GOING, GOING, GONE 


Four more days, five more nights. That's how long staff sergeant Danny Campos, 35, has until he is deployed to Iraq. Right now at 11 a.m. on a Thursday, he's at his home, a new duplex in a new development in MetroWest, playing Madden NFL 2006 on his PlayStation Portable, a Christmas gift, while his wife, Rita, and 15-year-old daughter, Britney, watch The Longest Yard on their big-screen television.

Danny, like many Marines, is heading back to Iraq for the second time, which presents a unique torture for the Campos family. Danny knows what it's like over there. He knows about the roadside bombs and the rocket-propelled grenades. And Rita knows what it's like to have someone over there. She knows about the seven months of losing sleep and obsessing over the news for some hint, some indication of how her husband is doing. They know what it's like, and now they have to wait for the process to begin again.

For Rita, 36, who has supported her husband through tours in Panama and Kuwait during the first Gulf War, the impending separation is doubly hard. She does not believe in the Iraq war. And her criticism has few shades of gray. Her opposition has more in common with a vitriolic Ted Kennedy than it does the tempered tones of, say, John Kerry. "Bush is toying with peoples' lives, with Danny's life, and I haven't heard the truth yet," is a typical comment. "Bush sold the war to the American people as one thing and it's a total other thing."

After getting back from his first Iraq deployment, Danny spent the past year at Camp Pendleton in San Diego and is now home in Orlando for two weeks before heading back. Knowing what's to come, the question becomes what to do for these two weeks. The answer for this day late in December, four days before Danny leaves, is "not much."

TALK OF WAR

Danny joined the Marines right out of high school and married Rita two years later. They lived at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina as Danny went off to Panama and to the first Gulf War. Now they live in a gated neighborhood here in Orlando. Rita works at Bloomingdale's in the Mall at Millenia, where at times she falls into conversation about Iraq with other employees.

This Thursday is lazy and Rita sits on the couch at 2:15 p.m. watching the final scene of The Longest Yard. All the lights are off, but sunlight still seeps through the cracks in the blinds. Rita walks to the TV and puts in another DVD, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. She has big, round, dark eyes and chocolate skin. She's wearing a navy T-shirt and red sweat pants. Danny, whose dark-toned skin and short-cropped dark curly hair gives away his Brazilian heritage, is back and forth between the bedroom upstairs and the living room downstairs where Rita is sitting. He's upstairs now and Rita yells out from the couch, "Danny!" There's no response, and she yells again. "Danny!" She wants him to come down and sit with her.

"It doesn't sound too glamorous to just be sitting around the house, but that's what we don't get to do when he's gone," she says. "He's anxious, I think, and he's always up and doing something. But I just want to spend time with him."

Danny is still upstairs folding laundry while Rita fast-forwards through the movie to the exorcism scene. "This is the best part anyway."

At 4:15 p.m. she picks up the remote and turns off the movie. The sun outside is dimming, and the house, still with no lights on, is darkening. She flips on the television as Danny comes down and sits on the couch next to her. Chris Rock is on Oprah talking about his experience in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There's a shot inside the Superdome where thousands of evacuees lived for days after the storm.

"Where was George Bush?" Rita asks in a voice that fills the room.

"Here we go again," Danny says quietly.

Rita leans forward. "It just makes me so mad about this president," she says. "Look at Katrina. Look at the war. He doesn't have a clue. If you're going to put my husband's life on the line, you've got to tell me the truth, and you've got to be honest with the American people and tell us exactly why we're doing it."

Danny jumps in. "The thing about weapons of mass destruction, yeah, OK, everyone knows that was wrong, that there was a mistake," he says, his voice even and cool. "But Saddam Hussein had to be taken out of power."

"I don't have a problem with that," Rita says. "What I have a problem with is our president, our commander in chief, getting on television and telling us that we are in war for weapons of mass destruction. And, oh wait, it was a mistake of intelligence. Well you check, you double-check and you go back and check again before you send people into war, I'm sorry." She throws her hands up and sits back as if disgusted.

Danny doesn't look at Rita; instead he peers at the cream-colored carpet. He bites on his thumbnail and rubs the bridge of his nose. He looks up and says, "Any Marine, even when you do talk to your wife, which isn't that often, you don't want to hear her whining and complaining about why you're there. It takes away your focus. You don't want to hear that President Bush said something on the news and blah blah blah. You just want good news."

"OK, I've supported everything `Danny` has done," Rita continues. "He's been to Panama and to Iraq twice now. I supported Desert Storm wholeheartedly. But I don't support the way Bush took us into this war. I don't think he has a plan. I don't think he knows what he is doing at all. I didn't vote for him either. You can put that in the paper. I'm not a supporter of George W. Bush. Never have been, never will be."

