- by Marsha Ortega
This is the story of an American family at war and the son whose life, and then death, are haunted by the specter of PTSD.
Man’s Best Friend
It was September 2009. Brent had been home from Afghanistan for a month when he informed me that he and Tico had bought a dog. They told me not to worry; that the dog would live at his friend Chris’s house, and so I said that was fine. “What kind of dog did you get?” He said, “A pit-bull.” I yelled, “A Pit-bull!” which was the typical media-informed response. He went on and on and told me not to worry, and that they’re good dogs. So I gave him my blessing. The last thing I wanted was a dog or any animal for that matter living in the house.
The following day my husband and I went out for dinner when I brought up the dog and what Brent had told me. He looked at me and said “Do you want the boys to be at their friend’s house all the time or do you want to see your boys?” I told Bobby that I had wanted to see my boys, but that a dog was a big responsibility. I didn’t want an animal in the house and I was afraid. No, not afraid, mortified. Whenever I saw a dog I froze with fear.
Bobby said, “Then I guess you have to face your fears.” My mind was racing now. I was afraid and at the same time I knew that I’d never see them if the dog was living with their friend. So I made the decision. I called Brent and told him that the dog could live with us, but in the garage. He agreed and was happy with the decision.
The next day the 9-week-old puppy came to live with us and we fixed up the garage for him. My husband had told me about this show that I should watch called THE DOG WHISPERER, with Cesar Milan. I watched it religiously and bought books on puppy training, pit-bull books and I was online always looking up info. One thing that I had learned was that pit bulls had been given a bad rap by the media.
The name hadn’t been decided yet; Brent and Tico couldn’t come to an agreement until finally he was named GUCCIMANE after a rap singer, but we all called him Gucci. Gucci changed all our lives. He lived in the garage for 2 weeks, then moved into the house and then slept in our beds. We even rescued another dog; a pit-boxer mix, so he could have a friend. We named her Prada. Brent came with me to pick her out. We went all the way to Iowa to get her.
I became so attached to the dog that when Brent, Tico, and Jessica got their apartment they had to share Gucci with me. The dog had two homes. Gucci was Brent’s best friend and Tico’s baby. Brent and Tico were Daddy, Jessica was mommy, and Bobby and I were the grandparents. It still is that way to this day. I remember Brent telling me that Gucci knew everything about him, every secret, just everything. He truly loved Gucci. We all do. The pit-bull myth is just that, a media myth. It’s the owner, not the dog.
Gucci was and still is a loyal friend to us all, but he loved his daddies. He would just walk around and follow them and look at them with adoration. He listened to them well. Of course we all spent a lot of time working with Gucci and training him.
It is sad to say that during Brent’s last month of life, as he began pushing us all away, he even pushed Gucci away. I can remember Gucci leaving Brent’s room and coming down to our room. It was sad to see that the most loyal creature on earth walked away from his master. It just goes to show you the effects of PTSD on a person and their loved ones.
The Beginning of the End
A Sage’s Illumination
By Michael Wellwerts
Even though Jess and I had gone to that one-day seminar, I don’t think we could’ve been prepared for what was going to happen to him. It was especially difficult because it didn’t happen right away. I wonder that if it had it happened sooner, would I have known what was taking place.
Brent spent the two weeks home visiting friends and celebrating. We had a party for him. He even went and did all the military things he had to do like register with veteran’s affairs. But after two weeks of that he got a job right away with the help of my sister Angela. She is the P.A. at the doctor’s office that I had brought my children to when they were young. Brent loved it at first, but then he got bored. That was typical of him.
I can’t remember how many jobs he had during his last two years. He tried college twice, but was bored to tears. In between jobs he was a chauffeur for an assistant to our dentist. He worked serving papers. He tried a warehouse job. His last job was with me, bartending. He learned in a week. No one learns in a week, but that was Brent. He also never slept well again. It seemed he could never sleep more than two to four hours at a stretch. He would take naps sometimes, but I never saw him sleep seven or eight hours straight.
About six months after he came home Brent rented an apartment with Jess and Tico. I think back then of Jess tolerating some of their relationship ups and downs. Brent was moody at times, but those two were inseparable. They were best friends in love. Brent told me on more than one occasion that when he was ready to get married, if Jess would wait, that she was the woman he wanted to marry.
Brent did smoke pot occasionally, but he was not consumed with it as he had been in his teen years. He seemed fine adjusting to the first year. He wanted to remain in the military and be in Special Forces. He was taking care of himself. Brent had bought his own car when he came back from Afghanistan and made car payments, car insurance, etc. As a matter of fact, since he was seventeen and left for the military he never asked for money. He was responsible. I’m not going to tell you that he picked up after himself or kept up with his room, but he did take care of his financial responsibilities. Brent, like his brothers, was a good son to me. I had always felt lucky that I was given healthy well-behaved sons.
In December of 2010, a year and four months after returning from Afghanistan, Brent was at my mom’s house when he called an ambulance for himself. He had excruciating abdominal pain. Brent told my mom not to worry me. As soon as I found out I went to the hospital. He was already stabilized when I arrived. He was given painkillers intravenously and had a CT scan and blood work. Shortly after he had been stabilized he was able to leave. I believe it was a few days later or maybe a week or two that he ended up back there. This time the doctor wanted him to stay for more tests and observation. Due to some miscommunications and lack of patience on Brent’s part he signed himself out, AMA. He didn’t want to miss celebrating his 21st birthday, which was Jan. 4, 2011. I know that sounds crazy, but since the pain was gone, he felt he’d be okay.
Until then all that was known was pancreatitis. The emergency room doctor was accusing him of having an alcohol problem because pancreatitis is common with people who drink a lot of alcohol. I was even able to vouch on this. Brent liked to smoke marijuana, but alcohol was never a problem of his. The doctor told him no alcohol, but he was going to celebrate his 21st, no matter what. He did do that at our sports bar and grill. His friends and the family came and everyone had a good time. He never got sick or had any pain again, until September of that same year.
Brent continued attending the monthly Army National Guard weekends. All I knew was that he was working out and going to the gym because he wanted to be in Special Forces. Jess had gotten another apartment and Brent was at home or with her and vice versa. In June he started working at our place as a bartender. He had bugged his father and I enough that we relented. He learned the job in a week, as I mentioned before. I don’t mean he knew all the drinks, but he was able to do the job and within a couple of weeks he pretty much knew it all.
