Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 25, 2008.
Kristen Nelson sits cross-legged on the carpet in the living room of her Kenosha apartment.
Spread around her are three packages of Fruit of the Loom colored briefs, two packs of white tube socks, two bottles of athlete’s foot powder, Rice Krispies treats, fruit snacks, strawberry Pop-Tarts, teeth-whitening strips, deodorant, a Leatherman-style multipurpose tool, a Hello Kitty valentine from Kristen’s niece, a video of her 20th birthday celebration the previous week.
A plastic container holds chocolate-chip cookies and bread slices to keep them moist. The cookies are still warm from the oven.
In a note on lined paper, Kristen tells her 23-year-old husband, Ricky, that the foot powder is from her dad, that she misses him and loves him. XOXOXO.
Next to Kristen is a life-size cardboard poster of Ricky. On the walls are their wedding photos, Kristen in a white dress, Ricky in his Marine dress blues. On the patio door are Valentine’s decorations and a banner with a blue star, signifying a family member serving in the military overseas.
It’s Friday evening, Feb. 22, and Kristen Nelson is preparing a care package, a box of love that will travel from a Kenosha post office to Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq.
She packs everything into a large brown cardboard box and binds it with tape for the long journey.
The box will finish the 7,000-mile trip stacked in the entryway of a former Iraqi air base barracks at Camp Habbaniyah, home to members of Milwaukee-based Marine Reserve Fox Company.
Snapshots of Kristen are pasted on the white stucco wall of Ricky Nelson’s room. He’ll bite into the cookies and tell Kristen they’re better than the ones he makes. He’ll wear the socks and hand out the treats to his fellow Marines, and he’ll watch the video from Kristen’s birthday.
He’ll send home the letter she sent in the box, along with her other letters, for safekeeping. His package will arrive on April 14, and Kristen will open it shortly before five Marines knock on her door and tell her Ricky was killed that day by an improvised explosive device.
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The wooden box carrying Ricky’s remains is flown to Kenosha on April 22, one day after the couple’s first anniversary. Kristen waits with her family and Ricky’s family on the tarmac under an overcast sky. They watch as the flag-draped coffin is slowly lowered from the small private jet.
Kristen is thinking, she says later, of Ricky’s return from his first deployment to Iraq in 2005 and her excitement while waiting for him to step off that plane. She thinks about the many times they talked about his homecoming from this deployment. She planned to wear white capri slacks and a T-shirt with “Welcome Home!” written in marker. Ricky’s first home-cooked meal would be his favorite dish, beef stroganoff, and an ice cream dessert of fudge and crushed Oreos.
She thinks that losing a loved one on a far-off battlefield is something that happens in the movies, not something that happens to her.
The casket is loaded into a hearse and driven past Kenosha businesses where flags flap at half staff.
At the funeral home, Ricky’s casket is encircled by his parents, Susan and Lennie, and his six siblings and their spouses and children. Most of the family moves back, leaving Kristen, Susan and Lennie alone with the casket.
Kristen touches the wooden box, hoping she will feel Ricky’s presence.
“But it’s like he’s not there. It’s just an empty shell,” she says later. “I thought I’d be able to touch the casket and feel a connection, but there was nothing there.”
On a sunny day in early March, Cpl. Ricky Nelson sits on his bunk in his tidy room at Camp Habbaniyah and talks with a Journal Sentinel reporter who is spending several days with the Marines of Fox Company. One story she plans to write is about the care package that Kristen made for her husband and the love that it stood for.
Ricky talks about how he noticed Kristen in the hallways when she was a freshman and he was a senior at Christian Life High School in Kenosha.
They started dating at the end of her freshman year after he returned from boot camp. On his first deployment in 2004-’05, Ricky often called the school, where his mother is administrator.
After briefly talking to his mom, he always asked to speak to Kristen. When they heard her name on the loudspeakers, the whole school knew it was Ricky on the phone from Iraq.
Even though Kristen was still in high school, Ricky was willing to wait. He knew she was the one.
“I figured through boot camp and one tour of Iraq she stuck with me, so I could stick with her while she finished high school,” he says.
Kristen discovered Ricky was a man of contrasts: a tough Marine who cried like a baby while watching his favorite movie, “Old Yeller,” a boisterous guy who enjoyed partying with his Marine buddies but also was confident in his religious beliefs and encouraged others to give their lives to God.
At Thanksgiving dinner in 2006, everyone at the table spoke about what they were most thankful for. Ricky, who went last, used his turn to ask Kristen for her hand in marriage.
“I was still nervous as hell, even though everything was planned. Everybody knew but her,” recalls Ricky, smiling.
Their wedding day was beautiful. Ricky’s older brother David, a pastor, officiated. Guests blew bubbles as the couple walked down the aisle in Kristen’s parents’ backyard. They rode to the reception in a Humvee.
They took a week off from their jobs — Ricky worked for a construction company, Kristen works for her father’s portrait studio — and spent their honeymoon at home.
During the interview in March, Ricky says it was more difficult to say goodbye to Kristen now that they were married.
“I know it’s a hassle,” he says, “but she knows I love the Marines and she loves me.”
When the funeral director asked Kristen if she wanted to be buried next to Ricky, she immediately said yes. But then he pointed out that she was young and would probably remarry someday.
Ricky had mentioned that he wanted to be buried in the same veterans cemetery in Union Grove as his grandfather, a Marine. During a quiet moment before he shipped out the second time, Ricky told Kristen that if something happened to him in Iraq he wanted her to move on with her life and find a guy who would treat her well.
During the interview in March in Iraq, Ricky sat on his bunk with his hands clasped and quietly talked about his worries for Kristen should something happen to him.
