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Stand by your man

An interview with Siobhan Fallon, military wife and author of "You Know When the Men Are Gone"

With our nation embattled in two drawn-out wars, we’re often overwhelmed with stories from the battlefield. Yet we rarely stop to think of the ramifications of war on the home front — the wives, husbands and children who are left to deal with the insecurities of war yet are expected to hold it together until their soldier returns. These are the stories military wife Siobhan Fallon knows well and tells in her debut book, “You Know When the Men Are Gone.” Need to Know spoke with Fallon about her book, the realities of war and the intricacies of military life.

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Rawan Jabaji: So, “You Know When the Men Are Gone” when ___. Fill in the blank.

Siobhan Fallon: On a personal level, you are suddenly aware of how you depended on your soldier. How much your soldier did, day in and day out. Of course, people take each other for granted until they can’t take them for granted anymore. The daily moments in your life of having suddenly to take care of your child completely on your own, change the kitty litter, bring out the garbage, mow the lawn. The things I didn’t think to thank my husband for until I couldn’t thank him.

Physically, you can see it in Fort Hood when you drive through the base after the brigade of soldiers has left. At Fort Hood, there are about 40,000 soldiers that all report to work at the same time. And they all do their morning PT [physical training] at around the same time. There’s this bizarre predawn traffic jam and everyone’s getting into the gate, waiting in their uniforms to run the streets of Fort Hood. And then suddenly there’s a silence. Less camouflage in the shops and restaurants. You just notice the women. There aren’t as many soldiers to contrast.

Jabaji: What made you write this book?

Fallon: I’ve always written short stories. There’s a line that’s beaten into our heads, “write what you know,” and so this is what I know. I was living at Fort Hood and witnessing a different kind of war story, how our actions abroad were having a ripple effect on the home front. We think of the soldiers being the only persons affected by the war or what’s going on in the Middle East, but I was seeing how smaller dramas play out.

Jabaji: Your book is categorized as fiction, yet the stories have a vérité feel. How much are these stories informed by real people and situations? And what made you decide to write this as fiction instead of nonfiction?

Fallon: I don’t think people would read any of the stories and say, “Oh my gosh, that’s me.” So I had bits and pieces of reality. Characters that were an amalgamation of real people I knew. But it’s definitely a work of fiction. I have been through three deployments in the less than seven years I’ve been married. So that’s three years of experience, and I’d see the same issues rise up again and again when soldiers deployed. It seemed to me that obviously the main theme is: There are all these stressors surrounding a deployment for both the family and the soldier. It seemed that the short story was the perfect format for examining the different reactions characters would have to that same stress of a deployment.

Jabaji: In your story, “Inside the Break,” we learn about a soldier’s wife, Kailani Rodriguez, who chooses not to report her husband’s infidelity to his command. She briefly confronts him on the phone, but doesn’t address the issue again when he returns. This is a fictional story, but as an author, why did you choose to have Kailani keep quiet?

Fallon: She decided that she was going to stand by her husband no matter what. I found in my experience that some soldiers don’t want to tell their wives about the things they’ve seen or been a part of when they’re deployed. They don’t talk about it and the wife has to accept it. So, when I was putting that story together in my head, I was thinking of the other things they could hide. Would a wife accept that in the same way she has to accept not hearing about a firefight, injuries and deaths? She’s sort of one extreme of how much dedication she has towards her husband, and I think she surprises herself in the end that she is willing to say, “from this moment on, we will have a fresh start.”

Jabaji: One may read your book and think, “Geez, it sounds like military wives sacrifice their entire lives for their husbands.”

Fallon: I think everybody makes a lot of sacrifices for their spouses. I know civilians, they pick up and move for jobs and children. That’s part of what I was trying to get at in the story. Some spouses do make the sacrifices, and there are those who can’t make anymore sacrifices. They just hit a wall. But you make sacrifices for the people you love. Right now military life is a little more hectic than it was and it probably will be. You love your soldier.

Jabaji: The argument can be made that single mothers, widows, working mothers, etc., go through many of the same struggles and emotions as your characters. For example, raising a family on their own, loneliness, death, simpler things like changing the oil. So how are military wives different?

Fallon: I have an incredible admiration for single mothers, especially after this most recent deployment, when I had a baby. But I think it’s that added awareness that your soldier’s always in harm’s way. So in addition to having to juggle the really, really difficult responsibilities of taking care of your children and taking care of everything else in your life, the person you depend on the most is suddenly not dependable. And that’s certainly not his choice. You’ve married someone, and you’ve decided to spend the rest of your life with them, and they’re gone. You worry about them. Almost the stranger thing is when your soldier returns you have these high expectations of everything being perfect and wonderful, just the way it was before he left. And you have to refit yourself into each other’s life. You have to learn to depend on the person again. So it’s just that kind of uncertainty that makes what’s hard — to raise children and make it on your own — that much harder.

Jabaji: After your recent appearance on NPR, some comments were left at the bottom of the Fresh Air transcript. I’d like to ask you about this comment and get your response:

Does the author support women in the workplace? As a woman working in an intense, and male dominated, workplace, I found the one-sided attitude expressed in the interview both old-fashioned and depressing.

Fallon: I totally support women in the workplace. I think that’s one of the struggles of male or female soldiers. We’re moved so often from one base to another that it’s really hard to put down the roots you might have outside of the military. If you have a job you can pick up and take with you — luckily for me as a writer, maybe teaching or nursing, jobs that you don’t need to create a longstanding career in one place — that’s great. Unfortunately, you start from scratch at each base. You find your new doctor, dentist, and your kids have to start all over at a new school. I hear that all the time: “The book seems like a 1950s old-fashion life style.” But you don’t have other choices.

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