Around September, I started noticing changes in him. He didn’t seem very happy. He was doing other things to earn money in which I didn’t agree with. The PTSD, which he had been diagnosed with when he came back, had decided to show up. I remember one nightmare he had. I don’t know what it was about, but when I came into his room in the morning, everything on the walls had been torn down. He told me that he had woken up horrified; he thought he was back in Afghanistan. Another time, he in just before work and said that he’d be right back. He needed gas so he went across the street to the gas station and when he came back you could see something had happened. He looked white as a ghost and then proceeded to tell me that he freaked out while getting gas. He wasn’t sure why, but someone else was getting gas too and was standing too close to Brent. He said he felt like he was back in Afghanistan. I wish that I could describe this better, but I don’t know what these men and women have gone through and that’s why they won’t discuss it with us because how could we possibly understand. I guess the best way to explain this is how can we understand what a rape victim goes through if we weren’t raped? I know that I could never understand what it was like to lose a child until I did. We can imagine, but really have no clue. How can a man possibly understand what a woman goes through giving birth? All of these things must be experienced in order to truly understand.
I came to find out that he was no longer in the Army National Guard. He told me he had an argument with a higher up. I had a hard time believing that, because the first thing that entered my mind was that he got a dirty drop. He denied that. So as you can see a lot was happening all at once. It’s funny how when we are on the inside, we don’t always see what’s going on, but then when looking back it all makes sense.
Okay so that was September 2011. Now it’s October and Brent has been in and out of the hospital several times because he has recurrent abdominal pain. I brought him to the local emergency room and they gave him painkillers by IV and anti-nausea medicine because with this pain he would also vomit. I can’t begin to tell you what it’s like to see your son, who is strong in every way, be in so much pain. He had another CT scan and blood work. They told us it’s not pancreatitis, but the duodenum: a small tube at the start of the small intestine that connects to the stomach. He was admitted, but he gets into it with the doctor and again signs himself out, AMA. I had to bring him again in a few days later. He was again admitted and stayed the whole weekend. They didn’t perform any more tests. They just kept the pain controlled. We did try to get him to the V.A. hospital because he didn’t have insurance, but the V.A. hospital denied him because they told the doctor that they don’t admit on weekends. The doctor then told them that he would send him by ambulance. The V.A. told him that they would just send the ambulance to another hospital. That’s what a guy gets for serving his country.
I picked him up Monday morning. He went straight to the V.A. and was told that they would see him but, and this is stated in the doctor’s report, they would not be able to help him at that time because he wasn’t having the pain any longer. They set up an appointment for him to see a physician three weeks later. Brent continued to behave oddly, not only was he stressed from what had been happening physically, but also he seemed to be distancing himself from the people who loved him.
It was the end of October 2011. The pain began again, so I rushed him back to the same local hospital. This time they found nothing on the CT scan, and the V.A. agreed to transfer him. I reminded Brent that the V.A. was a government hospital, and because of this, everything they do would be done slowly. I asked him to please have patience; he could be there for a few days to a week. He agreed.
He arrived at the V.A. Sunday evening. He was welcomed nicely and seemed happy with it. I remember the doctor told me that they weren’t accustomed to handling young men. That most of the younger ones went to Boston. He talked to Brent and asked him about his history and problems and said they would do some tests but that everything would be done the next day because that’s when the resident doctor is in and she would review everything.
The following afternoon while making the hour drive to the V.A., I received a phone call from a doctor asking me if Brent was depressed. I said no, not that I know of. She told me that he was giving her a hard time and was very agitated and he wanted more painkillers. She asked me if he had a problem. I said the only thing I could think of was that from my own two experiences taking pain meds for some dental work I had done was that I remembered that when coming down from them they made me feel very edgy and everything annoyed me and that maybe that was his problem. I knew that my son could be moody, but I honestly didn’t think at the time that he was depressed and after all she was the resident doctor at a V.A. hospital, wasn’t she the one who was supposed to evaluate him. They had all his records, which showed he was diagnosed with PTSD, and she was asking me?
I got off the phone with her and then Brent called me to ask if I was coming. I said I’d be there shortly and he told me good because he wanted out. He said they weren’t going to help him, and that the doctor wasn’t going to do any tests. I told him to just hang on that I’d be right over. When I arrived Brent was in bed, in pain, and very upset. He told me to get him out of there. I spoke to the nurse and asked if we could get another doctor. He said yes, but that it would take a couple of days and the present doctor had to sign on it. Brent was telling me let’s go. He yelled at me and told me that he’d get a cab if he had to but he was leaving. I begged him to please calm down and he then told me, that I was fucking crazy. My son never in his life talked to me like that. Later, he told me he wasn’t okay. He said he would sign himself out. The resident doctor came in with a bit of an attitude and gave Brent the paperwork. The resident doctor, Brent, and I couldn’t come to an agreement. Brent claimed she refused to give him tests. She claimed that would do the tests tomorrow. So I asked her why she told him she wasn’t going to do the tests. She responded that he had just wanted the painkillers. I told her, “Because he’s in pain!” We went back and forth until finally Brent signed himself out. I wasn’t pleased at all, but I would rather take him than him getting a taxi because I knew he would.
Looking back, I realize now that the doctor didn’t know how to deal with a young soldier with PTSD. Maybe this is what the admitting doctor was trying to tell me. It’s sad that he went there for help and didn’t get it.
