"I, Amanda Claire Stephenson, do solemnly swear, that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."
There was some polite applause. The Army Surgeon General reached out to shake Amanda's hand for the cameras. The promotion ceremony was smaller than the last time she had been visited by the Army's bigwigs. Of course, this was merely a formality before her pending retirement. And it was less likely to make the news.
She forced a smile for the three-star general who stepped back for the next part of the ceremony. Her husband came forward and the smile turned genuine. Brent's hair had a little more grey, but he was still as handsome as the day they met. Twenty-one years in the airborne tends to keep people in shape.
He was dressed in a nice suit; to her, he looked so odd out of uniform, but then again, he had been a civilian for the past two years, having given up his military career to care for her.
With practised efficiency, he bent over and removed the oak leaves from her shoulder epaulets, then replaced them with silver eagles.
"Congratulations, Colonel Stephenson," the general said.
"Thank you, sir," she replied, her gaze never leaving her husband. He returned her loving smile. All of the military personnel there saluted, then broke into a chorus of congratulatory greetings. There was punch and refreshments, all generously supplied by the cafeteria at Walter Reed. The others at the ceremony were just like her: wounded war vets in rehabilitation before being medically discharged.
Mandy wheeled herself over to the food and fixed herself a plate of cookies and pretzels, never far from the watchful eyes of her husband. She made some small talk with a few of the officers, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines she had gotten to know through physical therapy. She was almost done and within a week, she would retire from the Army and Brent would take her home to whatever their lives held next.
She only wished she was more than a broken down soldier and a wife who couldn't satisfy her husband anymore.
They met at West Point twenty-seven years before. They were both plebes. He was there to escape the poverty of rural Georgia. She was from a military family, and given her aptitudes and personal drive, a service academy appointment was all but a given.
Born Amanda Claire Thomas, she could trace her family back to English settlers in the 1740s. Her ancestors had served in every American conflict beginning with the French and Indian War through her service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her younger brother was CO of SEAL Team Five and a handful of other relatives were scattered throughout the services.
Amanda's forefathers had fought at Saratoga and Yorktown; they fled Washington, DC ahead of the British and captured New Orleans. They stormed the walls of Chapultepec, laid siege to Petersburg and followed J.E.B. Stuart on a ride around the Union Army—twice. One of her great-great-great-great aunts had even disguised herself as a man and marched to the sea with General Sherman.
She had distant cousins who were Indian fighters. Others put down the Philippine insurgency and occupied St. Petersburg after the Bolshevik Revolution. She could name uncles who jumped into Sicily and died at Tarawa. Her grandfather was an aide to Admiral Nimitz and her father was a Marine Sergeant Major. Despite his ribbing about joining the Army, her father beamed with pride when he pinned her lieutenant's bars on after her West Point graduation.
From their plebe year on, Amanda and Brent were inseparable. It was love at first sight. Army life was tough on them, though. After receiving their commissions, they married and were immediately sent to different sides of the world. She went to medical school and he went to South Korea.
In the twenty-one years they were in the service concurrently, they never had a full calendar year together. Between staff assignments, training schools, overseas deployments and graduate schools, they spent more time apart than together. Yet their love and devotion never wavered. They knew what they were getting into from Day One, and the distance between them made the time they had together that much more precious.
Brent was a regimental commander in the 82nd Airborne when the accident happened. She was in Afghanistan setting up a field hospital. While on a routine transport mission, the Black Hawk she was on got hit by one of the Stinger missiles given to the Mujahedeen by the CIA to use against the Soviets. The chopper crashed and her back was broken. Her left arm mangled. After being medevaced to Germany, both legs had to be amputated below the knees due to a staph infection, and she was paralysed from the chest down.
Her husband hopped on a plane to Ramstein Air Base and never left her side. When told that her rehab would take years, he filed his retirement papers and left the Army so he could care for Amanda—despite her protestations. He waited on her hand and foot as she endured over twenty surgeries to treat her wounds and rebuild her shattered body.
Mandy chided him for giving up a promising career, but he would hear none of it.
"Four stars are worthless to me without you," he told her. And that was that. Brent could be a hard-headed son-of-a-bitch sometimes. He was on the fast track to general and gave it up without thinking twice.
And deep down she was grateful that he was willing to sacrifice so much for her. She felt guilty because she could no longer care for herself; early on, he had to do everything for her. He drove her to and from the hospital. He cooked for and fed her. He made her do the exercises at home. Some days she hated him for pushing her as hard as he ran his regiment, but she knew she needed him. She needed his focus. His drive.
Yet she also knew there was an emptiness in their lives. They hadn't made love in almost three years. She couldn't. She had very little feeling or movement from her chest down. The skin grafts and pins in her bones sometimes made even simple things like holding hands painful. Never mind having sex.
Brent never complained. He never mentioned it. She knew that sometimes he surfed for porn on the computer when she wasn't around. When out in public, his eyes wandered. And she couldn't blame him. At her request, he masturbated for her. She would stroke his cock to orgasm and when she felt up to it, even gave him blow jobs, but it wasn't the same.
She was never going to fully be his wife again. And both of them knew it.
One of the things the Army does, especially for decorated heroes, is promote them on the way out the door. Even with his abrupt departure from the service, Brent was given his brigadier's star on the eve of his retirement, and her promotion to bird colonel was the same gesture. It let them draw retirement pay at the higher grade and put them up a peg or two when they went looking for post-Army jobs.
Senior officers are valuable commodities in the private sector. In the two years of his retirement, Brent had done some consulting for the military, defense contractors, and a couple of think tanks. He found work as a talking head on CNN. Even before her retirement, Amanda was receiving offers to go on the lecture circuit, guest professorships and requests for her memoirs.
When they left Walter Reed, Brent took her back to the apartment they had occupied since returning from Germany. Most of the things were already packed up. The next week was a blur. There was a formal retirement ceremony, then she was discharged and they moved back to her family's house.
Over the next couple of months, they settled in. Once she got the hang of things, Mandy could get around quite easily. The master bedroom was on the main floor. They widened the doorways and modified the bathroom for her convenience.
Before discharge, both had been rated by the VA and she began drawing her compensation claim the day she got out. Brent's rating was considerably lower, but then again he was still a whole man. They had put a sizeable amount of money away while they were married and when combined with their pensions, they were doing well for two people at the reasonably young age of forty-five.
She went to physical therapy. He jogged and worked out a lot. They made a joint appearance on Oprah. They spoke to returning troops about adjusting to civilian life and visited with other wounded vets.
Their anniversary was approaching and Mandy was determined to do something special for her husband. He deserved nothing less.
Each night, she parked her wheelchair next to the bed. He would lift her gently and set her on her pillows.
"I love you," he told her before laying his head down next to hers. She usually slept on her back, although sometimes she would roll on to her side. Every morning, she would wake up, Brent's arm draped over her. As the first rays of dawn broke, he would stir. She went to the bathroom and he went for his morning run.
When he came back, he would take a quick shower and then make them breakfast.
They had settled into a nice routine. There was something regimental about Army life and it extended into their retirement as well.
.... There is more of this story ...