- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - Capt. Pierre Piche’s wedding ring was not found at the helicopter crash site where he died in Iraq. His body was in a closed casket at his funeral.

Sometimes his death does not seem real to his widow, Cherish.

But as his comrades from the 101st Airborne Division return home to the arms of their wives and children in coming days, reality will sink in. The death toll in Iraq has topped 500 U.S. service members, each leaving behind family members such as Mrs. Piche to face the daily reminders.

“I feel like sometimes he’s going to come back with everybody else,” said Mrs. Piche, a seventh-grade math teacher. “I think that’s going to be the thing that tells me he’s not coming back.”

The widows living in the military community 50 miles north of Nashville until now have been able to blend in with the other spouses living without a loved one. Some spouses go weeks without hearing from their soldiers in Iraq.

It can be awkward and painful for the widows, however, as others excitedly plan reunion parties and get ready to resume life with their military spouses. Already, the first planeloads of an expected 20,000 soldiers from the 101st have started to return.

“It’s going to be rough,” said Amy Gallo, whose first husband was among 248 soldiers from the 101st who died when their plane crashed in Newfoundland in 1985. She’s now married to a Special Forces soldier and counsels other widows.

Capt. Piche, 29, was one of 17 soldiers from the 101st who died Nov. 15 when two helicopters collided in Mosul, apparently because of enemy fire. In all, 60 soldiers from Fort Campbell have died in Iraq — a higher toll than any other military installation.

The Piches often had talked about what it would be like when they saw each other again. He planned to leave the Army after coming home, and the two were going to move to Florida.

“We never said, ‘Goodbye.’ We said, ‘See you later,’” Mrs. Piche said. “We felt ‘goodbye’ was too final.”

Christine Bellavia, whose husband, Sgt. Joseph Bellavia, 28, was killed Oct. 16 in Karbala, acknowledges she’s “a little jealous” of the other spouses. She looks forward to talking with her husband’s buddies but still dreads the homecomings.

“That’s going to be the hardest thing for me,” said Mrs. Bellavia, 32, of Clarksville, Tenn., who was pregnant when her husband left in March but miscarried shortly after.

He was one of three soldiers from the 101st’s 716th Military Police Battalion killed by gunfire while trying to negotiate with armed men near a mosque.

The emotions associated with seeing others return hit her last year at an airport as she was returning from her husband’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

A crowd at the airport applauded when a group of soldiers walked by, and tears welled up in Mrs. Bellavia’s eyes. She was holding the box with the U.S. flag from her husband’s burial inside.

“It was like they got to come home,” said Mrs. Bellavia, who is studying to be a nurse.

Mrs. Bellavia takes some comfort in a letter her husband had written to be given to her in the event of his death.

“Dear My Beloved Princess, Receiving this letter indicates that I was unable to keep my promise to you,” the letter says. “I’m sorry I was unable to return home to you and fulfill your dream of being a mother … I hope you can forgive me for this … I love you. I always have and always will.”

Neither Mrs. Piche nor Mrs. Bellavia has children, but those widows who do face additional hurdles as they work to help the children understand why their father is not coming home.

Mrs. Gallo tells the widows preparing for the homecomings, “If you don’t feel happy, it’s all right.”

Mrs. Piche said her three close friends, who also are military wives, said they are not as happy planning their homecomings because she isn’t planning one too.

“I think it’s harder for them to be around me than it is for me to be around them,” Mrs. Piche said. “They don’t want to imagine being in my position.”

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