Prescott Valley couple bonds in Iraq, brings Memorial Day memories back home to Arizona
Memorial Day is a time for reflection, for honoring those who died in service to their country and, for many veterans, it's also a day to honor their comrades.
Prescott Valley couple Donald and Jamie LaRue, both veterans of the Iraq War, have a unique perspective on Memorial Day.
Don Larue entered the army in 1983. By 1993 he'd already seen friends die, including a friend who died in the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia.
"He was very, very young. From that day forward Memorial Day has always been a day of remembrance for us, more so than Veteran's Day, in remembering our friends that died in the army," he said.
"We remember the lives that aren't here anymore, but we also remember the lives that we used to have and the people we used to be. That kind of sticks with me on Memorial Day," Jamie said.
Jamie spent one Memorial Day in Qarrayah in northern Iraq.
"Some of the guys got together and planned games. We had tug of war over a mud pit. Our cook, his family members sent him pancake mix, so he made cornbread with it, which as far as I was concerned was the best tasting stuff I'd ever had," she said. "Now when I think about Memorial Day, I'm thankful for my husband and what he's done and thankful for the time we served together, while also remembering there are still people out there serving and people that are still struggling even though they're home."
Don Larue also remembers celebrating Memorial Day in Iraq.
"Somehow we ended up with some hamburger meat and attempted to make hamburgers. We got an Iraqi fire truck to come to where we were. We created a foamy, muddy slip and slide with the fire department," Don said.
Jamie worked as a patient specialist, while Don worked as a physician's assistant and is a retired Army Major. Jamie currently works as a GED instructor for Yavapai College. The two served together in 2003 while stationed in Camp Anaconda near Balad, just outside of Baghdad. Both were injured in combat, in separate incidents, while serving there.
"Balad was an old Iraqi air force base that we took and controlled the airfield, so we could get planes in and out safely," LaRue said. "We were constantly exposed to mortars and small arms fire, and improvised explosive devices on the roadways."
Don and Jamie began dating while serving in Iraq just over 10 years ago. Both worked in the medical field and treated a number of soldiers wounded at the height of the Iraq War.
"Combat is a life-altering experience, even if you don't get hurt, but it's even more so if you do," LaRue added.
LaRue initially met Jamie in 2003 while the two were training for deployment to Iraq at a base in Wisconsin. Both were part of a medical battalion
"There was three feet of snow there and we were training to go to the desert," LaRue joked. He was introduced to Jamie stateside, but once in the Middle East the two got to know each other better.
"We were able to talk to each other again in Kuwait. When we entered Iraq, I was gone to a separate location until July of 2003. My job ended there and I came back as a battalion psychiatrist," LaRue said.
He eventually worked in the same clinic as Jamie and the two became friends. By August, they would make their way to the chow hall as a couple.
"All of us, as a group, would walk to the mess halls. We really met and started talking there," he said. "War is a great equalizer. At that point, the only thing you have in common is your uniform. You live in a tent and you treat patients and so on. There's no fancy cars and there's no going out for a steak dinner."
The two were married in 2005 after providing relief in Louisiana following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
"We'd been planning our marriage for a year and half to two years. She was doing it. We had scheduled to go to Ireland for our honeymoon, but the planning was taking up a lot of her time," LaRue said.
Her job, he said, was the honeymoon. His was the wedding itself, but with a stipulation. Jamie didn't want to know anything about it.
"While I was at hurricane relief, I used my cell phone and arranged with her parents and our family to secretly get her dress over to Texas to her brother's house and so on," he said. "We had a surprise wedding in Texas. We flew over to what was supposed to be a housewarming event with her brother. The Friday we got in I went and got the marriage license. It only takes one military person to get the marriage license and it happened to be Veteran's Day."
While Jamie and her sister went grocery shopping for the "housewarming," relatives snuck into the house and decorated it instead for their wedding.
"I knew something was up, just because Don was acting over-the-top nice. He was acting different. I thought it was because we were at a different setting, staying at my brother's, so I thought he was kind of nervous or something. It was a complete surprise," Jamie said.
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