A Shot to the heart


Marshawn Belser with her children Morgan (11) and Myles (5)

War widow Marshawn Belser has kept going with help from time, faith, grit, family—and above all, a sense of responsibility to her two young children and to the memory of Army Capt. Donnie R. Belser Jr.

Written by Sarah O’Donnell      Photography by Jerry Siegel

For dozens of Alabama families, and thousands around the country, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have swept aside plans, hopes and timetables with the swiftness of a tsunami and left lingering shadows on the calendar. A soldier, sailor, Marine or airman dies in Baghdad or Kandahar, solemn faces in uniforms appear at doorways back home to deliver the news, and suddenly birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and, for a time, life itself, all lose their lustre.

For those who face this soul-sapping ordeal, there is no one-size-fits-all formula to get through it, no simple psychological diet to dull the pain or keep a floor under the feet. Since her husband was felled by a sniper’s bullet during his second tour in Iraq on Feb. 10, 2007, Marshawn Belser has kept going with help from time, faith, grit, family—and above all, a sense of responsibility to her two young children and to the memory of Army Capt. Donnie R. Belser Jr.

If recent conversations with her are any indication, the 32-year-old Birmingham native is now in a place where, on most days, she can talk about her husband of almost seven years with ease, laugh aloud at the memory of some of his antics, and talk, without a catch in her voice, about the many ways she misses him.

“Like I tell everybody, if I died today, I can die a happy woman because I had a great marriage, and I know what real true love is by another human being,”  Belser said recently while seated in the living room of her Leeds home.

But that happiness has some painful companions, among them her wish that she could have been at her husband’s side as his fellow soldiers tried to save his life.  “Not saying that they didn’t love him, but it wasn’t my love, you know,” she said. “I took the vow to honor him, good and bad, sickness and health, and I wasn’t there to hold his hand and tell him, ‘Okay baby, it’s gonna be okay . I know you’re in pain.’ I just felt like I failed as a wife because my husband died around a bunch of strangers. He was gunned down … like a dog in the streets, not even in his own surroundings, so far away from us… and I didn’t get to just to touch him one last time… feel his soft lips, his full, thick, beautiful lips. The next time I saw him they were stone-cold hard. I think that’s hurtful … I just thought we were going to grow old together, sitting on the porch.”

On the glass-topped table in front of her, angel figurines of various sizes and shapes stood like mute sentinels. They were just one sign of the presence of Belser’s mother, Olar Fields, who lives in the house, along with Belser’s twin sister Marshea.  Belser is youngest of four Fields siblings—her twin sister is about two minutes older—and all of them, starting with Marcia, the oldest, and, Milton, next in the line, attended Shades Valley High and then Jacksonville State University.  While all of the Fields siblings  have first names that begin with M, they also have middle names that begin with D. The twins go by Shea and Shawn.

About an hour into the conversation, Olar Fields returned from a walk around the subdivision and joined her daughter on the living room couch.

memories of Donnie are scattered throughout the home.

“I think she’s done pretty well, considering all,” according to Fields, who recently retired as a teaching assistant at St. Vincent’s Child Care Center. “I think that if you’ve got faith and you’ve got a family to stand by you, you can conquer almost anything, you know.” “Everything gets better with time and prayer,” Shawn had said earlier. “I honestly feel that.”  A  few days later, Belser’s sister Shea said things had to get better because Shawn’s life included her daughter Morgan and her son Myles.

“When you have two small kids depending on you, you do what you have to do,” Shea said. Morgan turned 11 on May 3, and the house and family albums are full of photos of her and her father in places where he was assigned—Schweinfurt, Germany; Fort Lee, Va., Fort Riley, Kansas. Donnie Belser called her “Princess,” went with her on school field trips, took her to work with him some days and even had date nights with her when they would go see movies.  Shawn, whose parents divorced when she was in elementary school, did not know what a daddy’s  girl was until she saw her first-born child with her husband. She was a little jealous of the relationship, and sometimes peeved when she had to be the one to say “No” to Morgan when her daddy was always saying “Yes.”

“I always had to be the bad guy,” Shawn said. “I’m still the bad guy. It’s not a fun role for me.”

