On the Regarding War blog, soldiers, veterans, and journalists will share their stories from Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. It will feature personal stories and opinions from those who have first-hand knowledge of past and current conflicts. Those at home directly affected by a family member serving in the military will also contribute. The blog is meant to be a place where ideas are exchanged and experiences are related in an effort to gain a better understanding of the realities and effects of war. Share your thoughts, raise a question, and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
I had just turned 18 years old in September of 2001. I had begun college classes in my hometown. I had a full-time job and friends I liked. A lot of things about my life during that time were no different than things in any other American's, and I couldn't have even begun to conceive of the thousands of ways my life was going to be affected by That Fateful Day. As a country and a culture, we're still discovering new ways that we've been changed since 9/11.
There was a baby boom and now elementary schools are overrun with "post-9/11 babies." Patriotism was bred from the unlikeliest people and places, and knew no bounds. Political parties had something new to focus on during election years. And people who were adolescent children at the time have since grown to join the service, or marry service members and start families with them. There is a whole new generation of military families that have been centered on war, and that is the only life they have ever known. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers and their families have never known a peace-time military.
One of the many pieces of unsolicited advice that we military wives are told (often after mentioning their husband's absence) is that we're lucky our husbands aren't gone for years, like the husbands from wars past. We're also well aware of how fortunate we are to be so accepted into the military and have sanctioned support systems because, again, in past wars, families weren't even allowed to stay on post when a solider deployed. While I am grateful for the changes in the Army since, say, Vietnam, it doesn't make the medicine go down any easier. I think the American military and society as a whole were completely unprepared for the constant training and deployment cycle of today's armed forces, and the strain it has had on everyone who has ever loved a solider.
Year in and year out, the Army family, and many other military families of all branches of services, go through a 24-to-30-month schedule: pre-deployment, deployment and a very brief yet incredibly stressful time know as post-deployment. For the six to eight months before deployment, training that keeps the soldier away from home begins and then increases in terms of frequency and time away. This is very disruptive: schedules constantly change, and spouses know that when our soldier is home he will be very, very tired from all the exercises in the field, and won't be up for too much outside of bathing, eating and sleeping. Then deployment comes and it's The Big Show. Spouses and their families actually can get into a routine at this point. A year later, the soldiers come home. All too often they arrive home changed people, and the readjustment time is at least six months. As soon as you've got it all figured out again, the training for another deployment starts all.
Marriage, itself, isn't easy — many happy married couple will tell you that. A war-torn marriage requires even more effort. A military relationship is inherently difficult for more reasons than I can list, for added to the "regularly scheduled" stress of marriage is the overhanging cloud of life and death. Of course, no one tells you this in your premarital counseling — and that's if you had the time to get a full course in. It seems the only bits of information heard are the horror stories of divorce and infidelity, so that a happily engaged military spouse-to-be doesn't take any advice to heart. You honestly can't know until you're living it. It's a rough day for a spouse when she wakes up and realizes she can't remember the last time she ate dinner with her husband and then realizes that this is the way it's going to be for the duration of the war. Overwhelming? Yeah, you bet.
Navigating the war-torn marriage without extra consideration for the circumstances might be a little easier if we only had to do it once, giving everyone time to recover and forget how rough it was, but we're doing it over and over. And over and over, people aren't dedicating enough of themselves to their marriages because, honestly, how can you ask your soldier to think about it when his training means the difference between coming home and the horrific alternative?
I took a very unofficial and unscientific poll on my personal blog, asking other military wives to be honest about how their marriages have been affected by their husbands' careers and the deployment schedule. A group of amazingly honest women opened up to me about this. They all dealt with the very real affects that constant training had on their spouses and their marriages. None of them knew beforehand it could be so difficult, and not one of them knowingly "signed up for it." Every woman that spoke up, however, remained happily married to her soldier. They had survived the first go-round and were thriving.
One key to survival that my poll revealed was the realization that you can't approach a military marriage with the same tools that work for those who don't deal with the concept of life and death and living together. We don't expect a lot from our soldiers during this time of insanity, but sometimes as wives we might set the bar a little too low. Much of this comes from inexperience — not knowing where to set the bar in the first place. How much of a spouse can you expect a deploying soldier to be? Since they are constantly deploying and the training is always for the purpose of a successful and survivable mission, shouldn't there be a method to having a healthy marriage during all of that? Short answer: absolutely. It should be non-negotiable.
There's no one method, just a lot of hard work. The bottom line comes down to honest, tactful, loving communication. Wives need to be honest about what is missing from a partnership. Even deploying soldiers can be good husbands, but it's something the wives have to encourage and work through with their mates. Every military wife that spoke of her marriage said that communication, as with all marriages, was paramount. We don't always know the seriousness of the situation on a particular day during deployment, or how rough training was the week before, so our husbands have to learn to be honest and let us know what they need, too. Real honesty in a military relationship can lead to some pretty uncomfortable conversations, but more times than not the outcome is positive. Most days, it's just a tap dance. Some days you're dancing to the same tunes; other days you're literally falling over each other trying to figure out where the other one is going. With enough honest communication, however, more marriages could become victories of these circumstances and not casualties.
Army wife working toward degree in social work