Vietnam 40 years later: 101st Airborne Division widow to Army mom
May 8, 2012
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (May 8, 2012) -- Since Vietnam, war strategies have changed. Weapons have changed. Battlefields have changed. But, what have not changed are the faces of war; young Soldiers and their spouses, newly married and putting the start of their family on hold until the end of a deployment. They do this willingly, knowing that their love can sustain them until the next letter, the next phone call and the final welcome home.
For some, that welcome is not one with music, hugs and tears of joy. Instead, it is a more somber occasion that honors a hero and leaves a young widow to face an uncertain future alone.
Linda Eaton met sweetheart Sgt. Steven Arnold in a social club in Warrensburg, Mo., in 1967. That very night a smitten Arnold went home and told his mother that he had met the girl he was going to marry. After a year of dating, Linda and Arnold were married in January of 1968.
They started out like many newly married couples. Each working long hours, saving money and planning their future. Their lives soon changed.
"I worked at a shoe factory, and I came home one afternoon and he was there," said Linda. "Normally, he wasn't home because he worked. He was lying on the couch with a gun in his hand, he had his foot propped up and he handed me the telegram."
Arnold had been drafted into the Vietnam War.
"He said 'I'm going to shoot off my toe.' I talked him out of it," said Eaton. "It wasn't hard. He didn't have any intention of doing that."
THE STORY OF A WAR WIDOW
After being married for only four months, Arnold left for basic training. Arnold returned to Linda for two weeks after training before deploying to Camp Eagle, Phu Bai, Vietnam, with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 326th Medical Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, as a part of the Eagle Dustoff ambulance platoon.
When she bid him farewell with one last kiss, Linda "kissed him [goodbye] real, real hard."
Then, her wait began. "Back in those days it was letters. It wasn't phone calls or knowing where they were or having computers to communicate it was waiting for a letter. And I wrote a letter every single day," Linda said.
She lived with her parents while Arnold was gone and she continued to work at the shoe factory.
"Every day I would go by [the factory] post office box looking for a letter. The days I got a letter, the ladies would know before they even asked because they knew by my face," Linda said.
Time wore on. Days and months passed.
Then, one day "my dad went to the P.O. Box and the last letter that I had written had been returned," Linda said.
"My dad instinctively knew that that might have meant something, but I didn't know it," she said. "I continued my letter writing and one afternoon as I sat at my desk and I was writing to Steve -- let me tell you first I loved the way he smelled -- [his] smell washed over me and I laid my head down and I just absorbed the smell."
That moment was a premonition for Linda.
"It wasn't very long after that that a major came to the shoe factory and I was called to the front," she said. With the emotion of her loss 44 years earlier still palpable in her voice "The first person I saw was my dad. The major took me into the manager's office and told me that Steve was missing in action."
Arnold died in a helicopter crash in Quang Tri, Vietnam on Oct. 5, 1969. It was only three days after his 21st birthday and three weeks before he was to return home to Linda's arms.
According to http://www.virtualwal.org/da/arnoldse01a.htm, the crew had volunteered to evacuate a Soldier trapped in a bunker cave-in. The fall monsoons were making the rescue mission difficult and on the third attempt, the "aircraft commander elected to fly at very low altitude in an effort to operate below the clouds. The aircraft apparently rolled inverted and crashed."
Because of the crash, there was difficulty positively identifying Arnold and the three other crewmen. The final confirmation of Arnold's death made its way to Linda through an uncle who had been working in Da Nang, Vietnam.
"I buried him in his home town of Holden, Missouri. Steve loved his hometown. He loved playing baseball there, he loved everything that he did there and his mom and dad were there," said Linda.
Linda embarked on her solo mission. She picked up and moved to Sedalia, Mo., where she contemplated nursing school, but ended up working for a newspaper. Ultimately, she moved to Poplar Bluff, Mo., where she started her career in the boating industry. For years after Arnold's death, Linda worked at building her career, not knowing that her life would drastically change again.
This time, it was for the better. Ten years later, at a boat show in Atlanta, Ga., she met her husband John Eaton. They had only one date, but Linda has a way of making an impression on people. John pursued their long distance relationship.
"We actually had met many years before that," said John, who is eight years Linda's junior. "I was working for my dad at his marina, and as I was pumping gas and I would see her out on the dock when she was working."
