First Lt. Justin Hand, 27, is many miles away, stationed so secretively in a dusty corner of the world that even those closest to him refer to it only in the most generic of ways: the Middle East.
Yet he could be anywhere, and half his mind is always back home. His family. Friends. His grandmother, who just died.
He misses the big events and small ones. The Super Bowl. Seeing snowfall on Tennessee ground. Holding hands with his wife.
They got married in July, and he was deployed in November. They've been apart for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's.
Back home in Red Bank, his wife, Stacie Hand, 33, tries to stay busy.
She calls her dad, who lives nearby, to come help when a door knob falls off or the car won't start.
She keeps company with other spouses, whose husbands are also half a world away. She joined the YMCA, hearing it offers free six-month memberships to spouses of veterans.
"I broke into tears when they told me that,'' she remembers. "My husband's service was recognized."
She tries to remember everything about him. They email. Skype. Talk on the phone, but sometimes the connection is lost.
"He's my best friend," she said.
She tries to forget, to act normal, just like every other spouse whose partner is home every night. Cooking dinner. Homework with the kids. Church on the weekend. A civilian life.
But things aren't normal. And all she can do is count the time until he returns.
"Three months and six days,'' she said.
Tomorrow will mark the 25th consecutive year that Linda Sparks has been sending Valentine's Day cards to veterans.
All in all, she's probably mailed 5,000.
When you ask her why, suddenly, this woman who is fearless, eloquent and tougher than a cedar fence post gets choked up.
"Don't make me cry," she said. "I just think we should do it."
Sparks -- who has taught English for decades, first at Red Bank High and now Soddy-Daisy High -- buys the supplies. Licks the envelopes. Pays for the stamps. Uses the money she wins from teacher awards.
And each year, she recruits her students to help.
They get out the red, white and blue construction paper. Scissors. Glue. And choose names from a long list. Soldiers overseas. Vets in Apison. Ringgold. Louisiana. One man in California who was a bugler at Pearl Harbor. Plenty of Chattanooga names.
"We do as much as we can to show we actually care," said Kelsey Aslinger, a senior in her English class.
Sparks' dad served. Her sister. In-laws. Some veterans have received Valentines and then, once back home, come to her classroom to say thanks.
Seems strange, doesn't it?
Men and women on the front lines of battle, dealing with roadside bombs and insurgents and radical imams.
What difference does a little homemade Valentine make?
How strong is construction paper? How much can it penetrate a soldier's heart?
Maybe that's why Sparks does it. In a teacher's world, small things matter.
One little lesson, one perfectly placed kind word, one essay, one poem. They can make all the difference.
It takes faith to send a Valentine to soldiers at war.
On the shelves in her classroom: Hemingway. Mythology. The Bible. "Lord of the Flies." Brokaw's "Greatest Generation."
But her favorite book? Tim O'Brien's wartime "The Things They Carried," which describes the things soldiers in Vietnam carried as a way to understand their lives.
"He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men," O'Brien writes.
For years, Sparks has carried these Valentines.
Which means, indirectly, she carries around the lives of these soldiers, too.
And this Valentine's Day will be most meaningful.
Stacie Hand is her daughter.
Which means 1st Lt. Justin Hand, far away from home, is her son-in-law.
Each one, holding the hearts of the other.
David Cook is the metro columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. A graduate of Red Bank High, Cook holds a Master's Degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English literature degree from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. For the last twelve years, Cook has been a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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