Nothing was the same. By November Brent basically gave up working at the bar. He started getting high, and I don’t mean with marijuana. He got his hands on more painkillers. This might sound like a long period of time, but it basically took place from the time he got out of the V.A. hospital through the next week or two. He ended it with Jessica. He even lost patience with Gucci. He was with this girl, an ex-girlfriend of one of his friends, and she was very much into drugs. They came into my house high. I wasn’t pleased, yet at the same time I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to kick him out, you know tough love, but my husband said not to do anything I would regret. For two days in a row he was totally messed up. One morning he came storming in and asked me to take him to get his car because it got impounded. He had been stopped for swerving on the road and was pulled over and they found paraphernalia in the car. So I took him and my God, I didn’t know this boy. He was messed up in a weird way. One second he was fine, and the next he was pissed at me. He said things to me that were very hurtful, but at the same time I knew this wasn’t him. So I kept my cool. He got out of the car and a wad of money fell out of his pocket. He doesn’t even notice, so I told him. He got his car and came home. The next morning he got up early and decided to do laundry. This definitely wasn’t normal for him. I asked him to keep the noise down because his father was sleeping from working the night shift, which is 5p.m. to 2 a.m. This was 8:00 a.m. and he wanted to do laundry and he was quite loud. He had made coffee and there was a mess everywhere. He then asks me how to use the washing machine, I told him and of course I wasn’t very happy when I explained it to him. I start to walk out to take the dogs for a walk and he began yelling at me to tell him how to use the washing machine. I had just told him 10 seconds before, so I said what’s wrong, I just told you. He yelled, “That’s it, this isn’t going to work. I’m moving out” And that’s exactly what he did. He packed and left with that druggy girl.
I called my mom and told her very little other than to please not get involved and don’t let him stay with her. I had to be very firm because my mom was the kind of person that would let him stay. I didn’t want her to see her grandson like this. She had no idea of who he was right now. You have to understand that this was all taking place so fast.
When Brent left that day, I knew somehow, deep down, that it was over for him. All I could do at this point was pray for him and pray that he didn’t hurt anyone while he was driving. I think I knew that the phone call would be coming soon. You might think, well why didn’t you do something about it. Remember what I said about when you’re inside a situation and can’t see out of it.
Well, good ole mom, she listened to me so well because how could I possibly know my sons or what’s going on with them. She took him in. I was so angry with my mom that I could barely talk to her. I didn’t want her to be a part of this nightmare. He lasted maybe two weeks and she got to see what was happening. I remember once he came over during that two week period with Jessica because she was coming to visit the dogs. He was only slightly high. I remember he was the way he used to be. Loving, friendly, and talkative, he was the Brent I knew. He came and hugged me when he was leaving. I was a bit cold because I was so hurt but I still hugged him. That was the last time I ever saw my son alive.
After two weeks of my mom seeing what was going on and experiencing this behavior, she told him he had to leave. She was leaving for Florida in the morning with my sisters, their husbands, and the kids. They’d be gone for Thanksgiving week. Brent stayed at a hotel for two days, and then found a place to stay. He would be renting from a girl who owned a house and he was renting the basement. He moved into his new place on Tuesday afternoon. He had spoken to his brothers, his dad, and me on different occasions and said he would be at the restaurant for dinner on Thanksgiving.
I met Brent when I began working at City of Champions. He was the tall one who looked just like Elvis. I didn’t see him often – just when he would stop in, here and there. Sure he was tall, dark, and handsome, but he was also VERY young and we were both in relationships.
As time went by we found ourselves single, and so we began getting to know each other. It began with text messaging while he was at AIT. When I mentioned we hang out when he got home, his reaction was not what I had expected. “Seriously?” is what he replied with. Are you kidding me? Did this guy just ask me if I was serious? I mean, a simple “no” would suffice. “Umm, yes Brent, seriously, unless you don’t want to. I could find plenty of other dudes to hang with.” Naturally, I jumped the gun and got offended. He told me he didn’t believe that I really wanted to hang out with him. That he couldn’t believe I would want to spend time with someone five and a half years younger than I was. I really didn’t even think about the age to be honest, I just thought he was really cool and there was something about him. And it didn’t hurt that he was ridiculously handsome.
We began to get to know each other over the phone while he was gone. We were forced to talk to and to learn about each other. I am thankful for this because we were starting off as great friends. We learned a lot about each other’s pasts, family stories, interests, hopes, fears, pretty much everything. We also learned about our past relationships. Before diving into these conversations however, we promised each other to not ever place any judgment on the other person and to be completely honest. We also promised to keep in mind that whatever we shared with each other, this was all in the past. We were learning about each other, with each other. I opened up to Brent about my last relationship. That relationship was horrible. I completely lost sight of who I was. The person I was with, made me hate myself inside and out. I was horrible to my family and friends, to the point where I would go weeks without even talking to anyone. I became an ugly, ugly person. This man…I’m sorry, BOY, tried to sabotage every single relationship/friendship I had. He didn’t want me to be around certain family members and friends. This person began to ruin my life. I’m not really sure what the straw was that finally broke the camel’s back. Maybe it was when he would call and text my mother at two am saying terrible things about me. Maybe it was when he ordered me to stop hanging out with my best friend at the time. Or MAYBE it was when he would wait outside of my work for me since I wouldn’t answer his phone calls anymore. To make a very long story short, this person was a nut case and made me hate men.
I spilled out all of this information to Brent. And despite all my baggage, he still didn’t think twice about getting to know me, probably because he had quite the baggage himself. Brent assured me that he would never be anything like my ex and that he knows how to treat a woman. I’ll be honest, that was nice to hear and all, but what guy doesn’t say that kind of stuff? Women eat that shit up like candy. Of course that’s what we all want to hear so that’s what they will say. But, I dove in head first and hoped for the best. To torture a cliché, there was something different about Brent and I felt like I could trust him.
When he finally came home I got really excited and couldn’t wait to hang out with him. I texted him asking if he was busy one night, and wanted to get together for some food. He immediately answered with “ARE YOU SERIOUS?! Tonight?” What is with this kid and asking if I’m serious? “Yes Brent, I’m serious. Do you have plans because we can hang out another night?” Brent continued, “I so want to get together tonight, but I made plans to hang out with my dude from out of state and he’s leaving tomorrow.” I told him that was fine and I understood that he didn’t want to hang out with me. That’s how our relationship was right from the start – sarcastically. I went on to tell him we had plenty of time to hang out and we would soon. In reality, there really wasn’t much time at all. He was home for all of about two or three weeks until he deployed to Afghanistan for 10 months. Needless to say, we hung out right away after that night. We went out to eat and the rest was history. We grew very fond of each other very quickly. I will say it was the scariest thing falling for someone so fast, someone who was leaving in a few days, someone who was my bosses’ son, and someone who was five and a half years younger than me….oh boy…
The most important thing for me was to have Brent’s parents’ blessing. I was working in their sports bar at the time, and again, I was a few years older than their son. But, without question, we had their approval. FEWFF!! Thank goodness because I really cared for Brent. This was someone I grew so attached to and so close with. He quickly became my best friend and someone I could tell anything to. He never judged me, never thought any less of me, no matter what he learned. He loved me on my good days and loved me even more when I deserved it less. I found someone who made me laugh, someone who made me feel like I was the most beautiful girl in the world. He respected me and in turn I respected him. He seemed to trust me, and gave me his word I could do the same. It was the most intense couple weeks of my life. Where did this guy come from and where the hell had he been all my life? And why does he have to leave? And to Afghanistan? I never showed it, but I was scared as hell. I had never dated anyone in the military. Was dating Brent even an option at this point? Did he want a girlfriend to worry about while he is gone? Probably not, but when I see something I want, I’m going to make sure it’s known and I’m going to do my best to get it.
