marriage: an investigation

They Had Been Married 6 Months When He Lost His Legs in Iraq

Photo: Ed Kashi

Abby and Robert Jackson, Married 16 Years

Photograph taken in 2005.

Abagail and Robert Jackson were married on January 18, 2003, not long before he deployed to Iraq. On August 7, 2003, known as “one of the bloodiest days in Baghdad,” the same day as the Jordanian embassy bombing, the Humvee he was driving in the Green Zone was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and a land mine at the same time. He lost both legs before he was medevac-ed out of Iraq.

What can you tell me about this image?
I actually woke up to Ed, [the photographer], taking that picture. He was rather close with my husband and I, and he was staying at our house at the time. I think he was working on another project. He camped out in our basement for a couple nights, and he literally woke me up with the flash of his camera.

So your girls were already in bed with you. He didn’t pose you all.
Yes. But surprisingly, it had nothing to do with co-sleeping. It was because we had spent a year and a half in a Fisher House [for families of hospitalized service members]. The houses were not in any way, shape, or form ready to handle small children. They were one-bedroom, with a queen or twin bed. My children were both very small, so they kind of lived out of a pack-and-play. But that’s not the most cuddly environment, and with my husband being in the hospital they grew to be my sleeping partners. It was more comfortable, and it was really our only option, other than putting them in an emptied-out drawer. We kind of became used to it, so back in our own home — as this picture shows — it carried on. I have had four more boys since then and none of them co-slept with us, but with the girls and the time it was … I was far away from my family, and it was reassuring at night. I know that sounds weird, but it was kind of like they were taking the role of being my caregiver at bedtime. I’d curl up with them like I would my husband when he was deployed or gone or sleeping alone. Our sex life was on hold at the time, so it worked for us.

When he was deployed, before the injury, what was it like for you?
I kept myself super busy. I was a full-time nursing student; I had both the kids. So I’d get up and do everything that I needed to do for myself and the girls, then drop them off with my grandparents while I was at school. I remember watching every newscast — feeling like maybe I was sort of there with him, but not. Waiting and hoping for phone calls. There wasn’t nearly as much communication overseas as there is with today’s technology.

What kind of plans were made before he deployed?
We talked about things nobody liked to talk about, like, “What if you don’t come back?” And even things like, “If you don’t come back, who would you like to see walk your daughter down the aisle?” I majored in psychology, and I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but those were a lot of the things we talked about as opposed to the more practical like where are the girls going to day care.

You mentioned that after he came home, you stayed in a Fisher Home.
I think that’s the hardest part. A lot of people say he “came home,” but when they’re injured they don’t get to come home. During the deployment I was at home with my kids. I was able to focus on everyday life and have that distraction. But when he was injured, I was then uprooted too. I didn’t have normalcy either.

Now, all these years later, what does your marriage look like?
Still to this day, because of his injuries, I don’t know if he’s gonna wake up with the ability to put on his prosthetics on. He gets around great on the days he can wear them, but he could go to bed tonight and get an infection from an ingrown hair that rubs and creates a boil, and tomorrow we’re back in wheelchair-mode. It’s just never the same, even when you think you’ve got it figured out. Just going to the mall, he could end up blowing out his knees.

Do you worry that he’s going to push himself too far?
I really have to trust that he’s actually doing all the medical things he needs to. I’ll say, “Did you take your legs off for 30 minutes and give them a break when you were on that trip last week?” “Yeah, sure babe.” But you know, I have to trust that he did.

I don’t want to make any assumptions just because he’s in the military, but if he was the alpha type before, does it frustrate him to have to lean on you now?
It made it very difficult. He always jokes around, but some of his jokes … he’ll say things like, “ I’m 102 pounds and I can’t get into the shower anymore; my wife has to lift me up and carry me.” He really doesn’t like the “Can you do this for me?” Which is great for me, because it’s less work, but sometimes it’s frustrating to see him go through that,  feel like he can’t ask for help because he’s a guy. Sometimes I have to break it down and be like “Look, there are just some things I can do better than you, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Chivalry is not dead with my husband. He opens the door for me every chance he gets. He always has the breadwinner mentality, like, I should be the one providing. Our dynamic was a lot like that before, but he was always and still is very active in his kids’ lives. He’s grown his hair out a little bit, so he lets his daughter braid his hair. He lets his wife go on a girls’ weekend, and he stays with the kids. Now that I’ve graduated from school and I have my own source of income, I think it maybe hurts his ego a little bit, but he does so many things that I can’t. So there’s balance.

What do you like about the day-to-day of your marriage?
I like that I get to see his face every day. I do. I like that I never had to use any of the plans that we thought we’d have to use.  You have to decide to stay together every day. You have to wake up every morning and look at somebody and say, “Yeah, I actually want to try for you today.” Maybe the fact that he still wakes up and does that is what keeps us together. I could’ve been waking up every morning like “I’m done with you,” and he’d be like “You are not done with me.”

*A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

They Had Been Married 6 Months When He Lost His Legs in Iraq