"I remember seeing him standing on the dock," Linda said with a chuckle.
"With my Texaco uniform on," said John.
The sentiment of long ago, happy memories is apparent in both of their voices.
"We proceeded to talk for three months. Our long distance bills were just horrible, even by today's standards," she said. On March 9, 1978, they made a trip to "the North Georgia Mountains and got married. Now, I'm Mrs. John Eaton; he took me with all my baggage."
After they were married, the Eaton's chose to foster children in their home.
"We fostered for 14 years and 51 kids," said Linda.
"She has been the angel of the group here," said John. "There was a five-year period during the foster years that we had six kids under the age of five at one time. I've traveled a good portion of our marriage and she's the one who's taken care of it all."
Through the foster program, the Eaton's became parents when they adopted their children William and Emily.
"Our son Bill was a 'failure to thrive baby' and wasn't expected to live. They brought in a baby that was 6 months old that weighed his birth weight," said Linda. "I laid him on the floor with blankets and with toys all around and touched him and fed him."
From that moment, Linda was 100 percent a mother. As a career woman in the 1970s Linda had made a success of herself, but "having Bill and Emily as our children," says Linda, "I couldn't have asked for a better job on this earth."
THE MOTHER OF A SOLDIER
One day, 19-year-old William came home to tell Linda and John that he was enlisting in the Army.
"She knew I had talked to the recruiters," said William. "The reason I joined was that after 9/11 I just really wanted to be a part of something. I wanted to be a gunner on a Humvee and go to Iraq. I joined as a 19 Delta [Calvary Scout], and a year after I joined I was in Iraq."
Sgt. William Eaton deployed to Iraq with 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Hood, Texas, for 15 months, and again to Afghanistan with Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 4th Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell.
For Linda, things had come full-circle.
June 25, 2008, William was injured by an improvised explosive device serving in the Diyala Provice, Iraq.
"I was in the lead vehicle," he said. "We headed down this old road that looked like no one had been down it for awhile. We only got about 100 feet before we hit it. I just remember looking up and seeing the fireball."
Linda was "not happy at all," he said, but "as long as she knew I was safe she was OK. She could deal with it. I was able to call and tell her as soon as I got back to base."
Because of his injuries, William reclassified and became a field artillery meteorological station leader with HHB. Shortly after, he was being deployed with the 101st Airborne, the same unit that Arnold had deployed with.
"This is a unit that I always wanted to come to, but I knew that she wasn't too excited about it," he said. "She didn't want me to come here. She wanted me to go somewhere else." With a smile, he adds "She was going to call somebody and make sure I didn't go to the 101st, or something along those lines she didn't make the call."
"It wasn't that I wasn't happy," Linda said. "If I could even explain to you that when I held that little baby in my arms I prayed that there wouldn't be war. I had already lost at war. When he said the 101st, it kind of hit me between the eyes; first my husband and now my child."
Ultimately, John and Linda embraced their son's decision to become a Soldier. We were "apprehensive but terribly proud," said John. "That's one of those mixed emotion things. It's like on the deployments you're scared half to death and proud as can be at the same time."
During William's career, Linda has been the ultimate Army mom and has supported her Soldier in every way thinkable. If there was something that William needed during his deployments, it was in the mail the next day. While he was recovering from his injuries, Linda spent hours online playing games and chatting with him. And, when he returned to Fort Campbell, Linda came a week earlier to rent and furnish an apartment for her son.
LINDA'S SURVIVAL ADVICE TO SPOUSES
"Life goes on," Linda says. "You have to take a deep, deep breath and breathe it. It's all an adventure; you don't know it when you're that young. You don't know that [the] one thing [that] might happen that [is] so terrible, if that thing hadn't happened then, where you're so happy at right now might not have been possible."
And Linda is happy. She and John have been married 38 years and have 11 grandchildren, including triplets that William and his wife will welcome in July.
It is apparent that Linda's pain and the loss of her first love are still very real emotions for her.
"It's not easy being a [military] spouse," she said. "Any traumatic event in your life, it takes two years to get over it. You have to live every day in that two years so that you know everything is going to be OK and that you're past it. The edge is still there, but the big pain is gone. Time heals."