The day Brent left, I remember we all said our goodbyes at City of Champions. It was very hard letting Brent go seeing as how he just got home and we were just getting started. I knew this going into the friendship though. I knew what he had planned and all it entailed. Despite all this, I wanted Brent and no one else. I loved everything about him. He was handsome, funny, witty, sarcastic, confident, caring, and so very smart. That was what I loved most about Brent. We could talk about anything and everything. He would always make you think twice. He was also very protective and made me feel safe. Ohhhh, and that laugh! Boy oh boy I loved that laugh. I think everyone did. It was just so contagious. I just wanted more time with him, to learn more about him. But since I knew that wasn’t an option, I needed to make sure he knew just how I felt before he left.
We were standing outside the restaurant in the rain. He was in his uniform looking way too handsome. I loved that uniform. We were hugging and trying to make our goodbye as painless as possible, until I decided to address the huge pink elephant in the parking lot. I looked up at him and said “so…..you my boyfriend or what?” He looked and me and smiled. He didn’t say anything at first and just began shaking his head as if he was uncertain about what he wanted. But he wasn’t. “Jess, I want nothing more than to have you all to myself. You’re my dream woman.” That’s what he always called me. “But I can’t do that to you. I have no idea what I’m about to get myself into, and what if I don’t come back? Or if I do come back, what if I don’t have all my limbs? What if I come home fucked up in the head? That’s not fair to you. You don’t want that.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. Has he not learned anything about me? I appreciated him thinking of me and putting me first, but that was not what I wanted to hear. “Believe me, I have thought over and over about all that. I want ALL of it. I don’t care if you come back with just a head; I want you and only you.” I just looked at him and was waiting for him to tell me the same. “What if I don’t come back?” was his next question. I didn’t want to think about that. If I thought like that I would go crazy. I’m not saying I didn’t think about that at times, because I did, a lot. But at the same time, I couldn’t stomach the thought of missing out on having this amazing man in my life. It had only been a few weeks of us spending time together, and I had never been happier.
Brent looked at me and said “you sure you’re up for this kiddo?” That was something we called each other. He found it humorous the first time I called him that over the phone. I’m sure we were talking about our age difference. I assured him over and over and over again this is what I wanted and that we would get through this together. We used to always say “you & me against the world baby.” We talked for a little while longer outside and soaked up every last minute we had together. It was this day; he told me he loved me. I knew I loved this man. I knew it long before he even said it. It was something I couldn’t describe. I felt like I had known him for years. I felt whole when he came into my life. Whether we were talking on the phone, hanging out in person or texting, I was in a whole other place. I was happy. Happy to be me, happy to call him mine, happy I was with a brave soldier, happy to be alive. I literally felt like I could take on the world with him. He made me feel safe, like I could put all of my trust into him. I looked up to him, and not just because he was almost a foot taller than me. I admired and adored him so much and wanted to know every single thing about him. I wanted to be the perfect woman for him. I wanted to bring him the happiness that he had given to me. To this day, I don’t know if he ever understood how much happiness he brought me.
We only had a few more minutes until Brent had to leave…
He reminded me he didn’t know if, when, how often, or how he would talk to me next. “Expect a phone call tonight, an email in a week, an email in a month, in 6 months, I don’t know.” He wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting my hopes up about getting to call him often. It was a lot to wrap my head around – not knowing when I would get to talk to him again, but he assured me that if I was in it until the end, he was too. We were 100% on the same page.
Before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye one last time. We were both laughing and crying at the same time. I asked him “are you CRYING ya pansy?” “No, no, no, I just have something….in both my eyes…” he replied. We hugged some more and next thing I know, I’m watching him leave. It was a lot to take in and I will admit, I sat in my car and cried for about 20 minutes. The only reason I pulled it together was because I had to go home and get ready for the night shift at City, my work. I drove home to get ready for work. I showered, cried some more, got dressed, cried brushed my teeth and did my hair, cried did my makeup, some more crying, fixed my makeup, drove to work and went about my night. It was good to get back to work right away to keep my mind busy. This was going to be a long road.
A few hours into my shift, I looked at my phone and saw about four missed calls from Brent. My heart dropped and I rushed into the bathroom to call him. Was everything ok? I don’t know why I was so nervous to have all those missed calls. I think it was just all of my emotions coming out at once. I called him and he answered all calmly and asked “hey want to hang out tonight?” I instantly exclaimed “F**k YOU! That is so NOT funny BRENT!” He snickered a bit and said, “I’m serious baby, I get to come back home for one more night. My parents are already coming back to get me.” I sat silent for just a moment soaking up what he just said and told him, “Brent, if you are joking I’m going to be so mad at you!” But when he said “I promise baby, papa bear is coming home for one more night.” I got so excited and once again was CRYING. But these were happy tears. My next question was “OH man I have to say goodbye to you all over AGAIN?! You’re killin me!” We laughed a bit, but not for too long, I had to get back to work. I was literally bouncing off the walls for the rest of my shift I couldn’t wait to get off. That was the longest shift of my entire life!
We had a good night. One more night with him and his family was great. I knew at this moment to cherish these times with Brent because that is what was going to get me through this deployment.
