Army Love: A Fallen Soldier's Widow Tells Their Daughter How It All Began

May 28, 2016

Donna Engeman enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1981. About two years later, she left after she got pregnant with her first-born, a son called Patrick. She left having achieved the rank of specialist and having found the love of her life, her husband, Army Chief Warrant Officer John W. Engeman.

In addition to Patrick, they had a daughter, Nicole McKenna.

In January 2006, Officer Engeman deployed to Iraq as part of an embedded special transition team to train and advise Iraqi security forces for a year. One day, while was traveling in his Humvee, an IED exploded nearby. He was instantly killed, at 45 years old. It was Mother's Day - May 14, 2006.

Ten years after his death, StoryCorps features an interview recorded March 2013 with Engeman's widow and daughter, where mom shared with Nicole the couple's great love story, from the very beginning.

"We were very young soldiers, and we were living in the barracks," Donna recalls. "A lot of times those relationships happened, and typically they called 'em a barrack romance, because they didn't last very long."

Nicole: But you and Daddy lasted quite a while, right?

Donna: We did. We were married in 1983. And Daddy died in 2006.

Nicole: Tell me about Daddy as a young parent.

Donna: He always had an inordinate amount of patience. The first three weeks of your life you were this tiny delicate little bundle and you just slept on his chest.

He would not move at night. And honestly, that was the only three weeks out of our entire marriage that I didn't hear him snore.

Nicole: (Laughs)

Donna: You know, I always felt so loved, but I always felt so honored by him too. I mean, I was never a gourmet cook. But we could have had mud pies, and he would have said, "Thank you."

Nicole: What's your favorite memory about being married to Daddy?

Donna: Just one?

Nicole: Just one.

Donna: (Laughs) I remember when we were at a military ball, and we were dancing. And the music had been fast, and then we went into a slow dance. And he was in ... his dress blues. And I remember how he would hold me. Isn't it weird, I still remember what his lips feel like on my neck?

Nicole: If you had a minute, one minute ... what would you say to Dad?

Donna: I would want him to know, nobody has ever loved me the way he did. And I hope, I truly hope he felt the same way.

Donna and her daughter Nicole live in Texas. Her son, Major Patrick Engeman, is enlisted in the Army. Following his father's death, he deployed four times.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Von Diaz.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.


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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

On this Memorial Day weekend, let's check in with StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative. Donna Engeman enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1981. And that's where she met her husband, Army Chief Warrant Officer John W. Engeman. They eventually had two children. And 21 years later, Officer Engeman deployed to Iraq in 2006. An IED exploded next to Officer Engeman's Humvee, and he was killed in the line of duty. Donna came to StoryCorps with her daughter, Nicole, to remember her late husband.

DONNA ENGEMAN: He had pretty green eyes and he had this shock of curly, red hair. It looked like Superman. If it had been black hair, he would've been Superman. We were very young soldiers and we were living in the barracks. Well, a lot of times those relationships happen and typically they call them a barrack romance because they didn't last very long.

NICOLE MCKENNA: But you and Daddy lasted quite a while, right?

ENGEMAN: We did. We were married in 1983. And Daddy died in 2006.

MCKENNA: Tell me about Daddy as a young parent.

ENGEMAN: He had always had an inordinate amount of patience. The first three weeks of your life, you were this tiny, delicate little bundle and you just slept on his chest. He would not move at night. And honestly, that was the only three weeks out of our entire marriage I didn't hear him snore.

MCKENNA: (Laughter).

ENGEMAN: You know, I always felt so loved. But I always felt so honored by him too. I mean, I was never a gourmet cook, but we could've had mud pies and he would've said thank you.

MCKENNA: What's your favorite memory about being married to Daddy?

ENGEMAN: Just one?

MCKENNA: Just one.

ENGEMAN: (Laughter) I remember we were at a military ball. We were dancing and the music had been fast. And then we went into a slow dance. And he was in his dress blues. And I remember how he would hold me. Isn't it weird I still remember what his lips feel like on my neck?

MCKENNA: If you had a minute - one minute - what would you say to Dad?

ENGEMAN: I would want him to know nobody has ever loved me the way he did. And I hope - I truly hope he felt the same way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: That's Donna Engeman with her daughter Nicole McKenna in San Antonio, Texas. Her son, Major Patrick Engeman, is still enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was deployed four times following his father's death. Their interview will be archived at the U.S. Library of Congress as part of the StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.