NO ONE HATES WAR MORE than a soldier’s spouse, and yet, had it not been for war, Melissa Noriega might not have gotten married or become a member of the Texas Legislature. She remembers the frantic days before the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when her life was in the hands of—she could hardly believe it—a sheikdom on the opposite side of the globe. She was living in Houston, and her boyfriend, Rick Noriega, was a member of the Texas Army National Guard. The situation was this: If the United Arab Emirates elected not to join the coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Rick’s unit would be called to war. Anxiety rushed into their lives. They had been dating for a while and had contemplated marriage, but now there was a sense of urgency. Melissa called her mother. “We’re going shopping,” she said. “I’ve got to be ready to get married on two days’ notice.” By the time the Emirates joined the coalition, Rick and Melissa were husband and wife. Twelve years later, another war half a world away, this one in Afghanistan, would change their lives again.
This special issue of Texas Monthly is devoted entirely to Texans at war. Some are currently engaged in combat. Some have returned. Some never left. Some will never return. The rest of us have it easy—perhaps too easy. We are fortunate enough to be able, if we choose, to keep the war at a distance, to think of it mainly as a political issue that is fodder for cable news shows and weekly polls. The people you will encounter in these pages have no such luxury. For them, the war is the all-encompassing fact of their lives. War can free the enslaved, destroy tyrants, redraw borders, advance human knowledge, enrich and impoverish nations, spread the word of God, and free from all restraint the most- and least-noble impulses of mankind. But it does nothing so well as intrude on the lives of ordinary people, people like the Noriegas. The good—and evil—it does on a grand scale is remembered by the many; the rearranged and often shattered lives it leaves behind are known only to the few and the forgotten.
The story of Rick and Melissa resumes in January 2003. America was about to go to war in Iraq again, and Rick knew he might be called up—even though he was 45 years old, with two sons, a management position at CenterPoint Energy, and a seat in the Texas Legislature. In addition to the obvious concerns, he worried about how his constituents would be served if he were deployed. Another lawmaker, Frank Corte Jr., of San Antonio, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, was thinking about the same thing. In the past, a lawmaker who was called into military service had been treated as absent. But Noriega and Corte advanced the idea of a constitutional amendment to allow a lawmaker in the military to designate someone to serve in his stead. When Rick found himself in Afghanistan at the start of the 2005 legislative session, he took the oath of office there and designated Melissa to take his place. She served during the entire 2005 session and the two special sessions on school finance that followed.
The novelty of a lawmaker’s spouse occupying his seat generated some media coverage, but the most intriguing question—how did the war change them?—remained to be answered. And so, in late January, I spent a couple of hours talking with the Noriegas in Rick’s Capitol office. I remembered him from the 2003 session as one of the angriest of the Democrats about the policies being pushed by the new Republican leadership. But that side of him was never in evidence during our interview. He seemed more soldier than politician. His bearing was pure military. He sat relaxed but without a hint of slouch; he made eye contact; he kept his voice measured and his gestures to a minimum. His hairline had receded to the top of his head, and what hair remained was cut so short—a fraction of an inch—that a hurricane-force wind couldn’t have disturbed it. Melissa sat across from him, her eyes piercing and alert.
On the Friday before Memorial Day in 2004, Rick learned that his unit had been called up. He was to report the following Wednesday, at the crack of dawn. He would be going to Afghanistan to train soldiers for that country’s nascent army. He spent the next few days putting together notebooks for Melissa—insurance, finances, whom to contact in emergencies. His organizational skills, he said, came from his mother. “She was like a drill sergeant,” Rick said. “She was an executive secretary. She could run anything.”
The unit was scheduled to leave from Camp Mabry, in West Austin, on Father’s Day. Melissa drove behind his bus as far as she could, then called her answering machine in Houston. “It’s me,” she said. “It’s five-thirty in the morning, and Rick is getting ready to leave.” As she told the story, Rick gave her a brief look, an unspoken question that passed between husband and wife. “I didn’t know,” she said, struggling to control the quiver in her voice and losing the fight, “if I’d ever see you again.”
On January 11, day one of the 2005 legislative session, Melissa was sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives. From the moment Rick had started talking with Corte about the constitutional amendment, he’d known she would be his choice: Melissa shared his interest in public service and in politics, and she wasn’t the sort to be intimidated. Officially, both were members of the House during the Seventy-ninth Legislature.
The only Anglo Democratic woman in the Legislature, Melissa filed eleven bills and passed three into law, a respectable ratio for a freshman. Rick was able to watch on the House Web site when she passed her first bill. “I loved it,” she said of the session. “I came wanting to give everybody the opportunity to come together a little.