By Kelli Heard
On October 22nd, 2014, I was sitting in my classroom when I received a text message from my husband, Dustin, telling me that after many weeks of deliberation, they were finally receiving the jury’s decision in their months-long trial. I was so relieved. Dustin had been in DC for what felt like an eternity, had missed playing with our then 3-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter during their summer break, missed our daughter’s first day in a new school, my first day teaching in a new school, and so many other little adventures and milestones a family experiences on a daily basis. However, we kept going, the kids and I kept our routine, and we were all looking forward to getting on with our lives after seven years of living under this shadow that followed my husband home from an Iraqi war zone engagement. I informed my coworkers that we were finally hearing a decision, and they kindly said a prayer of strength, encouragement, and blessing before we continued with our classes.
During a class change, I checked the major news outlets on the assumption they could confirm my assertion that all four men, including my husband and children’s father, finally would be coming home before I would be able to hear from Dustin. And I was right. The brutal media was the first to report our men’s fate.
No words can accurately describe the feeling that passed through me when I saw the headlines describing my family’s destruction as “justice,” calling my husband—an experienced combat veteran, who was shot with, and burned by, a tracer round during the engagement in question, and who refused to shoot back at a certain point despite being instructed to do so because he could not positively identify the shooter firing at him and his team—a “murderer.” To say the least, the rug was swept from under my feet, my heart fell to my stomach, there was a stab to my chest. But none of these can really encompass the emotions that were swirling through me as my world crashed. I pulled aside my coworkers and simply stated, “They said guilty.” I do not remember much after that besides my mother coming to my work to collect me and taking me back to her house. When my head started to clear, one constant, incessant thought began its refrain in my mind: what about our kids?
In our naiveté, we had not told our children much in the way of why Daddy was out of town nor had we made any “just-in-case” plans for if a conviction were to occur. Just like now, we knew of Dustin’s and the other men of Raven 23’s innocence. It’s something I look back on and berate myself for having so much faith in the judicial system: in 12 civilians who have no clue about war and who were pulled from the most politicized jury pool in the country; in prosecutors who were supposed to follow the law but hid evidence and presented perjured testimony instead; and in a judge who, although I was spared much of his day-to-day commentary, I have since learned said, well before opening statements ever began, that the Iraqis had waited too long for justice and showed the jury just how disposable our men were by routinely falling on asleep on the bench. How could I have put my children’s lives, my family’s life, so blindly in someone else’s hands, in the hands of people who were obviously more concerned about proving a political point than getting to the truth of what REALLY happened in Iraq all those years before?
On October 22nd, 2014, I told our daughter she would not be seeing her Daddy for a while. “Until Thanksgiving?” she asked. “No, baby.” “Until Christmas?” she plead more. “No, honey. We don’t know how long, but we won’t stop until he’s back.” That was the first of many times I’ve held my sobbing daughter or son in my arms due to this gross injustice and them not having their Daddy active in their lives, unable to explain the why’s, the how’s, or the when’s. The impotence and bitterness I feel in these moments is overwhelming, and I will inevitably, once the kids are asleep, find myself alone with my own tears.
While life on the other side of the bars never gets any easier, spring forward two and a half years since our world crashed, and the Heard family has once again found a routine. Essentially living life as a single mom, I have learned the value of a close and loving family, strong church and faith, and supportive friends. They have been instrumental in my family’s survival. I have had to lean on others to help me get our kids to the places they need to be, have accepted the generosity of others in trying to keep the kids’ spirits up in their daily lives: camps, martial arts, gymnastics, preschool, games, and so much more. Every time I see my kids light up with a new experience, I am so blessed and grateful for the support system of love we have.
It is all so bittersweet.
Dustin is the one behind bars. But, without minimizing the degradation he faces on a daily basis, those of us on the outside looking in share much of the same view. For every new milestone or event my children experience there is one more that has been stripped from both Dustin AND the kids. They all deserve to hear their Daddy’s words of encouragement and pride DURING these times, not during the 2-3 minutes they are permitted to speak with him on the phone afterwards. They deserve to see his smiling, sometimes teasing face in the crowd. Big moments, small family moments, we’ve missed millions: first dance, first sport, first lost tooth, first time seeing the ocean… more.
For all of these missed firsts, we’ve shared several that I wish were never listed in my children’s repertoire: spending Christmas via video-call with cells and inmates in the background, first time seeing their Daddy after over a year of separation in a dank and crowded prison visiting room, first time preparing for this prison visit, first time telling someone their Daddy is in prison and not understanding why those people think that means their Daddy is a “bad” man, a criminal. My children are experts on what is allowed and not allowed in a visit with their Daddy: sit still, do not hug too long, don’t be too loud in the visiting room, wrappers in the trash, keep your area clean, keep your feet out of the seat. Some of these things have been taught through habit, some while witnessing others, some while being berated by a correctional officer. They have learned to stay positive when talking to Daddy to keep his spirits up.
But this past visit, as we were leaving, our now 5-year-old son asked Dustin, “Daddy, can you please ask your boss to let you come home now?”
They have not yet learned or begun to understand why Daddy is where he is. There, we are the same.
I, too, have been on a steep learning curve in many ways. There are no kiss-and-make-up arguments all couples experience, little decision making between the two of us, no prolonged conversations over our days, our dreams, over what movies look interesting, what to eat for dinner that night, no truly deep conversations couples take for granted, that we ourselves took for granted before this nightmare. Instead, I live each day, sometimes with my head in the sand, sometimes with the strongest convictions, always with the thought of how I will just survive that day because if I can do that, I can do tomorrow too.
I do not know what is in our future. There are so many things we have that I keep as a mantra. We have our plans. We have the appeal. We have hope. Sometimes it is hard to find. I know our lives have been irrevocably changed because of this gross miscarriage of justice. I know another battle will begin once the men are home. I look forward to that battle as it means we can begin picking up the pieces of our lives. Until then, we are at a stalemate, standing still as others move around us, waiting for some sort of normalcy to return. But, we will continue to persevere, to keep the faith, and pray that this will lead to more strength for us as a family once Dustin joins us outside the bars.