Myles is 5. On his first birthday, Feb. 9, 2007, his 28-year-old father sang happy birthday to him via web cam from his camp in Baqubah, Iraq. The next morning, after Shawn returned to her home near Fort Riley, with a birthday cake decorated with toy trucks and stop signs, and supplies for an afternoon party she had planned for Myles, two uniformed Army officers rang her doorbell. After they finally persuaded her to open the door, the first of the officers to enter had a solitary tear running down his cheek. Minutes later, Olar Fields was on the phone to Shawn’s sister Marcia Dobbins in Atlanta. “Shawn said her worst fear is here at her front door,”  is what Dobbins recalls her mother saying.

pilllows with the words “My Hero” are part of their mother’s effort to remind her children of their father

It’s about 700 miles from what was Shawn Belser’s front door in Kansas to the front door of the house she and her children now call home in Leeds, but the reminders of Donnie Belser are more numerous here. Many of them, like the photos hanging on walls, sitting on bookshelves or resting in a plastic sleeve on pillows bearing the words “My Hero” that sit on Myles and Morgan’s beds, are part of their mother’s effort to remind her children of their father.  Other items have more sentimental value for Shawn and are her way of keeping Donnie around. Things like his dress greens and dress blues, shirts, sweatpants, a never-worn pair of light brown Stacy Adams dress shoes, and a black leather jacket containing children’s crayons and two ticket stubs, all from a night in Virginia when he and Morgan dined out at an O’Charley’s restaurant and went to see Curious George.

“In a way, it just seems like he’s still there,” Shawn said. “And you know, as crazy as that sounds,  I just feel like that’s that piece (of him) I can still hold onto.” One of the biggest mementos of her time with Donnie is no longer around. About a year ago, she sold his Mitsubishi Montero after it had sat idle in the garage for three years. In that same garage,   still more of her husband’s belongings remain in boxes shipped back to her from Iraq a few months after his death. One of the items no longer in the containers is a tan-colored journal of letters to Shawn—“From ME to me”—that Donnie Belser wrote in small print intermittently during his first tour in Iraq from February 2004 to February 2005 and during the second, which abruptly ended about six weeks before he was due home on leave, and about six months before the scheduled end of his deployment. The final two entries—one written late on Christmas Eve 2006, the other on Jan. 8, 2007—contain professions of love and unsettling glimpses of the war that he was fighting. “We’ve been married over six years now so I won’t bullshit you–I love you with all my heart,” he wrote in the Christmas Eve entry.  “You may ask why and I always come up with some clever answer … but the truest answer is that choice I made to ask you to marry me was the best choice I have ever made in my life…You are what makes me a complete man. Without you I would be nothing.” The war portion of this entry is longer, and some of its passages would trouble a wife back home if she had a real-time awareness of them. There’s a segment about a fellow soldier badly wounded by a mortar round, and there are longer passages about one of his own experiences under fire, an experience he wanted to share with Shawn.  In retrospect, his passages can now appear like an omen that 2007 would see the highest number of American deaths in and around Iraq since the start of the war, 904, and he would be one of them.

“We’ve gone on a lot of patrols with the IA (Iraqi Army) and they are getting more and more dangerous,” he wrote. “And on top of all that, I think they are scared … I  now can tell the difference between a bullet being fired at you and one that is being fired away from you. I can also tell how it sounds when it’s really close & let me tell you it’s not like the movies make it sound. “

journal of letters to Shawn

Belser then recounted a recent day when four hours of combat seemed like 12, when he and other U.S. soldiers were away from camp, mentoring some Iraqi soldiers to make sure they did not falter in their mission. At one point during the fire fight, he saw a man wearing a white turban appear to take aim in his direction.

“It looked like he was going to shoot at us and before I knew it I had squeezed the trigger on my weapon and hollered out target. I must have sent 8 or 10 rounds at him. I and one of my NCOs saw him fall. He was on top of a building and had no business to be there but to fight. All of this took only a few seconds. Everyone keeps telling me congrats and that I earned my CAB (Combat Action Badge) but I don’t care. I don’t think about it … I miss you and the kids and it makes me mad that I am in this shit hole and on top of that people feel that they can (shoot) at me.”

He concluded the passage with a plea: “Please don’t look at me like I did something wrong. I was protecting myself.” On Jan. 8, Belser recounted a mission the day before in which Iraqi troops killed a man who they said was shooting at them from the rooftop of a house. He went into the house to examine the body and found no  evidence the man had been firing. Then he found evidence the man had been a husband and a father—“kids (maybe 2 or 3) that were in a room with their mother.

Donnie's dress greens hang in a closet

“They were crying … I will never forget that crying. I have never heard anything like it. I had problems going to sleep last night. It sucked.”

At the time, Belser’s quarters were a small trailer where the furnishings included a wall locker, a small TV and DVD player, pictures of Morgan and Myles in connected silver frames, a small fridge in which he kept some “fake beers” and a “wall of fame” above his cot covered with pages from Morgan’s coloring books. It’s easy to imagine him, reclining in his cot and staring at those crayon-colored pages, the framed photos of his children sitting on his chest, and reflecting how far he and Shawn had traveled since that February night in 1999 that he and other ROTC students were assigned security duty at a JSU home basketball game and she and Shea were on the Fastbreakers, a dance team that performed during time outs and breaks in the action. He and Shawn had not been introduced yet, though a friend of hers had said she ought to meet him, and he had made a less than favorable impression when he blocked her path with his leg just before halftime as she was heading to the restroom.  She told him to let her by. He  told her to go around him. She kicked his leg out of the way.

