Image courtesy: Pfc. David Hauk, U.S. Army. Kandahar, Afghanistan, November 12, 2009

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Images courtesy: Kristi Pearson

Christmas will never be the same for Kristi Pearson. Instead of a day to rejoice and relax, the holiday is a time to remember and reflect.

During the 2006 holiday season, Kristi, at the insistence of her husband, Pfc. Andrew H. Nelson, flew home to central Michigan from Germany, where the soldier trained for his first combat tour. As the 19-year-old warrior spent Christmas fighting during the height of the Iraq war, he wanted his bride surrounded by loved ones.

After a Christmas-morning video chat with her husband and a nice afternoon with her family, the 19-year-old Army wife suddenly panicked.

"I looked at my brother and said, 'Something doesn't feel right ... I feel like something has been taken away, and I don't know what it is,'" Kristi told The Unknown Soldiers.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 26, military messengers knocked on the door of her family's home in St. Johns, where Kristi and Andrew met in 4th grade. At almost the precise moment that a sense of dread began to consume her, Kristi's husband lost his life on the battlefield.

According to the Pentagon, Pfc. Nelson died when an improvised explosive device blew up near his Army vehicle. The Baghdad terrorist attack also killed Sgt. John Bubeck, 25, and Spc. Aaron Preston, 29.

"All of this was a giant blur to me," Kristi bravely recounted four and a half years later, while admitting that the tragedy still spurs panic attacks. "I don't know how to explain it."

Kristi grew up in a military family. But when Andrew decided to join the Army after high school, she couldn't help but worry.

"It's different when it's your husband instead of a parent," she explained, while emphasizing Andrew's love for the Armed Forces.

Kristi and Andrew married on Nov. 5, 2005, just before the soldier left for Germany. She joined him there in the spring, when they would finally be able to take a honeymoon to London and Paris.

"I am really thankful we were in Germany together," Kristi said. "Whenever I think of our marriage, I think of all the amazing things we got to see and all the places we got to go."

Andrew was a "jokester," but as a soldier, he was intensely prepared. Fellow troops told Kristi that her late husband brought an almost ridiculous variety of tools with him on every mission, earning him the affectionate nickname "Ranger Rick."

"He was a soldier who had everything," Kristi said. "Everyone always joked about that and gave him a tough time."

After Andrew's sudden death, communities throughout central Michigan and the U.S. military embraced the soldier's widow, his loving parents, Alan and Tami, and Andrew's loyal siblings, Jessica and Stephanie. For Kristi, picking up the jagged pieces of her shattered life after the worst Christmas imaginable would not be easy.

In the years to come, Kristi fell in love with another brave American soldier, Staff Sgt. Aaron Pearson.

"I want people to know that it's okay to move on and be happy again," she said.

Sadly, Kristi's grandfather passed away last fall. With the horror of Christmas 2006 still looming, Kristi again flew to Michigan with a husband in a war zone; this time it was Afghanistan.

"I was terrified to go home because I was so scared that if I went there while my husband was deployed, something would happen again," Kristi recalled.

Staff Sgt. Pearson was injured in Afghanistan a few months later, within days of Christmas 2010.

"He called me later and said 'I was medevaced, but I am fine,'" Kristi said, her voice trembling. "There were a lot of coincidences, and it was really scary."

With her second husband home, Kristi feels a fragile sense of ease. But with her first husband departed, a sense of loss still remains.

"It's always there, and I always think about it," she said.

On Dec. 25, Kristi Pearson will observe the five-year anniversary of Pfc. Andrew H. Nelson's tragic passing in Iraq while also reflecting on how fortunate Staff Sgt. Aaron Pearson was to survive Afghanistan. Indeed, Christmas will never be the same.


Note: This story was originally posted on Oct. 8.

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