Our second goodbye was much smoother. Yes, I shed some tears, but for the most part, we laughed and kissed. I remember that morning- Tico, Mary and I brought him this time. I was going to miss my best friend. I knew he would come home safely to me. We had so much planned and so much to do once he got home. This was the person I was put here to be with, to please, to grow old with. This was my soul mate. I couldn’t believe the bond we had already shared in such a limited amount of time.
During Brent’s deployment, I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to him almost every day. It certainly wasn’t cheap though. At first, he ran up his family’s phone bill a great deal. And when I say a great deal I mean it. For me, I got the unlimited, everything plan for my phone. I wanted unlimited text, internet, calls, you name it. Any chance I got to talk to my soldier; I was going to do it. I ended up finding a pretty awesome calling card at the store. It was about 10 cents a minute to talk to Brent. And let me tell you, that money goes fast! I stopped keeping track of what I was spending on the calling card, because it was a lot. And either way I was going to spend my money on calling cards so no sense in stressing over it. Even though I got to talk to Brent a lot, I still wrote him letters all the time. I would send him letters with hearts all over the envelope and lipstick kisses. I sent him cards where you can record a message. I did this for Christmas. We both disliked that holiday. I mostly wasn’t a fan of the music, lights, weather or shopping. So I decided to record him a funny Christmas message. He said he loved that card because he could open it and hear my voice whenever he wanted. I would also send him silly drawings I would make while I was bored at work. I wanted him to know he was always on my mind and that everything back home was okay. Sometimes when I would write him, I would draw a heart at the end of the letter and kiss it. I would then draw an arrow telling him to kiss it. This way he kissed the same spot I did. It might sound silly, but it’s all we had. He saved all these letters, which means so much to me. I would also send him care packages with all the essentials for a deployed soldier. Flaming hot Cheetos, cigarettes, dirty magazines, CDs, pictures of his girlfriend that missed him oh so much, candy… anything he wanted, I would sent it. In the event I would send food he didn’t want, he would trade it with other soldiers or people of Afghanistan. Most times, he would trade food for cigs. I wanted to provide the things he needed and wanted even if he was across the world.
Brent wrote me 2 letters during his deployment; letters that would take him weeks or months to write. I cannot tell you the excitement I felt each time I received a letter from him. They were very long letters with HORRIBLE handwriting that would take me forever to read. I loved them! I loved them because he was funny in them, serious, comforting and helpful. He would tell me all the things he loved about me, how much he missed me, how beautiful I was, everything he wanted to do when he got home, and how much he loved me. He also helped me through some pretty hard times. I was struggling with some things while he was gone. Things I rarely brought up, because while Brent was deployed I wanted to make sure he knew I was okay and that he didn’t need to worry about me. But, he encouraged me to open up about some issues I was facing and really helped me out.
“I wanted to remind you, that no matter what you decide to do, I’ll have your back regardless, you know that. When I said that you could give someone all the answers but they won’t take heed to it until it ‘bites them in the ass,’ I wasn’t implying that you’ll be bitten in the ass; I just meant that we all have our own lessons to learn. Each decision we make affects our futures and the lessons. We are all constantly learning, it’s just whether or not we choose to pay attention that we take these lessons to heart – I guess whether or not we deem them important. All I’m saying is, YOU do what YOU feel is WISE and just make sure you keep your eyes and ears open. Do you baby girl, and as long as you’re doing what makes you happy for the time being, you must be doing something right. I love you with all my heart, Jessica, no matter where life takes us. I don’t care if we end up living in the streets (which I would NEVER let happen), as long as I’m with you baby. You’re all I need. Your happiness is my satisfaction. I just wanna see you happy and content and pleased with me. I haven’t talked to you for a few days because the phones and shit are down, but just the thought of you keeps me going. I have found my queen. For real baby, I had accepted the fact that I was going to live a lonely life, and I was fine with it. Runnin around, doin crazy shit, makin money, gettin girls – shit gets old ya know? But that’s all that appealed to me. I knew I was never going to find a woman to be in love with, and that was cool with me, cause who needs love, especially at my age. Why waste my time on heartache just for it to end cause that’s what “love” seems to be. But now I see what I would have been missing out on if I hadn’t found you – true happiness. And I would never do anything to ruin it. Why would I? It’s illogical, and we know I do my best to be logical. You satisfy my every need, physically, mentally, emotionally and everything in between. I know we are going to have some issues – mostly mine, to sort out. I can only hope that you are going to stick by my side no matter how fed up with me you are. At times, I know I’ll be difficult to live with, but I promise to do my best. It’s true ya know, your own worst enemy is yourself. The issues I have are all in my damn head and it’s hard sometimes to sort them out, but I’m trying because I want to be at my best to make you as happy as possible. I know I can unnecessarily be a dick or jealous or whatever, but I swear I’m workin on it. And I’m going to work at making this relationship even better every day, I promise. You know this deployment really aint shit. I feel like we found each other for a reason, to be tested ya know. And there’s no test we won’t pass. If it’s true, and I know it is, no time apart can ruin what we have. We were meant for each other no doubt about it, it was just a matter of time before we found each other. If this isn’t what would be called ‘love’ then there is no such thing. I never want to be apart from you again baby.”
That was from one of the letters Brent wrote me.
During his deployment, I kept busy with school and work. I finished school, even though it took me longer than expected. I was excited to be done with that and to start my new job when Brent got home. I also spent a lot of time with his family. I have always loved his parents and working for them, and I also got to know the rest of his family. Surrounding myself with these people is what got me through the deployment. Having people going through the same situation as me is what lifted me up when times got tough.
On the night before my birthday, I was staying the night with one of my girlfriends as her family was out of town. At about midnight, I got a phone call from my mother. She had just gotten surgery on her eyes, and was having some sort of reaction and couldn’t see. I hurried home because she needed to go to the hospital but couldn’t drive herself. I remember coming home, tired and quite cranky. I poked my head in the front door yelling, “Mommmm, I’m here!” I look over into the living room and who is sitting on the couch? BRENT!! He was sitting there in his uniform (sigh) with flowers and a birthday gift. I couldn’t believe he was here and on my birthday! Brent looked at me and asked, “Are you happy and surprised baby? Happy birthday!” I smiled and threw my arms around him. I honestly thought I was dreaming. Brent got to stay home for a few days and I will say, that was the best birthday gift I could have ever gotten. Along with him surprising me, he gave me flowers, an ICP teddy bear named Jody and a beautiful white gold (NOT SILVER, Brent made sure that was known) heart necklace. I loved my gifts because he put a lot of thought into them. As much as I loved them all, I wouldn’t trade my time with him for any of them. Needless to say, my mom did not need to go to the hospital and my friend knew I wasn’t going to be returning to her house that night.
