Iraq war challenges Issaquah family

August 24, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Mother, daughter endured tense days while sons, brothers served in Iraq

Every day apart turned into a waiting game.

Terri Aahl hung the stars and stripes outside the Squak Mountain home she and her teenage daughter share each day.

Terri Aahl (left) talks about her two sons’ simultaneous deployments in Iraq as daughter Allison looks on. By Greg Farrar

Sustained by prayer, she passed the hours until the evening news started; she could watch until the somber music played to introduce segments about the Iraq war.

Like thousands of other mothers across the United States, Aahl had a son serving in sun-blistered, strife-torn Iraq.

But she bore a more ponderous burden than most. Sons Matt and Marshall Cusick served in Iraq at the same time.

“Time helps,” she said late last month, after her sons had returned. “The longer they’re gone, the easier it is.”

The last U.S. combat troops left Iraq last week. The milestone arrived six weeks after Aahl and daughter Allison, 14, greeted son and brother Marshall Cusick at Joint Base Lewis-McChord after a yearlong deployment to Basra, in southern Iraq.

“We were so excited to see him, but I know for him it was just way more than that,” Terri Aahl said. “That was really the first time I realized that this transition home isn’t that easy.”

Cusick, a 27-year-old U.S. Army sergeant and a Yelm resident, handled security for U.S. State Department officials — high-profile targets in a land defined by high-profile targets.

“Just being surrounded by people and not knowing whether they’re going to blow you up or not will mess with your head,” he said.

Brother Matt Cusick, 33, a lieutenant in the Oregon Army National Guard, spent a year deployed to the former Saddam International Airport.

Explosions from car bombs in the international zone in downtown Baghdad rattled on a typical day, “so big that you feel them seven miles away, where we were, by the airport,” he recalled.

Terri Aahl, home in Issaquah, tried not to think about the endless what-ifs. Sometimes — despite herself — she considered a grim possibility.

“I actually picked out funeral songs,” she said. “If I would hear a song on the radio that would really touch me about how I felt about one of them, I would think, ‘I need to write that down just in case.’”

Family ties

Marshall and Matt Cusick missed the chance to see little sister Allison Aahl play basketball or soccer.

“A whole year without seeing them was pretty hard,” the incoming Issaquah High School freshman said.

The conflict in Iraq prompted serious discussions between mother and daughter as Allison studied current events at Issaquah Middle School.

“There were just days when I would look at her and she’d have tears in her eyes and be like, whoa, she doesn’t cry ever,” Terri Aahl said. “She broke her arm and she didn’t cry. So for her to express that was big.”

The military mother also made a point to talk often to her daughters-in-law.

Amber Cusick — married to Marshall for almost two years — had served in Iraq with the Army Reserve and understood the pressures family members faced.

“When I was deployed the first time, my mom was going crazy like I watched Terri do this time,” she said.

In Portland, Britany Cusick measured the days until husband Matt returned from Iraq by counting from holiday to holiday.

Britany Cusick recalled how their daughter Morgan, 5, climbed out of bed every morning and asked about her dad.

The surprise of a late phone call or unfamiliar car in the driveway caused her to prepare for bad news from military brass.

“You have that split second where you’re like, ‘How am I going to react to this?’” she said.

The surprises turned out to be wrong numbers or solicitors.

“I think it’s harder for Amber and my mom and Britany than it was for Marshall and I,” Matt Cusick said. “Marshall and I go out, and we have our loaded weapons, and we know our jobs, and we know what to do if something bad happens.”

Coming home

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, prompted the Cusicks to consider military careers.

“I didn’t want to grow old and say that I’d never fought in a war,” Marshall Cusick said.

Despite their military training, nothing prepared the men for the triple-digit heat, like the air from a blast furnace.

“Matthew described it as, put your head in a 500-degree oven and throw sand in your face, and that’s what it feels like,” Terri Aahl said.

Both soldiers said drab desert scenery made them long for Pacific Northwest green.

“There’s evidence of war everywhere you look,” Matt Cusick said. “There’s blown-up buildings everywhere, there’s bullet holes everywhere.”

Terri Aahl learned early on not ask her sons questions about conditions in Iraq.

The lesson came not long after Marshall enlisted in 2005 and shipped off to Baghdad during intense violence.

But he said milestones and successes often get lost amid the reports of bombings. People should instead focus on how the United States has helped better life for ordinary Iraqis, he said.

“If they went over there and saw the poverty and disease, it would change their minds,” he continued. “It’s different than what they’re seeing on TV.”

The war-zone unease lingered after he returned from Basra in early July.

“He’s come home a little different, and it makes me sad,” Terri Aahl said. “I’m just hoping time will heal all of that up.”

Nothing could dampen the poignant homecoming ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, she continued.

“I also was a little overcome with emotion to see our youngest daughter — who I knew all year had really missed her older brother,” she said. “But I had no idea how much she missed him until that day.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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