing what he was trained to do. He was always smiling and was always positive. Please relay to Deon in some fashion that he was thinking of her and Ashley. I wish I could be there to do so, but I don't think I would have any words. I love you very much and want nothing more than to see you and Sam again soon. Let my family know that I'm fine and that I am thinking of them. Vince wrote Anne another e-mail 12 hours later.

I know how helpless you feel, and yet can't begin to imagine what you and the other wives have been through. ... Hopefully, things will get better relatively soon. I'm very proud of all you have done. ... I'm very proud to call you my wife. Continue to be strong for Deon, I know you will. He told her that his supervising officers had considered sending him to escort Travis' body home. In the end, they selected another Marine.

I was willing to come home — but I would rather stay here with the squadron until this thing is finished. I'm sure you understand that. If I spent time with you and Sam it would be very difficult to come back here. Beyond that, my grieving is best done in the cockpit. Tell Deon that my prayers are with her (yes, I'm praying). I love you very much and will make up for all of this lost time when I get home. Anne replied:

I can understand why you wouldn't want to come home, I think that would be too hard on all of us. When you do come home, I want you here for good. Deon said yesterday she hopes the parallels to our lives stop here. Things are OK here, I spent most of the day yesterday with Deon and she's doing alright, My heart breaks for her as she looks around the room and her eyes land on a picture of Travis. Or yesterday, Ashley was running around and playing and just stopped dead in the middle of the living room, right in front of a picture of Travis, turned and blew him a kiss and then started playing again. Of course, we all lost it, but thank God Ashley is too young to understand what is going on. Please take care of yourself, and try not to let this affect you when you're flying. Keep Travis in your heart but not your head, he wouldn't want any of his friends dwelling on this but rather fighting in his honor. I love you SO much and cannot wait to see you again.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad