My sister-in-law, Happy, and I share a piece of personal history: If it weren’t for war, we might never have been born, let alone been Americans. In my case, a U.S. Army officer fell for a British girl who’d barely survived the Blitz, Happy’s life began in Vietnam, in the midst of a whole other war.
Both of our fathers were Army career men. But while my experience of military family holds memories that tend toward nostalgia, Happy, who’s watched her husband deploy to Iraq, and, multiple times, to Afghanistan, experiences military life in more current and challenging ways.
It’s part of a subculture many know little about, which I finally came to recognize as my own when I saw Kris Kristofferson’s film, Brats: Our Journey Home, about growing up military. All of those years of seeing myself as a citizen of the world yet feeling like a misfit when I came back to the States suddenly made sense. Like any overseas living, the military takes you out of the culture you’ve known, immerses you in situations where you must find ways to get along with others then once you return “home”, things can never be quite the same, Our shared experience of military-family life in childhood is unquestionably a foundation in the bond my husband and I share. So are whole perspectives and ways of being that this experience forged in us.
Happy once told me that gender equality is a de facto reality in military families because when your spouse is away for months at a time, every need your family faces comes down to you. Back in the days when my mother kept the home fires burning — or, more accurately, kept starting new ones in different places, that inescapable pattern of military life – she relied on the same thing that Happy does: an indomitable sense of humor. It’s vital in a life fraught with potentially immense ups and downs. It’s also proof that no matter what life throws your way, the stable stance of a good nature helps you keep level ground beneath your feet.
Each time Happy’s husband Will has deployed, she hasn’t wanted to answer the phone. She’s already had to live through the latest version of a harrowing conversation about what they’ll do if he doesn’t return. I remember my mother shuddering when a U.S. Army staff car arrived in our neighborhood, heading for someone’s home with ghastly news. You felt the most awful combination of relief and survivor’s guilt as it passed you by.
On the other end are the anguished days between that call that tells you the deployed family member is coming home at last and the day they actually arrive. It would almost be easier not to know, for the uncertain fear that torments you during those tenuous days, Happy says.
The first night the refrigerator’s icemaker started making funny noises, her husband’s response from the floor above was a regular recon mission as he took the stairs slowly one at a time, freezing in place and braced for action on each one. Happy learned early never to climb into bed after he’s already asleep. He can’t help the inevitable fight-or-flight reaction that months of constant vigilance and inadequate sleep have trained into him. She doesn’t want to put him in a position like that. She knows how badly he feels afterward.
Families like hers make sacrifices while their loved one is in active service, and continue to make them long afterward. Many bide with situations a lot of us couldn’t begin to tolerate, and often do it gracefully and willingly. A lot of them don’t have enough money, while the service they’re rendering is truly immeasurable.
Military commissaries once had a slogan printed on their grocery bags that said: “Military spouse — the hardest job in the military.” Through the years and now, the generations, I find these to be some of the bravest and most generous people I know.
Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details.
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