Young widow cherishes last letter from husband killed in war

FOREST GROVE, Ore. - Alongside the hundreds of men and women buried at Willamette National Cemetery in Southeast Portland is U.S. Navy hospital man Riley Gallinger-Long.

His tombstone bears a birth date of July 4, 1992 - a date that doesn't belong on a headstone so soon. On Aug. 11, 2011, Hope Gallinger-Long found out her husband of only five months - her high school prom date, the love of her life - had been shot and killed on patrol in Afghanistan.

"A black car pulled up and three people in uniform got out," she said. "And I knew - just everything stopped."

The men broke the tragic news that her husband had died earlier in the day, and Hope says she screamed, "No!" over and over again.

"It's not supposed to happen to him. He's supposed to come home. We're supposed to have our life. We're supposed to be together," she says nine months later - not nearly long enough to heal the wound.

In footlockers, Hope keeps the uniform he wore the day he left, those prom tickets and his boots and books. In a home still full of Riley, she finds room for a smile now and again.

When she's strong enough to go through all of it, she reads the countless letters sent with the deepest sympathy, including one signed by President Barack Obama.

But she'll sometimes read through the letter that means the most - a letter from Riley.

"'I love you Hope more than I could ever possibly describe. But I'm going to try for the rest of my life in every way possible,'" Hope reads from the letter Riley wrote her before he left for war. "'I miss your hugs and your laugh. I love that you will be mine forever. And in not too long, I will be able to hold you whenever I want to and all night until morning comes.'"

To use the word "thankful" is tough for Hope these days, but if there's any reason to feel gratitude it is when his words still hang in the air and when Riley doesn't seem so far away.

His letter ends: "'I think about you every minute of every day. You're like air to me baby; I couldn't live without you if I tried. Love, Riley.'"

More than 250 troops from Oregon and Washington have lost their lives at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are part of the 6,433 troops killed nationwide in those wars.

There is now an online exhibit that focuses on war letters - both professional and personal. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has gathered letters from more than 200 years of American conflicts.