FORT CARSON, Colo. — “That’s a hamburger at Disney World,” said Melissa Givens, while auctioning her children’s toys and clothes online, a week prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
For seven years, she has sold the past year’s novelties to fund family vacations to Disney World, a trip Jesse Givens promised before heading to combat in 2003.
Ten years ago, Melissa Givens was watching her husband weep in front of their television.
Jesse Givens of Springfield, Mo., saw beyond the debris on Sept. 11, 2001, when a terrorist plot collapsed more than 200 floors of the World Trade Center in New York. He felt pain for the nearly 3,000 families instantly torn apart by a loved one’s death and the fear rooted into countless others, she said.
He wished for a way to quickly deploy his welding skills to the landmark twin towers. He dreamed of finding fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, surviving amid the tangles of 200,000 tons of steel. But the couple had few resources for such a remote act of benevolence.
Melissa Givens noticed her husband’s hardening patriotism and deepening desire to restore a sense of security in his homeland.
Jesse Givens suggested that terrorists must be fought overseas to prevent future strikes from killing American families — “to protect normal, everyday people,” she said.
He enlisted in the Army and left for basic combat training in January 2002.
“I hope someday you will understand why I didn’t come home,” said Pfc. Jesse Givens, 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, in a farewell message to his 5-year-old son, Dakota, dated April 22, 2003. He wrote several similar letters from Iraq, unsure if he’d survive ongoing engagements against enemy insurgents.
“Bean,” he said, addressing his unborn baby boy, who he’d only known as a spot on an ultrasound image, “I never got to see you but I know you’re beautiful … I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your mom’s belly, and the joy I felt when we found out you were on the way.”
On May 1, 2003, Jesse Givens, 34, drowned in Iraq, trapped inside an Abrams battle tank, according to Army reports. Everyone escaped except the driver, whose hatch was blocked by the turret. The other soldiers slid a series of gas mask air tubes inside the compartment, said Melissa Givens. He tugged a couple of times.
Jesse Givens became Fort Carson’s first combat casualty for an era of post-9/11 war fighters. Since then, 324 other soldiers from the Mountain Post have died of a combat injury, according to post officials.
“He was the first Fort Carson soldier to be killed — they didn’t know what to do,” said Melissa Givens. “I felt like a guinea pig … but somebody has to go through it first to iron it out. My Army family hasn’t let me down.” She helped Fort Carson family readiness groups build better programs for the survivors of combat causalities.
“He was the first Fort Carson soldier to be killed — they didn’t know what to do.”
Melissa Givens endured a roller coaster of emotions following her husband’s death. The 27-year-old widow felt numb the first year, overtaken by anger, anxiety, hopelessness and depression. She questioned her sanity while typing online memoirs to her dead husband. She thought, somehow, he could read them.
The early rush of emotions caused her to lose track of time, as she swept away selfish and unstable tendencies. She accepted her husband’s military awards and fought for her children’s benefits. She projected an image of resiliency to ease her friends. She had to stay pregnant, she said.
Melissa Givens considered the pregnancy her husband’s final gift. Carson was born 28 days after his death; three days after Memorial Day. Year two was hard, but a strong-minded Army wife helped her through it.
“Year three was OK,” said Melissa Givens, “but year four was messed up again.” She sought medical care for depression at Fort Carson by visiting Evans Army Community Hospital. Her closest friend had voiced concerns about long rests, ongoing heartaches and eccentric mannerisms.
A doctor prescribed an antidepressant or mood stabilizer — she cannot recall the name of the pills, only the relief she felt by flushing them down the toilet two days later.
“I realized it’s not a condition — he’s dead,” she said. “It’s not a chemical imbalance, he’s dead. Eventually I’d have to come off the medication and he’s still going to be dead.” She began holding “breakup rituals” to create closure. She recalls tearing up photographs, screaming and cursing. She “divorced” him.“The grief doesn’t ever heal. I still feel broken … I feel scabbed over. The wound is still there but it’s not as fresh. It doesn’t have all the pain.
“I will always love him. I haven’t moved on but I’ve moved forward.” The seventh year “finally felt OK,” as birthdays and holidays became less dampened by emotional downturns.
“I am not just Missy anymore. I am the widow of a hero,” she said. Exactly eight years after her hero died in Iraq, her cell phone began buzzing with messages asking “Are you going to be OK?” They increased as news circulated that Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind 9/11, had been killed by Navy SEALs in Pakistan.
“The bad guy had been dealt with on the anniversary of Jesse’s death. I know there will be more but that was the one that caused 9/11.
“Jesse had gotten what he joined (the Army) for,” she said. “He wanted to protect kids from the bad guys, so they cannot come over here and blow up schools and kill our children. He didn’t want anyone’s kids living in fear of this happening again.
“Each year is a constant merry-go-round,” she said, referring to 8-year-old Carson and 14-year-old Dakota, who continue to revisit the loss of their father with a more matured perspective. When their cyclic grieving process ends, she’s hoping they step onto stable ground, as well-adjusted young men.
“We have a rule in our house. You can tell me beforehand that you’re mad about dad, but you cannot use it as an excuse to hit things or act out.” Dakota harbors bitterness, a result of feeling pressured to grow up too fast.
“He became the man of my house — I wanted him to be a little boy. He got his childhood crumpled up and thrown in the trash — it wasn’t fair to him.”
“I will always be there with you,” said Jesse Givens in his final letter to his family. “I’ll be in the sun, shadows, dreams and joys of your life. Please be proud of me. Please don’t stop loving life.
“Don’t forget to take (Dakota) to Disney World. I will be there with you.”