Brent went back to Afghanistan and continued his deployment…
Holidays went by without him and that was hard, but it made me even more excited to make those memories with him in our upcoming years together. For Valentine’s Day, Brent wanted to get me a piece of jewelry with opal in it. He knew I loved opal. He worked with his mom in picking something out for me. She had chosen a ring and when she showed Brent, he quickly had her exchange it for something else. Although I’m sure it was beautiful, Brent knew that I didn’t want any rings unless it was an engagement ring. Not that I was implying I wanted to get married, because that was not the case. I simply wanted that to be the only ring he ever gave me. So, I was given a beautiful gold and opal necklace. It was so gorgeous. Brent was spoiling me from across the planet.
Before I knew it, Brent had an idea of when he would be coming home. Was this real life? Start preparing for him to be back?! Was this a dream? I was so excited, happy and nervous. Even though we were already dating, it was like we were about to see each other for the first time ever. It’s funny to think, Brent would be coming home and just two months later, we would be celebrating our one-year anniversary together. I remember getting a text from Brent’s phone. “I’m home baby.” He was in the states!! I got a text from my boyfriend! To look at my phone and have a text massage from him was surreal. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but after a ten month deployment, it is. You learn to appreciate the simple things like text messages. Instead of straining to hear him call from a strange Afghan phone number, I got a text J I couldn’t wait; the day was finally coming where I would have him with me again!
I remember reaching out to a couple of my girlfriends who had experience deployment before. Their stories were different from each other and mine, but they had been there before and knew what I was going through. They were both excited for me and shared their happiness for me that I would have him home soon. They also advised me to be aware that things were going to be different. Not necessarily bad, just different. Brent and I had gone almost a year without really spending time with each other; things surely were going to be different. I learned a lot about PTSD. I wanted to educate myself on the subject before the possibility of experiencing it firsthand. My girlfriends also told me that when it comes to the military, deployment, post-deployment, PTSD, etc., people will say they understand, but they don’t unless they have been through it themselves. They wanted to let me know that they were there to help me if I ever needed anything, any advice, or a girls’ night.
Before I knew it, they day had finally come! I wanted to look perfect for him when he got home. I started working out like crazy to be in tip top shape when he got home. Lord knew that once he came back, there would be no time for the gym anymore. I remember making two welcome home banners for Brent: friends and family signed one of the banners. The night before his homecoming, I probably tried on about ten different outfits. I wanted to look my best. I don’t think I slept that night either.
Marsha and I got to Soldier Field very early. I honestly think we were the first two people there. We interviewed with the newscast and showed them our banners. We then went inside and actually helped set up. We got to look around and saw the soldiers’ names on the wall. We looked around a bit and found Brent’s. As time went by, the rest of the family arrived and we were all very antsy and ready for our soldier to get there. As all the friends and families of the soldiers piled in, the anticipation grew and grew. Finally, our men were here. And as they stood there in front of us, it seemed like an eternity before they were released. Just let us hug them already! Finally it was time. Everyone was running around trying to find his or her loved one. When Brent and I were looking for each other, we ran in opposite directions and couldn’t find each other at first. I bumped into about 10 different soldiers and was searching all over for my Brent. They all looked the same!! One man looked so similar; I almost jumped on him like a spider monkey. That would have been embarrassing. Finally I saw him! It was hands down, the best moment of my life. Being back in his arms and having him home safe, where he belonged. I was so happy! I finally had the love of my life back. Let the memories begin! We all went out to eat for some Mexican food right after the ceremony. I loved watching him eat. I also loved the way he would look at his family during the meal. You could just tell he was soaking it all in and loving every second. It was so good to have him home with his family. I loved the look he had in his eyes. He was glad to be back. After we ate, Brent surprised me and told me he rented a hotel suite for the week and I didn’t have to work. He arranged that with his parents and he had already planned everything. I could not believe this was happening. I had a full week to spend in Chicago with Brent and not worry about anything but spending time with him and making up for lost time. We had friends come up to the hotel and stay with us too. It was HUGE and so great to have everyone together. And boy oh boy did we party! First thing Brent wanted to do was going shopping. He got a new outfit and spent quite a pretty penny on it. Can’t say I blame him. We went out to eat to a lot of different restaurants. I suppose he was tired of eating MRE’s (meals ready to eat). We also cruised around the city a lot, listening to music. One of the days, we went to the beach and had entirely too much to drink. It was so crazy to be driving and look to my right and see my man. Surreal. So many good memories made with great friends in the great city of Chicago.
Before we knew it, it was back to reality. I had to get back to work and it was time for Brent to adjust to civilian life again. We got ourselves a two-bedroom apartment. There, it was just Brent, me, Tico and our pup Gucci; just the four of us. It was so much fun. I loved living with those boys. We had some great times there.
Trying to figure out what he wanted to do next was a bit of a struggle for Brent. He went back and forth between school and work. He took some college courses at a local college but was quickly bored with that after a few weeks. Brent also worked a couple of different jobs, but just as he did in school, he found himself wanting to do something different. For most, Brent gave off the “slacker” vibe, and many times, people thought he simply didn’t want to work because he was lazy. This wasn’t the case. Brent was anything but lazy. But he did find himself bored, irritable, stressed, tired, sometimes sad, and other times pissed off. These feelings affected his schooling and work. This was frustrating for Brent as he didn’t know why he would feel these feelings. We had talked about it before and he expressed he knew he had always struggled, but couldn’t understand why, especially now. He was an Army Medic, he was home, healthy, had work, his friends were all here, his family was always there for him and he had his woman. Don’t get me wrong, he had great days and we enjoyed any free time we had together; we spent a lot of time with friends, went to a lot of concerts and made a lot of memories. But, there were definitely struggles and a lot of times they would come out of nowhere.
