The Deployment Diary

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Do Military Spouses Ever Forget?

I'll admit, I'm not a Sarah Smiley fan. I find her writings to be condescending some days - and irrelevant to today's military spouse quite often.

Her latest flop, Do Military Spouses Ever Forget? is just another example of irrelevancy.

I read her bio each time I catch one of her articles and am awed by her accomplishments. However, when it comes to her writings for (the only place I catch her column), I either read and say "huh?" or read and think "who died and left her the voice for all of us?"

Take this wonderfully crafted paragraph:

One of my Dustin's worst, most unforgettable infractions was leaving me alone for six months with a newborn baby and a toddler while he went off to - of all things - serve the country. I distinctly remember him using words like "duty," "honor" and "commitment" as I cried hysterically over his packed sea bag and begged him to stay.

I try to remember that branches of service do things differently. Often, the job (and/or rank) of your soldier will dictate what beanies he does or doesn't get. For instance, the R & R program for the Army. For most, the younger soldiers go first, so higher ranking soldiers end up getting no R & R because once it's their turn, they are too short and R & R has been halted. Those with babies due, commanders try to schedule their R & R around that time. For Navy, I was told by a Navy spouse that they do not send sailors home when on deployment for a birth. So forgive me when I cannot find the compassion for her having to be a parent when we have spouses at home giving birth alone (often with a little one they must find care for while they give birth alone) while their loved one is facing life and death daily in a combat zone.

In my small world, the spouses I know never cry and beg their soldier to stay. They know, it's their job, the soldiers have no choice and most wouldn't want a choice and abandon those who are depending on them.

We cry. Of course we do. Where our loved ones go, they are shot at constantly, mortared and must watch for bombs on the side of the road. We cry because we're scared. We cry because we will miss them and worry. We know though, we can stand up and take care of our children, our homes and our responsibilities. It's just that fear thing you know. Lets face it, anyone who sends their loved one to Iraq and doesn't in the small corners and recesses of their soul have some fear is either dead or lacking the love needed for a happy marriage.

"But what about me?" I cried. "What about your commitment to me? You can't just leave me like this!"

As he slung the heavy green bag over his shoulder and walked to the rumbling airplane waiting to take him away, I marked the injustice in my mental notebook of things I might never be able to forgive.

This just bothers me. Yes, there are spouses that would shoot themselves in the foot if they thought it would keep their husbands from having to leave. There's the male spouse who lied about a phone call saying his wife had died to try to get her home. The military is nothing more than a cross section of America and there are all types of people both good and bad, both with morals and lacking. For the majority of military spouses though, I believe they are the most selfless, compassionate and strong group of people I've ever had the pleasure of being associated with.

Yes, we cry and wish it wasn't our soldier's turn on the bad days. We worry and pace the floors when the time nears to say good-bye. The first month they are gone we are often in shock, numb and emotional. We do eventually pull ourselves up, give ourselves a kick in the pants and say, "get on with it." And we do. I have never had the displeasure of meeting a spouse who screamed, "What about me!!" as their soldier left. I'm sure they are out there, but thankfully I think they are the exception, not the rule. Most are more worried about the safety of the one they love to stop for even a moment to worry about themselves. After all, we're the ones who stay in the comfort of our own homes, safe, dry, comfortable et al.

OK, so I'm exaggerating a bit. I obviously understand my husband's commitment to the military. At the time, however, as I was standing on the flight line with two babies on my hip and tears in my eyes, his leaving seemed so unbelievably - unforgivably - cruel. And I truly believed that maybe, just maybe, if he had begged hard enough, he could have been excused of the deployment and stayed home with me.

(Even the most rational, well-experienced military wives lose their perspective and common sense as they're waving goodbye to their husband and watching his plane fly away. And in this state of emotional distress, it is easy for women to actually blame their husbands for the deployment, and in some cases, the memory of that pain is permanent.)

If he'd begged hard enough? I'd be embarrassed had my husband "begged" to not have to go do the job he's being paid to do. The job those he works with are depending on him to do well so lives are not lost. Do civilians happening by and reading this come away with a clear picture of the average military spouse? My heavens, I hope they don't accept this as the norm.

It's easy for women, in this emotional state to BLAME their spouse for having to go DO THEIR JOB? And the pain is permanent? Again, I'm sure there are those folks out there. I'm sure every FRG Leader here in the states and abroad has dealt with "that spouse" at some point. He/she isn't the norm.