Before the night was over, he had apologized and asked her out to dinner. They went to an O’Charley’s in nearby Oxford where he ordered a seven-ounce sirloin, fries and a salad. They were not yet an item, but they were on their way. She was a sophomore from Irondale, majoring in elementary and secondary education and a former member of the Mountiette line that had danced at Shades Valley football games. He was a freshman from Anniston, the oldest son and namesake of a retired Army sergeant first class, a criminal justice major and the recipient of a three-year ROTC scholarship. He had large, expressive eyes, played tenor sax in the Saks High School marching band and won the state wrestling championship in his weight class during his senior year. He loved Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and the Georgia Bulldogs. “Everything he did, he did it with a different flare, a different zeal, and a tenacity,” Donnie Belser Sr. said of his son. Seven months after meeting Shawn, Donnie took her to his apartment, burned the chili he had planned for them to eat, but knelt on one knee after she noticed the continuous message on his computer screen that asked her to marry him while some appropriate songs, among them Al Green’s “Let’s Get Married,” provided backup. They took their vows the following March 31, at Shawn’s home church, New Rising Star Missionary Baptist in East Lake. Morgan was born on May 3, and Donnie received his degree and second lieutenant’s commission the following May.

Belser’s plan was to stay in the Army for 20 years. Shawn, having rarely ventured beyond Alabama, prepared for a life of uprootings and absences. The events of 9/11 made sure of that. The following October, they were living in the Bavarian city of Schweinfurt, where Donnie was part of the First Infantry Division’s 299th Forward Support Battalion. The family would be in Germany about four years, and Donnie would be away for nearly two of them, deploying  first to Kosovo, then later to Iraq. Morgan, meanwhile, attended German preschools and picked up enough of the language to interpret for her mother on shopping trips.

family photo

Some of the family photos from that time, and as well as some taken later, show Belser with a look of sadness in his eyes. Shawn calls the expression a “puppy dog” look while her sister Shea says it appears as if her brother-in-law “knew his fate.” Donnie Belser may or may not have had a sense of foreboding, but he was certainly aware that in the aftermath of  9/11, people in his chosen profession were likely to be in harm’s way more than a few times. In any case, he was keen on making the little gestures of love as well as the big ones, always wanting to kiss her and Morgan good-bye, even in public, and continually leaving her love letters on Post-it Notes on the steering wheel of her car, or in a messy toothpaste script on the bathroom mirror. “You’ll never know the next time I’ll see you again,” was how he explained it. “Now I would give anything just to see a Sticky Note or a Post-it Note on my steering wheel or just toothpaste on the mirror,” Shawn says. “I tell everybody,  ‘Don’t take the little things for granted because you’ll just wish one day you had that one little moment back.’”

Had her husband come home safely in 2007, she might have seen a resumption of his romantic rituals. But given the deadly episodes he had been sharing in his journal entries, she probably would have seen a changed man. She already had seen changes in him after his first Iraq tour, when he jumped out of their bed his first night back when the bathroom door slammed down the hall. He also seemed driven to go places, do things, see family and have another child. He was on hand when Myles was born. A photo taken on that day shows Shawn holding the newborn baby by her chin, Morgan leaning in on her right shoulder, and Donnie’s head between those of his wife and daughter, his eyes closed as if he was in prayer.

Later, when he was back in Iraq, Shawn started every day with a prayer that asked God to protect him. On Feb. 10, when he was manning the turret gun in a humvee and a sniper’s bullet found a small bit of space at the back of his head not covered by his body armor and helmet, she felt God had cheated her out of a great marriage and her children out of a great, hands-on father. The numbness and anger continued off and on for months, even after she had come back to Alabama to be with her supportive family and had moved into the house in Leeds with her mother and Shea. She even got a condolence letter from the White House but could not bring herself to read it.

A turning point came in early 2008 during a Sunday morning worship service at New Rising Star. Until then, Shawn had been a less than enthusiastic congregant, largely because she felt estranged from God and out of place in a sanctuary that contained a burdensome bag of memories. Not only had she and Donnie been married there, but Morgan had been dedicated there, and Donnie’s funeral had been there as well.