He was starting to have trouble sleeping and he would get jumpy and irritated at the drop of a hat. He always recognized that this would happen and would get so frustrated with himself. As months went by, he struggled with the use of prescription painkillers and sleeping pills. I’m not really sure when, or why the use started, but next thing I knew, I was using too. As time went by, the use got a bit more frequent and that’s when things really started to change. Yeah, we had some great times, but our partying also was killing our relationship. We couldn’t remember certain things, we were wasting money like we had it, we were messed up more often than sober and we began to argue more. After a while, Brent became very sick and was in and out of the hospital. He would have extreme pain in his stomach and would always feel nauseous. Each time he went to the hospital, they would give a different reason as to what was wrong with him; anything from pancreatitis to minimal fluid being in his upper intestine. This was extremely frustrating and caused Brent to continuously leave the hospital. Why should he just sit in there for a bunch of civilians to continuously give him the runaround is how he saw it. In the midst of all this, I somehow lost Brent. Out of nowhere, it was like he was gone. He would NEVER listen to me anymore. Any time I would look at him, it was almost as though he was looking right through me. I felt like he wasn’t even hearing me half the time. I don’t think he even cared to. He would make plans with me and when it came around time to go out, he would have no idea what I was talking about and would be off somewhere doing something else. He was different. He wasn’t attentive, motivated, and affectionate towards me and his mind was always off somewhere else. I felt like he didn’t even want me around anymore. And through all this, I still loved him and wanted to be by his side. I made a promise to him before his deployment, and reassured him during deployment, that I would never leave him and I would most certainly never give up on him no matter how bad things got.
I soon learned Brent was no longer in the Army. I knew this broke him because all he wanted to do was to go Special Forces. He had expressed that he wanted to continue with his Army career and that was the route he wanted to take. I had backed him 100% even though I knew this meant I would never see him let alone hear from him. That is something I learned very quickly, Army first, family second if at all. I knew this is what he wanted though, and to hear that he was driven and wanted nothing more than this, I wanted to stick by his side and push him in that direction. And when that option was taken away from him, he had nothing left. The one thing that he became so driven towards was gone in the blink of an eye. After that is when things really went downhill.
Brent and I stopped seeing each other right around my birthday, in October of 2011. We still spent some time together, but we weren’t “dating” and we didn’t live with each other. Call it what you want, but either way, he was still my man and I was his girl. We were still there for each other, just taking a step back. I guess it was more a case of me taking the step back, because he had already been distant and seemed to have taken 100 steps back. He told me he couldn’t be with me anymore because he was afraid he was going to hurt me even worse than he already did. I never really understood what he meant, but he told me he wasn’t good enough for me, he couldn’t give me what I deserved, and he just didn’t want to be with me. I fought for him I really did. I literally begged him to give us a chance. I remember the last day he was at my apartment. He came to give me some of my belongings and to give me a gift. He went to California and had gotten me a purple blown glass piece. He knew I loved purple. Right as he was pulling it out of his bag, it fell to the kitchen floor and shattered. And just like that Brent lost it, dropped to his knees and began scooping up the broken shards of glass with his bare hands. He began to cry hysterically and got very upset. He kept saying “I gotta go’ I gotta go.” I begged him some more to not leave and to talk to me. I needed him to settle down before he went anywhere. I wanted to help him and he clearly needed it he just didn’t want it. He was pushing me completely away. He finally yelled “I HAVE TO GO JESSICA LEAVE ME ALONE! This is for the best please just believe me.” I knew this wasn’t what he wanted. How in the hell did we get here? To this place where we couldn’t even communicate anymore. I felt like we were 2 completely different people instead of 1 unit, if that makes any sense. I pleaded with him some more and he shouted, “I don’t love you anymore Jessica leave me alone!” I had nothing to say and just like that he left. I was heartbroken. How was this happening? I didn’t sleep; I didn’t eat for about a week.
After about two weeks, we were talking again; nothing serious, just texting here and there. We didn’t even really bring up what happened. Just the fact that we were talking and I knew he was ok, was enough for me. Being boyfriend/girlfriend was the farthest thing from my mind at this point. I just wanted Brent in my life and I wanted to be there for him. I wanted to see him reach his dreams and his full potential. We ended up buying VIP tickets to go see our favorite rapper, Tech N9ne at the Castle Theatre on November 18, 2011. This was our fourth Tech concert together. This rapper’s music was one huge love that Brent and I shared. Brent of course, introduced me to the artist. We had so much fun at the concert. We danced our asses off. I could tell though, Brent was definitely high on something. I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t want to ruin our good time. I knew that in one second I could completely change his mood and we probably would have ended up leaving the show. We stayed until the end of the show and then went home. I dropped him off at his family’s house and I went home. That sucked. All I wanted to do was stay with him and Gucci but I knew it wasn’t the right time. And, if he really wanted me to stay, he would have said something.
A couple of days later I texted Brent and thanked him again for taking me to the concert. I had so much fun. We started talking about specifics of the show and how awesome it was. We talked pretty much all day that day through text. Then, out of nowhere, he tells me that he had so much fun with me, but we can’t keep hanging out and keep talking all the time because it was too hard for the both of us. I asked him how he goes from one extreme to the other out of nowhere. And plus, I wasn’t even talking about our relationship; I thought we were focusing on our friendship and his health. I told him he was my best friend and I didn’t understand what was going on. I will never forget his reply, “we need to find new best fucking friends Jessica! Leave me alone.” After that, I had nothing left to say. This man made no sense anymore. It was like I was dealing with three different people, the old Brent, the new Brent and the somewhere in between Brent. I never knew which one I was going to get. In my head, I was clearly hanging on to something that just wasn’t meant to be. I had to convince myself I wasn’t supposed to be in Brent’s life anymore. I really can’t begin to put into words how that felt. The person, who meant most to me, wanted nothing to do with me anymore. I was going to leave him alone. But I also knew that if he reached out to me I would be there in a heartbeat. I promised him I would always stick by him and I intended on keeping that promise. Whether it would be in a relationship, a friendship, whatever, I wanted him happy. I believe this all happened November 21st. I promised myself I would not bother him anymore. If he wanted to talk to me, he would. On thanksgiving, November 24th, I so badly wanted to text Brent and tell him Happy Thanksgiving. It was a holiday we both loved, unlike Christmas. The weather was nice, the food was great and no one had to buy gifts! It was just a day to be thankful. It was also Prada’s first birthday! Prada is Marsha’s pit bull/boxer pup. She is such a love bug! This day was just all around a good day. I didn’t text him though. Instead I spent time with family and stayed off of my phone. I left one family party to go to another party at my grandparents’ house. I walked in the door and everyone was already there. “Happy Thanksgiving!” filled the room and I could smell the food. Despite the giant plate I ate at the previous family party, I was suddenly hungry again. As I settled into the house, took my shoes off and hugged my family members, I could hear my phone buzzing in my purse. I let it ring; I could get to it later. It kept buzzing and I finally checked the phone. I saw it was Brandon, Brent’s older brother calling. I texted him and asked if I could call him in a bit, I was just getting to my family’s house. He replied with “No. Call me now please.” I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I better call him. I put my shoes back on and walked out to the front porch so I could hear. The phone rang about one and a half times and Brandon answered. I asked what was up and he said, “Jess, Brent’s dead.”
