In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
While the emotions are fresh inside my heart because of my husband's recent return from Afghanistan, I wanted to continue on one aspect of reintegration that tends to affect me a great deal. You know how it is when you run into an old friend you haven't seen in a long time? You are so happy to see them, and you want to know everything about them that's happened since you were last in touch. You might sit down for a long talk and get the highlights and low lights, but in many ways, it's just not the same as having been there with them through that experience. You don't care, though — you want to know everything, like, right now. If you understand that, you can imagine how I've bombarded my poor husband with inquiries and various topics of conversation since he got back.
Communicating with your loved ones during the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is much easier than it was during WWII or even Vietnam. In WWII, spouses endured separation that often lasted the duration of the war, and they waited weeks or months between letters. By the time my mother-in-law was waiting for my father-in-law to return from his third tour in Vietnam, things had improved somewhat. She could depend on letters coming to her almost daily, as well as small gifts, occasional photos and cassette tapes of him talking. Still, she received only one short phone call the entire duration of his tour.
Things have improved a lot since then. These days, wartime letters are augmented by email, webcams, digital photos, phone banks, videos, and in some cases, even cell phones. But how much access a deployed service member has to these luxuries varies a great deal. Some are in locations so remote, they do not have regular telephone access, much less a reliable Internet connection. There are other communication barriers too, like jobs, kids, the time difference, and the simple fact that at some point, life has to go on even though you are apart.
During deployments, my husband and I rely mainly on email and occasional phone calls. Sometimes, we have to catch ourselves when we begin to talk about certain things on the phone, stop talking about them, and decide to talk about them later. Conversations about career, long term goals, deeply emotional, spiritual or mental growths, fears and small talk about the day's highlights never make the cut for the 20-minute phone call. All is put on the back burner, and we tell ourselves "we'll catch up later." We try to "talk" through important issues via handwritten letters. "Real" letters tend to take longer to write than email, and give you more time to think about what to say. Still, it is a difficult way to have a "conversation." As a result, my husband and I have a backlog of discussions that have we have to work through now that he's come home.
If you can now take that first example of going a long time between visits from a really good friend, and apply that model to your spouse or someone you love very much, you can imagine all of the catching up a military family must do after a deployment. Maybe you can imagine how you might develop an almost unquenchable thirst for communication.
I can totally deal with the physical separation, sleeping alone, managing the household, work and children. What kills me is the silence, the curiosity about the small details of his day and the ceaseless wondering about his personal thoughts. The way I look at it, it is almost impossible to not start having visions and dreams of life being a certain way. These are dreams you would normally share with your partner, but because of the communication challenges, so many of those dreams go unshared. And when you dream alone, it is easy not to be encumbered by the reality of another person's needs or wants. You begin to become attached to those dreams and specific plans, thinking about them in great detail, imagining how everything will be just so.
The deployment ends, and you look forward to catching up with the same anticipation that you would have for a good friend, but the outcome of that catching up has less freedom to it. There can be the added pressure of each family member's recalibration each time the family dynamic changes as you become reacquainted once again. The falling behind and catching up again over the course of several years is a consuming process. It's a process that I think I find more difficult than my husband does, which in some ways feeds my difficulty.
I know that armies deploy, and I know that this is what I signed up for when I married a soldier. I have a responsibility to uphold the commitment I made, and a responsibility to help my husband uphold his. This is what I think about in my head when someone says, "I don't know how you do it." I know we are not the only family going through these adjustments. When I think of how long these wars have stretched on, and how many deployments families have endured, I feel concern for the long term repercussions on the American military family. There is no easy way through this except diligent, persistent endurance.
Homecoming begins when he steps off that plane and turns in his weapon. With his hand now free to hold mine, I think it will end when we find our way back home together.
Blogger and military spouse. Fifteen Months. On the challenges of a military marriage.
Stuck in Place: Struggling Through My Husband's Return »
Finding the Way Home »
After Your Soldier Returns: The Challenges of a Military Marriage »
Unexpected Gifts »
Remembering Their Stories »