“I was really being rebellious,” she recalled. “Didn’t want to go to church. I had no reason to … and I did not want anybody’s pity.” But then, as the choir began to sing a hymn she cannot now recall, her eyes became spillways of tears that seemed to drain away her inner pain and put her in a peaceful place where it seemed that God was telling her, “’It’s going to be okay, Shawn. I did not bring you this far just to leave you.’ “ I knew,” she said, “it was going to be okay.”

That comforting message did not answer all of the “why” questions she had and still has for God, but it made her realize the good she had in her life, and the good that could still come if she gave it a chance. “You know, He’ll put you flat on your back just to show you who’s really in control,” she said. “I  really believe that.  I hate that I had to lose a husband to see who was really in control, but I know it made me a better person.” Some evidence of that can be seen every three months at Grace Episcopal Church’s community center in Woodlawn, where Shawn’s family, assisted by her in-laws, feeds the homeless. The idea started with Shea, and now Shawn and her mother usually draw up the menu and prepare the main course. Morgan and Myles are part of the effort, and everyone wears a tee-shirt bearing the name of Capt. Donnie R. Belser Jr. and that of the team—the Gorillas—on which he served in Iraq. The Fields and Belser family members wear updated versions of the shirts each year when they participate in Birmingham’s annual Sickle Cell Walk. Pass Shawn Belser on the sidewalk and you would not know she is a war widow. Make her acquaintance, and you would see clues.

The wedding and engagement rings hanging from her neck. The “ME” tattoo on her right ring finger. The Gold Star family license plate on the back of her Nissan Armada. Most of the time, they simply symbolize a tragedy and do not reflect the mood of someone needing badges of bitterness. That’s not what her husband would want, and her children don’t need that either.

Morgan and Myles

The impact of their father’s death on Morgan and Myles is not something easily measured, but he is not far from their thoughts. Both have told playmates their father is in heaven, and Morgan said she saw him in the clouds during a family visit to Disney World. She and her brother both sleep with stuffed animals that their father gave them, and both have been told how their father would expect them to behave and, in Morgan’s case,  perform in school. Olar Fields says Myles, who has his father’s features, seems to talk to him every day, and when he gets in trouble, he’s prone to say he wants his daddy. Family members say Morgan lost some of her spark when she lost the father she had wrapped around her finger. Phoebe Belser, Donnie’s mother, said she has noticed Morgan lowering her head when her father’s name comes up in conversation, and Marcia Dobbins talks of a flat, expressionless look that she never saw on her niece’s face until after Donnie died.

“Morgan is happy when she’s doing her ballet,” Dobbins said.  “She is a happy child. But you don’t see it in her face all the time … She’s kind of in a shell.” But neither Morgan or her brother appear to be mired in mourning anymore than their mother is. On a recent day while Morgan was on spring break, she and her brother were energetically making the rounds to almost every exhibit and interactive attraction at the McWane Center.  They boarded the truck capsule to ride in the Wild Earth Safari Simulator, and their mother and grandmother watched on a monitor as Myles, at the wheel, took the vehicle through animated stretches of Africa, slamming into rock formations and driving for long stretches in a lake.

Capt. Donnie R. Belser Jr

The drive from the Belser-Fields home to Jefferson Memorial Gardens takes about 20 minutes, and Donnie Belser Jr. lies in a crypt in the Last Supper Mausoleum, which sits on a rise overlooking the old Gadsden Highway. He is in the building because he once told Shawn he never wanted to be buried in the ground, because a tree would ultimately grow out of his backside.  She goes there regularly, talks to him about her life and what the kids are doing and she brings them along “as much as they want to go.” On Dec. 31, his birthday, which falls during a low period for Shawn that usually lasts from the start of the month until mid-January, she and the kids have gone there to sing Happy Birthday and eat Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in Donnie’s honor. The last time they were there, Myles wanted to spend the night and put his coat as a makeshift mattress on the marble floor.

As time has allowed them to feel comfortable enough to pose the question, friends and family members have asked Shawn if  she might ever marry again. She has prayed about it and says if someone did become a permanent part of her life, he would have to meet some high standards, and would never have all of her heart.   It would take no more than a dinner date at O’Charley’s to illustrate that fact. That’s because Shawn always orders what Donnie ordered at the O’Charley’s in Oxford on their first night out: a seven-ounce sirloin, fries and a salad

One Response to “A Shot to the heart”

  1. Shawn – it was so wonderful to see this article. Susan Cissell contacted me to participate in the “Wreaths Across America” to support her daughter’s school. I ordered the wreath in memory of Donnie and I started thinking about ya’ll. I found this article and was so glad to see a picture of your smiling face and those beautiful children. The four of you are never out of our thoughts! Chuck is so grateful that he got to be roommates with Donnie on their last deployment so he always has those memories. All our love always!! 299th FSB – Schweinfurt Germany (2001-2009)

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