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Editors note: The Indiana National Guard 113th Engineer Battalion is expected to return to Indianapolis on or about Dec. 17 after a year in Iraq’s second largest city. This is the first of a series of articles about the wives they left behind.

COLUMBUS – The hard guys who have been banging around Iraq with Lt. Col. Rick Shatto for the last year might smile to learn that he turned frog-belly white at the wedding altar.

Plus, he was sweating like crazy.

This from an unassailable source: Tammy, his high school sweetie and wife of 23 years.

Mrs. Shatto is apt to let loose with a little giggle when you ask what she remembers about her wedding day. The groom, she recalls, “had that cat-that-ate-the-canary look, but he was pale and the sweat was just rolling.”

“When you go up to exchange vows, you know, you hold hands. When he took hold of my hand, he was shaking so bad that it shook all the way up into my arm.”

“And when I went to repeat my vows I was trying so hard not to laugh that it sounded like I was sobbing. You know it’s not uncommon to see the bride cry during a wedding ceremony. People sitting in the audience thought I was crying. The priest even stopped and kind of whispered, ‘are you OK?’”

Rick Shatto commands the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Engineer Battalion, which is winding up a tour of duty in Mosul. He makes a point of leading from the front. He went on more than 200 improvised explosive device removal missions while based in Mosul. Tammy Shatto says her husband is “soft inside, like a big marshmallow.” That may be true, but while embedded with the 113th this summer, I watched him and his men when there were bullets in the air. If there were any marshmallows, I didn’t see them.

Her fondly-remembered wedding day jolt, at Trinity Catholic Church Jan. 2, 1982, helped fuse a bond that has produced two children. They are Ryan, a junior defensive back at DePauw University who is thinking about being a dentist, and Sarah, who is planning to switch from Purdue to IUPUI for her sophomore year and really loves animals. Tammy is taking care of Sarah’s three-foot-long pet iguana named Drake, an affectionate Springer spaniel named Nathan and a cat named Doodles – but no husband, and no kids.

She is well aware that the 113th mission puts soldiers in harm’s way in a variety of ways. They ride shotgun for the guys who neutralize bombs. They do traffic control for elections and handle prisoners. They cordon and search mud hut villages and go on combat patrols.

More than 40 of Shatto’s men earned the Purple Heart for being wounded in battle – hardly a comforting figure to his wife back home alone in the tidy split-level not far from Columbus North High School.

She is very proud of him and takes great pleasure in knowing that he is doing what he wants to do, but her loneliness is broad and deep. Her nest has gone from empty to very, very empty.

Since last December when Lt. Col. Shatto landed at the Forward Operating Base Marez airport – which at the moment was receiving mortar fire – daughter Sarah attended her senior prom, graduated from Columbus North and went off to college. Ryan spent a summer working in Indianapolis and played an entire season for the DePauw Tigers. Tammy developed blood pressure problems and had trouble sleeping. She stayed busy with work at a medical imaging firm. She also learned how to replace a door knob, among

other things. Her brother-in-law Greg has been of particular value.

“It gets awfully quiet,” she said recently over a dish of her tasty chicken Tetrazinni. Sometimes, she says, “I feel like a 5-year-old girl that's been dropped in the middle of the woods in the dark.”

Tammy Shatto tends to think before she speaks, and sometimes not to say anything. During our interview, she chose not to answer some of the questions, but sent this e-mail a day or two later:

“Fear is a difficult thing to say out loud,” she wrote. “From the beginning I have feared what kind of man will come home. There is no way to erase what we have endured or what hehas seen. Will we be able to take the blessing of his coming home and move on? Will he be able to talk about things or be bitter and shut everybody out? The unknown tolls of war. Is he the man that I married or a stranger coming home? Thoughts that when I hear them said out loud cause a panic. So the answer to your question is I don’t know what kind of effect this will have on our marriage.”

Such thoughts grew heavy for Mrs. Shatto, 44.

“I emotionally bottomed out,” she said. “I don’t know about the other wives, but it’s a roller coaster because you’re going up, and you start to slide, and you come back out of it.”

After a while, she said, “you just get worn out by the roller coaster ride. And, I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep, and then they said, ‘well you need to watch what you are eating. Your cholesterol is getting up there,’ and I'm like ‘What do you mean? I haven't eaten anything in three weeks!’”

The doctor wanted to put her on anti-depressants. She declined. She gets up at 4 a.m. three times a week to hit the gym, and says she is “making myself eat.”

“They gave me a sleeping pill, and I think a lot of being able to get a hold of my emotions had to do with getting some rest,” she said. “And then what finally helped the most was knowing he was going to get a leave ... I had to have more than just that voice on the phone. There are times that he will call and I will just be so mesmerized by his voice and you know with the connections being so bad. (He’ll say) ‘Are you there? Are you still there?’ And I'm like, “Yeah! I’m here! Just keep talking!”

The Shattos bought a 25-foot fishing boat when the colonel was home on that leave late this summer and it played a big role in a splendid weekend on Lake Michigan. Sarah caught an 18-pound King salmon. They were able to see Ryan play ball later that same day. The weather was terrific.

Now, it’s back to the lonely old routine – and the quiet.

“It’s hard knowing that there is not anybody waiting for you to come in, the waiting for someody to say, ‘What’s for dinner?’ You know, it is so quiet.

“I don’t watch much TV, but I will turn it on just so that I have some kind of sound in the house. Outside of the animals, it is kind of lost to be home.”

Published Dec. 2, 2005