Duty Calls

War can free the enslaved, destroy tyrants, redraw borders, and advance human knowledge. But it does nothing so well as intrude on the lives of ordinary people—people like Rick and Melissa Noriega.

March 2006By Comments

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. I didn’t have to be political. I just had to represent my district.” At the end of the session, the House Democratic Caucus voted her freshman of the year.

But her service, like Rick’s, did not come without sacrifice. Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled that she had to quit her job as an administrator with the Houston Independent School District. Arrangements had to be made for the care of seven-year-old Ricky during the session. (Alex, Rick’s son from a previous marriage, was at Texas A&M.) Rick’s parents arrived at five o’clock in the morning to get Ricky off to school, a sitter awaited him in the afternoons, and Melissa’s mother put him to bed and stayed for the night. And, of course, there was always the war to worry about. “I had the CNN crawl on all the time,” she told me. “One day it said that four soldiers in a Humvee had been killed east of Kabul while looking for training areas. I knew instinctively that was Rick’s unit.” He didn’t answer her imploring e-mail. Melissa was sure he was dead. She canceled an outing with her dad to a wedding in Galveston, telling him, “I have to clean the house and get ready for the suits to come to the door.” As she learned later, Rick could not contact her because all communications were shut down until the families of the dead soldiers could be notified.

I asked Rick if he had followed the legislative session. “Not really,” he said. “I was trying to stay alive. We were in an environment that wasn’t safe. Anytime you’re on the road or in training areas or in Kabul or around civilians, it’s dangerous.” Nor did he engage in debate about the Iraq war. “I deliberately stayed away from the political aspects of the war,” he said. “We could get the BBC—you think our media is liberal, wait till you hear the BBC. Everybody was surprised that I was a Democrat. People would ask me, ‘How can you be a Democrat?’”

On August 26, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Noriega’s tour of duty came to an end, and with it Melissa’s status as a member of the House. Almost immediately, Rick found himself pressed into service again, tapped by Mayor Bill White to set up a shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center for soon-to-be-arriving victims of Hurricane Katrina. “I set it up military-style,” he told me. “One staff for operations, another for logistics.” By six o’clock on his first day on the job, the center had two thousand air mattresses laid out. A prototype shower had been constructed, its measurements standardized, and the next day eighty showers would be built to the specs and installed. Two days after the evacuees arrived, their kids were being assigned to schools. “I saw the difference between a legislator and an executive,” Melissa said. “He knocked my socks off, and I knew him.”

So how did war change them? I asked. “One thing was the realization that we’re all Americans, we’re all Texans,” Rick said. “Another was the appreciation for what we have. I didn’t see grass or hear birds for a year. And I’ve come to realize that there is a big difference between ideology and an ideologue. Do you fall on every grenade? No. Being in Afghanistan made me realize we don’t have any time to waste. I count the days I have left—around 10,200 until I’m seventy-five. I want to do something with those days.”

“I felt the responsibility for Texas pressing down on me,” added Melissa. “That doesn’t stop just because I’m not a legislator anymore.”

Someone else may soon know how she feels. In early February, Colonel Frank Corte was called to active duty in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. Corte named as his replacement his wife, Valerie.

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