"OK, Rita, you made your point," Danny says, cutting her off. He bites on his thumbnail again. Rita doesn't let up, though. She continues in her criticism of the war, restating the same comments, trying to make some sense of it. A few minutes later Danny picks up his PlayStation and goes to play at the kitchen table.

It's 5:15 p.m., and lamps in the corner of the living room have replaced the sunlight from outside. Oprah is over. They order pizza and watch a taped tribute to Tina Turner held at the Kennedy Center. Britney sits in the leather chair nodding her head to the music coming through her iPod, a gift she got for Christmas. The phone rings and Rita says to Danny, "Don't answer it." Calls from family and friends have been pouring in these two weeks.

Danny picks it up anyway. It's his sister-in-law asking if she can drop off her son, Danny's nephew, for a couple hours.

"Yeah, sure," Danny says and hangs up the phone.

"Why did you do that?" Rita asks. "Why?"

"He's family," he says.

"I know that, but I want to spend some time with just us three. How much time have we spent together as a family? Oh, I'm so mad you did that."

The TV is still on the show in honor of Tina Turner. Beyoncé Knowles walks onstage and sings "Proud Mary." George W. and Laura Bush are in the audience, and they look as uncomfortable as Beyoncé might feel at a Republican convention. Then Al Green comes out to sing "Let's Stay Together." Britney, whose rap music can be heard from across the room coming out of her headphones, looks up. She takes off her headphones and croons along with Green from the chair. "Whatever you want to do, it's alright with meeeee," she sings, swaying her head from side to side. "Cause yoooouuuu make me feel so brand-new, I want to spend my life with you."

"How does she know these words?" Rita asks.

"It's probably from all that secret squirrel talk," Danny says, shaking his head.

Rita laughs and falls over on the couch. "Oh, here we go again with the secret squirrel talk thing." Danny smiles and stands up from the couch.

"You know how teenage girls get when they're together." He cups his hands together as if he's holding an acorn, and he twitches his head back and forth. The corners of his lips curl as if he wants to smile. Rita is cupping her stomach and laughing. "Tcha tcha tcha tcha tcha tcha tcha tcha," he squeaks. His eyes dart from side to side. "Tcha tcha tcha tcha tcha. That's how girls talk. I'm sure that's how she knows Al Green love songs."

Rita finally sits up and wipes her eyes.

"You made my stomach hurt, Danny."

This is Rita's family time. Whenever Danny isn't beside her she yells, "Danny, come sit by me." When he calls to make an appointment for a massage, she asks to come along. Later she asks him if they can go to Disney World the next day. In the past two years, Rita has seen Danny three times for a total of just more than a month. Now there are four more days, five more nights until he leaves for another seven months.

WHAT IF?

At 6 p.m. Danny starts cleaning up the pizza. Rita gets off the couch and walks to the kitchen where she stands at the sink. She talks about last night when she rolled over in bed and looked at him.

"What am I going to do if you're gone?" she asked.

Danny got out of bed and walked away. "Nothing will happen," he said.

"I try to get him to talk about it, but he never wants to," Rita says, still at the sink. She's staring at Danny out on the couch. Britney is on his lap now, plucking his eyebrows with a pair of tweezers.

Both Danny and Rita might be thinking about Iraq all the time, but only Rita brings up the topic. She is engrossed in it. Last time Danny was in Iraq, he took part in Operation Phantom Fury, the assault on Fallujah that killed 19 Marines, and throughout the offensive Rita fell asleep with the TV on the news and woke up with the TV on the news. This time Danny will be in charge of Marines training the Iraqi police, and Rita figures she'll spend time in front of the TV like she did during Danny's first deployment. It's already started.

She taped a CNN special titled 1,000 Days in Iraq that aired in late December. On the program there is footage of a Humvee, like the one in which Danny will be riding in a few weeks, rolling over a roadside bomb. The explosion is instantaneous and massive. As if it were spring-loaded, the vehicle shoots into the air in a plume of fire and smoke. Some military wives might not want to see this. Rita wants to see it all. In the bathroom just off the kitchen, there is a book called Witness Iraq: A War Journal, a collection of full-page photos of the war. Many are gruesome shots of Iraqi and American casualties. As much as Danny doesn't want to talk about the war he'll soon be fighting, Rita wants to do little else.

Danny walks over to the kitchen.

"What are you chattering about over here?"

"Oh, it's just secret squirrel talk," Rita says.

Danny's nephew comes over, and after he is gone Rita and Danny go out for a drink before settling in for a night on the couch. Nothing special. They go to bed late and wake the next morning; three days, four nights to go.

jcarlson@orlandoweekly.com

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