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Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Angel McCollum Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Angel McCollum

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National Security

Oral History Of Iraq & Afghanistan: Angel McCollum

AS TOLD TO SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR.

September 18, 2010

Angel Stanley was working on her nursing degree when she fell in love at first sight with a young Army lieutenant named Matthew McCollum.

Well, I came home from my first date with Matt, and I told my parents, "I've met the man I'm going to marry," and I think my mother just about passed out. Because I had never wanted to get married, never wanted children; I was kind of a career-oriented girl.

He was in the military. He is three years older than I am. So he was a lieutenant, and he had just been stationed at Fort Jackson after a tour in Korea.

 

And I knew nothing about what I was getting into. I can tell you for certain I had no idea. When he asked me out on our first date, I said, "Oh my gosh, are you going to be in uniform?" I didn't know, and I had never been around military personnel, and I wasn't sure -- I had no idea what I was getting into.

Complete culture shock. [Laughs] I remember the first time he said, "Honey, I'm going to the field." And I said, "Well, honey, dinner will be ready at 5:30, so be back by then." And he just giggled a little and said, "No, no, honey, I'll be gone for a couple weeks." And I was like, "What? Where will you sleep? In a tent on the ground? What?" It was just complete culture shock.

In 2008, Matthew McCollum was deployed to Afghanistan, where his brother, a Marine, had died earlier in the war.

Remember, his brother had already been killed at war, so I had to send my husband back to the very war that killed his brother. And I went through all of -- we went through all of that with his brother and his widow, and his son that never got to meet him.

So I had that baggage going into it.

But I should tell you I'm not like other women. I have kind of a compartmental personality -- this might help you a little bit more to understand me -- I used to be a trauma ER nurse for five years, so you learn to put on your game face and compartmentalize emotions so you deal with the crisis at hand. So I just basically had to put my work hat on to let him deploy.

And it was extraordinarily difficult but yet, I mean -- I just remember the one conversation that we had before he left, because I didn't really want to talk about it much, because I wasn't willing to go there. But I did say to him -- I looked at him and I said -- and I very rarely call him by his last name, but I do it when I'm serious about something and I want something done. And I said, "McCollum, no medals, and I can't raise these boys alone; so you come home to me." And I said, "That's all I have to say about it." And he winked at me and he said, "I understand; I promise you."

And so I'm very, very grateful he kept his promise to come home safely. He didn't keep his promise about the medals, but he came home safely, which is the most important thing.

Their sons were 5 and 7 years old.

They knew he was going to war. They've had friends that -- fathers had gone to war. They had an uncle who died. I couldn't shelter them as much as I would have liked to, because they already had the life experience of knowing we lost someone at war.

So it was a different thing for me. As innocent as I wanted to keep them, they were fully aware that there was danger in war. So I kept saying, "You know, your Uncle Dan is your daddy's angel, he'll watch over him, I promise."

Before Matthew returned, Angel moved the family to a new base where he was about to be reassigned.

When he was coming back, he was at Fort Hood signing out so he could come home to us, because we were already in the moving process here.

When he was at Fort Hood trying to sign out, I called him one evening and it was like 9:30 or 10 o'clock at night, because I just wanted to say goodnight, you know, tell him we're so glad he's home, that kind of thing. He wasn't there, he didn't answer, and I immediately got panicked; I said, "Oh my goodness, somebody has murdered him in his hotel room, something bad has happened." You know, I just completely -- my anxiety just all came coming down. And I was so upset, and I kept calling and calling, it got to 11 o'clock, and my husband still wasn't there, and I was like, "Something is WRONG."

I was just on the verge -- because my husband's such a family man, you know, we're in bed by 9:30, 10 o'clock, we're not late-night owls, we're just not that way -- I was completely panicked. And by 11:30 I was ready to call the front desk to have them key into his room to make sure he wasn't dead, because I was scared to death.

I get this call, and it's from Matt, and he goes, "Hey, were you trying to call me?" And I was like, "WHERE have you been?" And he goes, "Oh, I was just out." I said, "What do you mean, you were out?" I said, "This is not the time for a married man to be out!" I was like, "What are you doing?" And I was so mad, and you could hear all the anxiousness in my voice and everything else. And he said, "You are completely overreacting." And I said, "You know what? I'll talk to you when I calm down. I'm not ready to talk to you right now." So I hung up the phone, I got myself together and I called back him back, and I said, "OK, Matt, I just have a couple things to say to you."

He said, "What is it?"

I said, "Number one, did you pray for me every single night that you were gone that somebody wouldn't shoot me or blow me up or kill me or drag my body through the streets?"

He said no.

I said, "Did you pray for me every night that I wouldn't have a heart attack from the stress or the responsibility of what was on my shoulders? Did you pray for me every night for that?"

He said, "No, honey, I didn't."

I said, "Well, until you've walked a mile in my shoes you are not qualified to tell me if I'm overreacting."

And that's when it all came in onto him and he goes, "Well, honey, I'm so sorry."

I said, "Matt, I have been holding your vigil, I have been waiting for you to come home," I said, "and when you did something out of the normal, I panicked," I said, "because I was sure that something had happened to you." I said, "Until you have prayed those prayers for me every night, until you've worried that" -- and I said -- you know -- "until you've rocked your sons to sleep and assured them as they were crying that Daddy would be OK and that things were going to be all right, you have no right to tell me I overreacted."

And that's the only argument we had. [Laughs]

Not that small things didn't still cause friction.

And then when you finally let your guard down -- when they first get home -- you finally let your guard down from worrying and worrying and worrying, that you start to get mad. Like I -- you know -- when he does little funny things around the house -- man, they just sound silly -- but not putting your dish away. And you just get angry. Like, "Do you know have any idea how much I worried for you? Put your dish away!"

I know that sounds ridiculous, but it's just part of the emotions you go through. "Don't burden me any more than you already have, put your dish away, because I've worried enough about you, now put your dish away." It sounds silly but you really do feel those feelings.

But not in the beginning. I think in the beginning, you're so excited to have them home that it's almost like a honeymoon phase, you know, you're so excited, it's wonderful, whatever goes. But then, you know, about two weeks later, you're like "Put your dishes away." [Laughs] "OK, snap back into it -- the yard needs to be mowed."

You know, it's -- it's that kind of thing. And you just have to work it out.

And I will say I am very blessed that Matt has not suffered PTSD. But I also think it has a lot to do with our open communication.

Because -- I probably left this part out -- but when he first got home, it was the first night he got home, and after he had slept and rested, and our children went to bed, I said to him, "Tell me the worst thing you did. The worst possible thing you did. I can take it."

And I looked him straight in the eyes, I said, "Get it off your chest. Tell me the worst thing you did. Get it off. Let me -- let me hear it." And he told me; I said, "You know what, sounds reasonable to me. Now let's let it go and let's move on." And I don't know if he will agree with this, but he seemed to be very relieved when he could say the worst thing that had happened to him, and he didn't have to carry that burden of not telling me. And he wasn't judged for it, and I just said, "Sounds like it's reasonable to me. I'm glad you're OK, now let's move on."

We're still giddy, crazy in love with each other, and I'll tolerate the insanity of the Army for this man, and it's because I feel very loved.

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