This post took many months to compose. I wrote it, then left it to sit for a while. I worked on it a little more, then asked my husband to read it. He advised me that it was too sanitized, so I worked on it again. This is raw…what it was really like for me. Out of respect for him, some of my husband’s story is left out. Mine, however is all here.
I married my husband while he was still in college. A year later, he graduated and was commissioned into the U.S. Army. This commissioning magically turned him into an Army officer, and me into an “Officer’s Wife.” I didn’t know it at the time, but these titles would become a significant part of our personal identities, and would greatly influence our worldviews.
His first duty station was Ft. Campbell, KY. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was not just his duty station, but our duty station. He was pursuing his career, and I was in graduate school. I was also going to the events that were expected of an officer’s wife…coffees (monthly evening social events for officer spouses), hail and farewells (monthly social events for officers and their spouses), sometimes meetings for the unit’s family readiness group. As an introvert, these were excruciating events for me. I hate small talk, and I don’t make friends easily…the revolving door of membership in these communities added to the discomfort. However, I understood that politically, my presence was expected. I hosted and co-hosted coffees, and I was at my husband’s side at other events. On the other hand, I loved hanging out with my friends from graduate school, and found myself enjoying their company more frequently when my husband was away for various training events and missions.
Then came 9/11. My husband was away for a deployment (de-mining operations) in Kosovo, but things changed back home. Soon there was talk of war. When he returned home from Kosovo, he was promoted, and it was time to plan the next move. We relocated to Ft. Leonard Wood, MO for several months of training and the birth of our daughter.
When our time at Ft. Leonard Wood was complete, our next duty station was Ft. Hood, TX. After about a year there, my officer husband deployed to Iraq. I became more involved in the military community, and enjoyed taking care of our daughter. He, on the other hand, was experiencing horrors I would know nothing about until months or years later. He also lost a fellow officer during this deployment. At home, I started having strange sensations…being fully “in the moment” when the phone rang, wondering if it was bad news…feeling like my heart was about to pound out of my chest when there was a knock at the door (to this day, I despise solicitors at my door). Modern technology helped us keep in touch easily, but on those rare occasions when I didn’t receive my daily emails at the “regular” time, I worried until I heard from him. Holidays were depressing. Birthdays were a struggle. Anniversaries were ignored.
When my husband came home a year after he left, the adjustment to being back together was tenuous. While he was away, I had learned how to live and parent without him, so I needed to learn how to live and parent with him when he returned. He needed to be comfortable around us again, and get to know our daughter, who had been about 18 months old when he left. Adjustment is not the only challenge. Although families are happy to be back together, the unrelenting stress and experiences in war can come back to haunt the soldier, which, in turn effects the family as well. We experienced some very dark moments in our marriage, and I was unhappy. Eventually, we found our footing, our second child was born, and it was time for my husband to deploy again. A series of terrible events happened during this deployment, which riddled me with depression and anxiety. There were times when I hated my life, and the only reason I got out of bed in the morning was because I knew my children depended on me.
Before my husband returned from his second deployment, I moved the family from the military community to be close to my family, and it was time to leave the Army behind us. Although I was happy to be with family again, part of our identities were gone. We had known how we fit into the military world, but felt out of place in the civilian world. I preferred not to be around other people because I knew that there was no way they could relate to my experiences and the identity that I had left behind. I felt bitter toward everyone, and resented people for complaining about the little things or making excuses for not being responsible. My life had been turned upside down because of our sacrifices, so I had no patience for anyone who fell short of my expectations. Although I was able to function by holding a steady job and taking care of my children, I was miserable. I’m sure I was miserable to be around as well. My husband finding a steady job also proved to be much more of a challenge than either of us anticipated. After a couple of false starts, he found a civilian contractor job…in Kuwait. Yep, he had to leave again for another year. Our marriage had deteriorated so badly by then that I gave up while he was away. By nothing short of a miracle, I had a change of heart, and we found hope again before he returned.
In all, it took us about 5-7 years to adjust to civilian life. In a way, we are still adjusting. We’ve been married for 19 years, but have just now lived together for a little more than 2 years without at least a month (usually 4-12 months) apart. Those horrors he experienced on the streets of Iraq still haunt him at times, and occasionally, he allows me to see a glimpse of that part of his life. After years and time to reflect, I have learned a little more about why we struggled so much when he returned the first time.
My point is this. As a military family, 9/11 changed our lives, so when you choose to honor veterans, allow yourself to consider that these are multidimensional people, who represent more than simply a uniform. Think about their sacrifice, with the understanding that you may never know the full extent. If you can, be willing to listen when they speak, and be willing to do more than stand and applaud in a stadium full of people. (Many times, these gestures ring hollow for veterans.) It may take a little extra patience, but be a friend. The sacrifice of combat veterans and their families can last far beyond the time that was sacrificed, and likely has several layers that are difficult to navigate. We developed resilience during active duty, but we needed it most after the military days were over, when we were left with broken pieces. Only through the God’s grace did we find a way to put those pieces back together.