From Iraq, with love

Military operations separated Steamboat teacher, soldier husband

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So her students would understand why Ms. Rush cries sometimes, she prepared an explanation.

Sam Rush gathered photographs of her husband standing in the deserted streets of Iraq, dressed in an Army uniform and holding a weapon. She added photos of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and a map of the Middle East. She dressed a teddy bear in camouflage with a nametag that reads, "Kleiber."

She put the bear, the map and the photographs in a plastic tub. Teachers at Strawberry Park Elementary School have been passing it from classroom to classroom ever since.

"Kids don't understand political concepts, but I just explain that he won't be back for holidays, and he won't see it snow this year," Rush said. "It's a global conflict, but I want them to understand that it does affect our community. People (from here) are fighting for our country."

Her husband, Steamboat Springs Police Detective Dave Kleiber, left Colorado for Iraq on Sept. 28.

He wrote: "Well, I'm in Iraq now, got in late last night. Not sure what time it is, what day it is, whether I'm coming or going."


As Kleiber was getting settled, the people he left behind were coming to terms with his absence.

Rush didn't sleep for three weeks after her husband left. The sounds of an empty house and fear kept her awake.

Rush said she and her husband have been apart before, but never for this long and never with such high stakes.

"He has been gone for a month or six weeks," Rush said. "When we first met, he left for jump school and intelligence training and weapons school.

"I'm used to that. I'm not used to him having targets shoot back."

He wrote: "It's hot as hell here ... still have no water or electricity. We use generators, which work most of the time, and truck in water, so you can take a minute shower.

"We had a memorial service yesterday for two Special Forces operators that we do mission planning for. They were killed trying to capture three terrorist (expletive). Fortunately, the terrorists were killed in the process. Brought home how real things are here."

Kleiber and Rush have known each other for 18 years, and have been married for 11 years. They met as students at the University of Nebraska.

Rush knew from the beginning that she was falling in love with a military man. He went through Army ROTC in college and minored in military science.

Kleiber's father was an officer in the Army and his brother was a military aviator for the Marines.

Rush knew from the beginning that if she married a military man, she married the military. Her father was in the Air Force and was killed in 1968 while on special assignment. Her two brothers also are in the military.

"It's a mindset," she said. "As a kid you move around a lot, and you always know that deployment could happen. I always knew that my dad could leave and, in the far recesses of my mind, that he might get killed.

"When they get deployed, you can't say a word. You can't say that you don't believe in this politically," she said.

As Rush watched her husband pack his bags for a year in Iraq, she remembered the words of her marriage vow, "We will go our separate ways together."

The husband and wife are two different people politically. Rush is a Democrat, and Kleiber is a Republican.

"We've had some knock-down, drag-out arguments about politics," she said. But this was not the time to argue.

"I may not support the politics of why we are there, but I support the people who are there. They don't have a choice."

Kleiber, 41, has served with the National Guard for more than 20 years. It requires a one-weekend-a-month commitment. He does it for the paycheck, Rush said. He does it because he loves his country, and he does it to feed his constant need for adrenaline, Rush said.

"I never thought he would be going to war," she said.

In July, Kleiber was told by his commanding officer at the Colorado National Guard not to make plans after Oct. 1. His unit was going to Iraq.

"We talked about the warning," Rush said. "I felt lost. Sad. Empty. And I had a tremendous amount of fear.

"With the military, you can't plan. You react."

At his going-away party Aug. 31 at the Depot Arts Center, Kleiber made a short speech. He asked simply, "Take care of Sam."

Since he left, Rush has relied heavily on her friends: "I have a really good support network. Strawberry Park (Elementary) is my family."

Rush celebrated her 11th wedding anniversary alone, days after her husband left.

"That was rough," she said. "Three different groups of friends took me out.

"I rode my bike home late and missed a phone call from Dave because I was sitting outside on the dog's grave, talking to him about Dave being gone.

He wrote: "Started to get stuff unpacked finally. Trying to make a tent as much like home as possible. Could you send me an extension cord, a power strip and a small desk lamp?

"I miss you terribly, but whenever I want, I can close my eyes and be with you in my mind."

"Those first three weeks, I was coming to school like a walking zombie from sleep depravation," Rush said. "Not sleeping made me an emotional wreck."

At the end of the third week, her friends intervened. They took her on a raft trip down the Colorado River. That night, she slept 12 hours.

Since then, Rush has been sleeping better. She and her husband try to maintain a relationship through e-mails and an occasional phone call.

For security reasons, Rush could not reveal Kleiber's rank or unit. Of his location, she only can say, "central Iraq."

"This whole thing has reinforced that the little stuff doesn't matter."

Rush doesn't know when Kleiber will be coming home. "No date was set. They just said it would be a year."

Kleiber's letters home are full of descriptions of Iraq and his experiences there.

"He said everything is covered with sand. Even the palm tree leaves are brown because there are sand storms all the time, but it doesn't rain," Rush said. "And it's hot. He said it's like someone turned on the blast furnace when he stepped off the plane and didn't turn it off."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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