I have to wonder, is Mrs. Smiley connected to reality? My pain that will be permanent is the fact my husband has seen things that I would wish no human would have to see. He has lost friends and had young soldiers lose limbs. The "pain" of this deployment WILL be permanent. The pain of loss and fear and grief. This is war and these emotions ARE the norm.

Just as soon as I was adjusted to my life alone, Dustin would call from some exotic foreign port. In the background I'd hear music and laughing and people having a great time. All while I was smearing Desitin on babies' bottoms and stepping on Lincoln Logs.

On my first Mother's Day, Dustin called from Spain, and the music of the club in the background was so loud we could barely talk. I had waited nearly two months for that phone call and my disappointment was enormous.

I remember crying to him, "So I guess this is your commitment to having a great time and enjoying all that foreign wine!"

(Again, even rational women lose their cool under the pressure of deployment.)

Again, different branches, different experiences possibly. However, I can say that if my husband called me from a party on Mother's Day where we couldn't even carry on a conversation, I'd be hurt and angry - and I find nothing irrational about that. If the tables were turned and on Father's Day I called him from a party where he couldn't even hear me say, "Happy Father's Day" or the two of us be able to have a conversation after not being able to talk for a few months, he'd be hurt too. It's having mutual respect and concern for those you love. Mostly, it is caring for their feelings and them missing you enough to WANT to be able to hear your voice as much as you want and need to hear theirs.

To me, this just reinforces the stereotype that sailors (or soldiers) head for the nearest bar to act like fools the minute they have a moment of free time. Is that still the reality? Maybe it is and I'm just fortunate not to be married to someone who feels the need to go toss a few back every time he has a moment to spare. Sure, he enjoys a beer on the weekends while working in the yard or sitting on the porch on a Friday night after a long week. He'll have a few beers and we'll talk about any and everything under the sun. When he's gone though, even to a school here in the states where he does have some free time, he has never called me drunk or from a bar. He'll go out with buddies, but calls when he gets back to his room sounding like he always does. I wouldn't be getting smashed here at home around strangers (or in private for that matter since I don't drink). We expect that from each other. We've both lived long enough to know that alcohol, strangers and strange places are a ready mix for trouble.

As military spouses, we understand our husband's duty to the country and that things like deployments and weekend duty are out of our spouses' control. But that doesn't make it hurt any less.

Yes, Dustin, I do forgive you for leaving me on the runway and calling from wonderful foreign ports. Will I ever forget these things though? Probably not. But if you go do the boys' bath, as I did 180 times while you were gone, that might be a good start...

Is it hurt she speaks of or resentment? Seems to me, resentment. Yes, I do tire of being a single parent. My husband and I are the perfect team. We balance each other out in many ways including parenting. If you saw him, you'd think he would be the hard-nosed, do-it-because-I-said-so strict parent. However, that role falls to me. He's the mushy parent who lets them get away with things ;), gets them talking with food in their mouths and thinks it's funny.

When he is home, he gives the baths in the evening because he's missed seeing them all day. He wants that time with them, to laugh and carry on when I'd be saying "don't splash! You'll get water everywhere" lol. He wants to put them to bed and be the one reading the night night stories. It's their special time together when he works such long hours and rarely gets to see them during the week. I never once had to ask him to change a diaper or get up in the middle of the night with a colicky baby. I'd be getting a leg out from under the covers and he'd say, "no I'll get him, go back to sleep baby."

He's a soldier. He has a job to do and it's often not fun. People are depending on him and trust him. I'm proud of the fact that as hard it is for him to leave us (we both say it gets harder every time) and for us to say good-bye to him, he doesn't try to skate his responsibilities.

He's a husband. He thinks about my feelings and acts accordingly when he's home and when he's gone. He's never called me from a bar. If the phone bank was so noisy we couldn't talk, he would wait. He gets up at 4 in the morning his time to go when the phone bank is quiet and no one is waiting so we can get an extra five minutes sometimes.

He's a father. When he's home, he is a hands-on Dad. He takes them to the park. They go on a weekly outing to the library - just the three of them. When he's working in the yard, the babies are out there with him and he lets them help as much as they want. He never loses his patience or hurries them along because he has a football game to watch or a nap to catch. He gives baths, kisses boo-boos, prepares snacks and checks on them before he can go to bed at night. He's a father in all senses of the word.

I just don't believe my husband is the exception to the rule. I don't believe her article paints a picture of today's military family that I would want America to assume is the norm. I certainly don't feel it's even close to the concerns or realities of miiltary families today, who have loved ones off fighting a war. The concerns we have are more important than desitin and diapers or resentment. Our concerns are life and death - and we don't need fluff like this article minimizing the emotions and reality of what today's military spouses face.

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