“I wouldn’t want her to go through all that,” he said.
And as she boxed up his care package in February, Kristen said that although Ricky was always in her thoughts, she didn’t follow the news from Iraq.
“I pray for him all the time,” she said. “I worry, but I know God will protect him.”
Now Kristen finds strength in her faith and her large circle of family and friends. She often talks about him as if he were still alive, though she sometimes uses the past tense. She remembers talking with friends not long after the funeral and suddenly realizing she was laughing at something funny. She worried the laughter meant she had moved on.
They had planned on buying a home in Kenosha and starting a family. Now, Kristen wonders if she should have gotten pregnant. But she knows it was not meant to be.
“Someone said, ‘Oh, it’s too bad you don’t have kids, because now you won’t have a piece of him.’ But I do have a piece of him, through his family and my memories.”
The last care package Kristen sent Ricky was to celebrate their first anniversary. She sent him a copy of their wedding DVD and a handmade card. She wrote that she couldn’t believe they had been married for a year and that she was so thankful he was in her life.
Ricky died before that box arrived. The Marines are returning, unopened, any letters and packages sent to Ricky. The last care package from Kristen has not arrived back in Wisconsin.
Kristen kept all of his letters from boot camp and his first Iraq deployment in a pretty box. The letters from his last deployment are in an ordinary cardboard box, but she plans to get something nicer. Ricky sent as many as five letters a week from Iraq. She continued receiving them after he died until the last letter, written the day before he was killed, arrived in her mailbox a few weeks later.
In the last letter he talked about how nice it was to see her on a Webcam and talk for more than an hour. In that conversation, their last, Kristen put the laptop on their bed and propped herself up on a pillow talking with her husband, almost as if they were in the same room. It was late night in Iraq, and Ricky had just returned from a mission. Kristen thought he looked skinny and tan and bald with his Marine haircut. She thought he looked good.
He told her he was looking forward to coming home. He didn’t talk about what he would do the next day, what his mission would be or whether he even knew his mission.
Ricky said he had to go to sleep and they signed off, each saying, “I love you. Goodbye.”
Kristen asked the Marines who came to her door several times if they were sure he had been killed. Perhaps a mistake had been made? They assured her he was dead along with another Marine, Lance Cpl. Dean Opicka, a 29-year-old Waukesha reservist who had been driving their Humvee when it was struck by a bomb.
A week later, when the Marines handed her his dog tags and she saw his name stamped in the metal, she realized he was dead.
Then when his two foot lockers arrived at his parents’ Pleasant Prairie home and Kristen watched a Marine officer gently go through the items and mark each off on a manifest, she realized again he was dead.
She knew when she looked at his cell phone, at his iPod filled with country music and Michael Jackson, at his jeans and favorite blue T-shirt picturing a limo and the words “This is how I roll.”
She brought the large plastic boxes to her apartment. Inside one were the things he wore: his camouflage uniforms, socks, underwear, shower shoes, workout clothes, combat boots, sneakers. They smelled like Iraq, of sweat, sand and diesel fuel.
In the other box were the things he used to pass the many hours he was away from Kristen: DVDs, CDs, the iPod, a notebook with a few biblical verses Ricky had written down, a Bible and a copy of “The Purpose Driven Life.” Kristen found herself drawn to the objects. As she turned them over in her hands, she thought about Ricky.
“The Bible, you could tell it had been creased like with a thumb and with dirt when the pages were turned, so I felt close,” Kristen said. “Touching his iPod, knowing he spent a lot of time touching it — but it didn’t feel real. He’s never going to touch them again.”
Fox Company is not due to return from Iraq until later this summer, so on some level Kristen is accustomed to Ricky’s absence. But she hasn’t slept in their bed since he died. Her roommate, a young woman whose fiancé recently joined the Marines, helps Kristen pull out the sleeper couch each night.
Each morning, Kristen wakes up and sees the life-size picture of Ricky and the gold star banner where the blue star had been.
She is not sure when she’ll box up his things, or what to do with their wedding album, or how long she will wear her rings. Ricky was wearing his wedding band, but the Marines could not find it.
He was a neat freak who hung up all of his clothes, even his T-shirts. If they were in drawers, she could simply leave them closed. But every morning, when she pulls her clothes from the right side of the closet, she looks at his on the left side and thinks about him.
Most of the mail still bears Ricky’s name. She knows she should cancel his credit cards and cellphone but doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want to move, because Ricky wouldn’t be able to find her, and she knows that’s irrational.
“I think getting rid of his stuff will be admitting he’s gone,” she said. “I know I have to at some point. But I don’t want to get him out of the apartment. It’s so strange.
“I don’t know when I’ll get to that point, but it’ll be one of those things that’ll be hard.”
She’s thinking about someday getting a hope chest in which to keep her wedding dress, Ricky’s uniform and their wedding album.
“My mom said, ‘You’ll know when to put them in a box. You don’t want to get rid of those memories, because they’re good memories.’ “
Every Memorial Day, public ceremonies honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in wartime. Those left behind also make a sacrifice, one that is honored in the privacy of their homes and their hearts. The young widow and family of Marine Cpl. Richard Nelson, who was killed by a roadside bomb in April, agreed to share the story of their loss so that others can better understand the true cost of war and price of freedom.
About this story
Journal Sentinel reporter Meg Jones and photojournalist Kristyna Wentz-Graff met with Kristen Nelson as she prepared a care package for her husband in February, shortly before Jones traveled to Iraq to report on the Marines of Fox Company. Jones interviewed Ricky Nelson at Camp Habbaniyah in March. After his death, Wentz-Graff and Jones spent many hours with Kristen and the Nelson family.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 25, 2008.