“When they get deployed your heart basically goes with them…”

As the war in Afghanistan stretches on, one army wife shares stories about the homefront fight against despair

Melissa Oakley – The Aquinian

Jennifer Leslie was a housekeeper at the Howard Johnson Hotel in Halifax, N.S. She was dressed in the standard navy blue uniform of the hotel staff, and her dark blonde hair was pulled back in a pony tail. April 8, 2007 was a normal day for her.

Stuck working on Easter weekend, she forced herself to focus.

Fluffing a few pillows, she laid them at the top of the bed. The sheets were neatly tucked in at the four corners, the comforter straightened and smoothed. She exchanged the used towels for fresh ones and vacuumed the carpet.

Around 11 a.m., Jennifer started feeling ill and went home to take the rest of the day off.

“I just got this woozy feeling… and I said I had to go home because something was wrong and you just get that gut feeling.”

Jennifer could feel that something was wrong with her fiancé, Brennan Leslie, who’d been fighting in Afghanistan since January 27 of that year.

* * *

The air in Afghanistan hung heavy from the humidity and scorching heat. The dust swirled until it was thick enough to choke on. Temperatures reached 40 degrees during the day.

Brennan Leslie and his unit had been living off their Light Armored Vehicle in these extreme conditions for a month, eating field rations and patrolling nearby towns.

As Jennifer cleaned that hotel room half a world away, Brennan returned from his morning patrol.

Covered in sweat and dust he looked forward to a bit of down time. Washing the layers of grime from his skin, he began scrubbing his uniform in a puddle of water.

Cleaner and feeling at least temporarily refreshed, he started getting ready to go out on his next patrol.

* * *

For Jennifer, the hardest part was not hearing from Brennan for weeks at a time.

They would talk on the phone and online at every available opportunity. They also sent letters.

But sometimes the mantra no news is good news is hard to live by.

“Communication is hard depending on where he is. I mean occasionally you’d get calls from satellite phones but you never knew when they were going to get cut out…. we could talk but time differences are huge and I’d be up at 3am talking to him and it’d be just like evening time for him there.”

To keep her mind from wandering to Afghanistan with Brennan, Jennifer put her energy into planning their wedding, going to school, and working two jobs.

“If you stay busy your mind doesn’t think about what could be happening to him at any given moment. When they get deployed your heart basically goes with them or the relationship doesn’t last. It was hard, it was emotional, but you kind of have to stay strong and let them know you’re there for them.”

* * *

On April 8, Jennifer knew that something had happened. After going home sick from work, she turned on the television and flicked over a few stations before stopping on a news program.

“It said soldiers killed and injured in an IED [improvised explosive device] attack. The whole thought was just running through my head and I was like oh my goodness was Brennan involved, was Brennan involved?”

She picked up the phone and called an information line for families of soldiers. At the time, they weren’t married and she wasn’t considered Brennan’s next of kin so they couldn’t give her a lot of information.

Fortunately one person agreed to find out if Brennan had been involved in the attack.

“He told me that yes, Brennan was involved and he had walked away safely and that’s the only news I was given.”

Jennifer hung up the phone, still terrified but relieved to know that he had walked away.

“So I tried to get a hold of Brennan’s parents and they were actually out of town and then I tried to get a hold of Devan which is Brennan’s younger brother and he said yes, there was a message on the machine, Brennan called, he sounded really upset and he had just said ‘I’m okay, you’ll hear from me later.’”

Jennifer and Devan tracked down Brennan’s parents and explained what had happened. His dad, Terrance, who is also in the military, was able to get more information and convince somebody to wake Brennan up so that he could call home.

“He had worked with these guys for the first three months of his tour and they formed this family, brotherhood kind of bond,” she said of his comrades involved in the blast. “You know it’s hard, especially when you know a lot of these people and there’s nothing you can do.”

* * *

That day, Brennan’s vehicle had traveled a particular trail once already.

Brennan was told he would become the relief driver for a light armored vehicle (LAV).

The regular driver had been driving for two days straight and needed a rest. There were ten men in the LAV.

Normally, the soldiers don’t travel the same route twice because they don’t want the enemy to know their routines and be able to attack them. But the crew commander thought another route would leave them stuck in a ravine, so they decided to follow the same trail. Brennan’s vehicle was the first to enter. At 1:30 p.m. it hit the IED that blew up the back end of the LAV.

Six soldiers were killed, one was injured, and three walked away. Brennan was part of that luck trio.

* * *

While Brennan was recovering from his ordeal in Afghanistan and attending the ramp ceremony of his fallen brothers, Jennifer tried to hold everything together at home in Halifax.

Her family and Brennan’s family were all distraught.

“So when I cried it was alone in my bed at night,” she said. “I didn’t let anybody else see me because somebody had to be there to be like, ‘Oh Brennan, it’s okay. You know, dust off your knees get back on your bike, try again.’ He had to get back out there and start doing his work again because not only was it his job but his country needed him.”

Jennifer understood that as the driver of the vehicle Brennan felt responsible for the lives of those men that were lost.

“And I told him, Brennan it’s not your responsibility, things happen. You didn’t plant the roadside bomb, it just happened to hit your vehicle, it could have been anyone.”

Brennan couldn’t help feeling guilty, no matter how many people reassured him that it wasn’t his fault.

“It was hard,” he said. “As a driver, as I was, you feel responsible for everyone in the LAV, so when it did happen, a lot of pressure came onto myself. You feel like yeah, it was all my fault.

“I should have been careful but all the other guys when they came back, they were all saying it’s not your fault and trying to cheer me up but now I’m still thinking back and I wish I could have done something so that the LAV didn’t hit the IED. But there’s nothing I can change, as much as I want it to.”

After six months in Afghanistan, Brennan’s deployment finally came to an end.

Fighter pilots escorted the returning soldier’s plane from Nova Scotia to Base Gagetown in New Brunswick.

“After the incident, when I came home and went back, you know you’ve got to regroup. You’re looking even more at where you’re driving and stuff like that. You don’t want it to happen again. So you’re trying to be extra safe but there’s still things you can’t avoid.”

Brennan was ecstatic to be home, to be safe, and to be reunited with his loved ones. Jennifer had spent hours preparing for Brennan’s homecoming, making sure her hair and makeup were flawless. She wore a t-shirt she had made that said, “My Fiancée, My Soldier, My Hero.”

Jennifer says it was a proud and happy moment for her, seeing Brennan walk towards her after the discharge ceremony.

“He’s wearing his uniform, he’s smiling, you can tell he’s happy to be home and you don’t even realize your eyes are leaking all the tears that they are until you have your big embrace. It’s a very proud moment to know that he was part of supporting our country and protecting our country and yet he was one of the survivors that came back.

“I think he said something like ‘Hey babe.’ It wasn’t like I missed you, I loved you. It was just, ‘Hi babe,’ like I didn’t see you since yesterday kind of thing. But it was cute, the best thing he could have said.”