I fell to the ground and yelled “What?! What are you talking about?” This wasn’t real. This wasn’t happening. He told me that Brent basically had been found this morning in bed, not breathing and it was because of an overdose. I couldn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling at this point. “Are you sure? Is everyone SURE he is dead? This can’t be true!” I started begging to whomever for this to not be true and for it to be a dream. I told Brandon I would call him back and hung up the phone. I started screaming and walked back into the house yelling “Mom!! Mom!” All I wanted was my mom. She came running out to the front door to me and asked what was wrong. “Brent’s gone!” I yelled. “What do you mean Brent’s gone baby?” I told her “He’s dead!” The next thing I remember, I was running outside and threw up in the front yard. I couldn’t seem to calm myself down. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t talk. My mom brought me to her house right away. I stayed there that night. A lot of it is a blur, but I remember staying on the couch in the basement. I literally sat up all night crying and begging for this not to be true. My cousin came over to stay with me for a bit. That surely helped. When she went home, I sat up on my mother’s laptop. I was on Facebook all night just looking through all Brent’s pictures. I didn’t know what else to do. The person, who I would always run to, was gone. Just like that, gone. It was like he was taken straight out from under my nose. He would have been fine if he were with me that night. I would have never let anything like that happen to him. Anger immediately filled my entire body and I started to see red. I found out who he was with that evening and the next morning, and I was instantly filled with hate. I had never felt this way before. I also felt helpless, which triggered more anger and frustration. Then, the sadness would take over again and the tears just flowed. Next thing I knew, I was mad again. How could have happened? I felt like I was losing Brent these last couple of months, and now he was just completely gone. I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. I began bargaining with whoever is running this show to have him back. Please just let him walk through the door and I will do nothing but good for the rest of MY LIFE I SWEAR. I was going crazy, but was told that was normal. Whatever. I was mad.
Next thing I know, I’m searching for photos and videos of Brent to be shared at his ceremony. This took a lot of work and drew up a lot of different emotions. I reached out to many of our mutual friends and well as Brent’s friends from the Army. I wanted as many memories as possible and I wanted everyone in Brent’s life to be included. I wanted to make sure I could help make Brent’s ceremony as beautiful as possible. He deserved nothing but the best. Going through all the memories brought tears of sadness, tears of joy, some laughs and anger.
To be honest, everything has been a fog since the day Brent died. I feel like I’m a walking zombie half the time. I feel as though someone took my whole heart out of my chest and replaced it was a machine that’s simply keeping me alive and breathing. I don’t really know how else to describe it. I eat, sleep, work, and repeat. I almost feel as though I’m just going through the motions of everyday life and that I’m just passing time until I get to see Brent again. It’s like my joy is completely stripped. Everything was Brent and Jess this and Brent and Jess that. Brent, where’s Jess….Jess where’s Brent…Now it’s just Jess. I was put here to care for someone and to love someone and to put him first. I honestly believe I was put here for that. I was given the perfect partner, to just get him taken away. I blame a lot of people for that. I blame myself for letting him slip away. I blame him for being so foolish. I blame the people he was with at the time. I blame the Army for not helping him like they should have. Our men are sent off to war and then swept under the rug. And when one thing goes wrong, and a soldier has one slip up, they discharge him. I know I’m being a bit harsh, I just feel like Brent deserved more help. Yes, he was stubborn and hard to deal with at times, but what soldier isn’t when they come back from deployment? I just wish I could have done something to save Brent.
I feel like it was just yesterday I saw him, but at the same time, I feel like he’s been gone for so long. I miss him so very much every day. I think of him constantly. Everything I do is for him. I often wonder if he is proud of me. I knew he is with me, I just wish I felt him more. I have my good days too. I go out and have fun with friends as much as I can. But always in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about how much better this would be with my partner by my side. Brent was my best friend, lover, soul mate, and better half. He was my everything. And all I can do at this point is remember the good times and that contagious laugh of his. The good times outweighed the bad times by far and the good times are what I remind myself of daily. Brent has taught me more than he will ever know. He has taught me how to be kind, but not let people take advantage of me. He has taught me I am beautiful and should feel as such. He even gave me the nickname “GorJess.” He has taught me to set the bar high and never settle. To be strong, but ask for assistance when I need it. To do whatever makes me happy, but don’t be foolish. But most importantly, he taught me to love without reservation. Brent and I started off our friendship while he was away at AIT, and started off our relationship while he was deploying to Afghanistan. I learned to dive in headfirst and love with my whole heart. I have learned to assume nothing, and let those you love, know exactly where you stand. I know that someday, when I find love again, I will take all these lessons with me. Brent left me a better woman than he found me and for that I thank him every day. I know what I expect of others, as well as what is expected of me. I’ve learned what loyalty really means, and what happiness feels like.
I truly feel Brent is my soul mate. A soul mate can be a significant other, a friend, family member, what have you. It is a bond like no other. It is a feeling of complete wholeness. Some people never get to meet their soul mate in this lifetime. I am thankful that I was fortunate enough to meet mine and have a wonderful three years with him. I wouldn’t trade a single second of it. I love you so much Brent Ortega. Be Easy and rest well my love.
“When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.”