Jonee's Story

by Chuck Luce

First of all, this isn’t a story about politics. It is not about who supports the war in Iraq and who doesn’t, or whether an invasion was a bad idea. It is not meant to contribute another high-volume voice to the incessant name-calling and demonizing that has become our national dialogue, although we certainly have our opinions about that. It is just a story about a young woman we care about and someone she loves. And it is a reminder of how, when a country goes to war—no matter the cause—the war touches everyone, even the gentlest of people who are oceans and continents away, living and studying and dreaming about the future on the perfect picture of a college campus.

Jonee is a work-study intern here in the communications office; we see her nearly every day. She’s 21, a brown-haired pixie who looks a little like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina. Her job is to help convert thousands of pages on the university’s old Web site to a new style that was introduced last year. It is not terribly exciting work. In fact it’s downright boring work that nevertheless requires alert attention to detail. But Jonee is at her computer 10 hours or more a week, reliably ticking off the pages for the Slater Museum and the chemistry department and international programs. Work-study students don’t usually get to choose their jobs, and Jonee says she was surprised and pleased with her assignment because the Web interests her.

The communications office is in a little Craftsman-style house on the edge of campus. Working here feels kind of like working from home every day. The upstairs floorboards creak. A couple of the windows are painted shut. Sometimes you have to jiggle the handle on the toilet to stop it from running. Patti’s office is in the former dining room, where a wooden plate shelf still lines the walls. Barb, Jonee’s supervisor, walks around the carpeted floors in her stocking feet. Cathy hangs her lunchtime workout clothes on a hatrack by her desk.

In such an informal atmosphere, the staff gets to know the interns well. We learned, for example, that Jonee is a transfer student, a member of the Class of 2007, majoring in politics and government. She chose P&G, she says, because after she voted for the first time in the 2004 presidential election, she thought, “It’s not enough.” She wanted to feel like she was participating more in decisions that affect people’s lives.

Jonee grew up in Cloverdale, Indiana—population 2,273. It is a town still mostly devoid of subdivisions, halfway between Indianapolis and Terre Haute.

Before coming to Puget Sound, Jonee was enrolled at Ohio State, where her mom is a sociology professor. And before that she spent two years at the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, an elite, residential public high school for gifted and talented students, housed at Ball State University. She applied there because she wanted to get out of her small, farm town.

“I was feeling a little rebellious,” she says.

The pixie has pluck.

Jonee lives in an apartment in University Place with her boyfriend, Wayne, and their chattering yellow parakeet, Petey. Wayne is a sergeant in the U.S. Army.

How Jonee and Wayne met could have been scripted by Thornton Wilder. In high school, Wayne had an after-school job in Cloverdale’s tiny drug store, but he had to quit as wrestling season approached. He was the team captain. This was in 1999, when Jonee was a freshman at Cloverdale High. She was hired as his replacement. Being a responsible young man, Wayne stopped in often to help Jonee learn the ropes. When he kept coming by long after Jonee had mastered the clunky cash register and figured out how to restock the Coke machine outside, she realized he might be interested in more than just a smooth job transition. That spring they went to Wayne’s senior prom.

Jonee says Wayne isn’t particularly patriotic, but as high school graduation approached he decided to join the Army. In a town that seemed devoid of opportunity, where the ninth-grade class had more than 100 kids in it but by 12th grade was down to only a few dozen, a trip to the recruiting office seemed like a good plan when you didn’t know what else to do. That, and Wayne’s two best friends also enlisted—one in the Air Force, the other in the Marines. He signed up for a six-year hitch and left for basic training in June. By December of 2000 he was in Korea. He returned a year later—after September 11 but before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Desert training followed, in June 2003, so it was pretty clear what the Army had in mind for him. Wayne’s unit was deployed to Iraq that November.

Since this was their second extended separation, Jonee knew that loneliness and dread would again become familiar emotions.

“Leading up to the departure, you know you have a whole year of not much to look forward to,” she says. “Life is on hold. Little distractions only work for so long, but that doesn’t really matter. Honestly, you don’t want to feel any better. It doesn’t seem right to feel any better. And Iraq is not Korea; it’s harder when you know the place is more dangerous.”

Wayne doesn’t talk much about his job in the Army and Jonee doesn’t press him. He is a forward observer. He doesn’t patrol the streets every day, but he does travel, and going from place to place in Iraq is very dangerous. That’s what worries Jonee.

After nearly a year in Iraq, Wayne returned safely to the United States and was posted at Fort Lewis. Unable to bear the separation any longer, Jonee transferred from Ohio State to UPS. Another year passed, and with the end of Wayne’s enlistment in sight—June of 2006—the couple began making plans for life after the Army. They’ve grown fond of the Northwest, want to settle down here, and Wayne was accepted to the chemical engineering program at the University of Washington.

But one day in early spring, Jonee came to work at the communications house, sat down, and began to cry. She told us about a Defense Department policy called stop-loss, which compels members of the country’s volunteer armed forces to remain in service beyond their contracted term. It is a tool meant to keep experienced units together and to halt depletion of the ranks as enlistments decline during wartime. Stop-loss orders to a unit can be reissued over and over again. Wayne’s departure date from the Army and the couple’s plans had just become indefinite.

Over the next several days we learned a lot more about Jonee and her determination and heart, as she tried to find a way to keep Wayne home:

1. Fight the stop-loss order in court: Stop-loss has plenty of opponents, including those who say the practice is tantamount to a draft. (Congress abolished military conscription in 1973.) Others point out that enlistees sign a contract for their term of service, and it seems unfair that the individual is not allowed to break the contract but the government is. But stop-loss does have a precedent. During World War II, for example, GIs were ordered to serve until the fighting was over, plus an additional six months. The difference this time is that the Iraq occupation is not a declared war. Several challenges to stop-loss are working their way through the courts, but, with appeals, the process could take years.

2. Do something desperate: Run away to Canada. Unlike the Vietnam era, these days this simply isn’t possible. Canada isn’t exactly welcoming AWOL soldiers with open arms. Plus, Jonee points out, Wayne is not the kind of guy who would consider quitting.

3. Petition for conscientious objector status or do something to get dishonorably discharged: Also not an option. Jonee says that Wayne has his doubts about the reasons for the U.S. presence in Iraq, but he’s not about to invent a personal political viewpoint or do something illegal to get out of the Army. He will follow through on what he started, and that’s that.

4. Do what generations of young lovers have done as one of them heads into combat: Acknowledge the incomprehensible reality of war, do your job as faithfully as you can, pray with all your might for peace, and confront uncertainty with an unrestrained expression of hope.

Jonee and Wayne were married in Kilworth Chapel at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, May 17. Wayne shipped out at the end of June.

Remembering that Wayne left Cloverdale for basic training in June and it was June when he departed for desert training, Jonee said, “It hasn’t been an especially good month for us.”

Chuck Luce is the editor of this magazine.