Becky keeps her house a little cleaner when her husband is serving in Afghanistan, just in case.
She knows the odds of her husband dying or suffering a serious injury are small, yet the specter of a knock on the door haunts the edges of her consciousness.
So she clears the clutter from the kitchen table. She learns how to fix the lawn tractor. She handles the finances and takes out the garbage and lets her daughters kill their own spiders.
She wants her family to be able to run the household alone.
Just in case.
That kind of cautiousness is just one of the realities of sharing family ties with a member of the 1 percent, the proportion of the American population serving in the military.
Military members’ loved ones often live an existence marked by worry and sacrifice, patriotism and pride. It’s a jumble of emotions and circumstances that few outside the military ever experience or fully understand.
Three women with family members in the service offered a glimpse into their lives as part of the Beacon Journal’s America Today project, exploring the difficult issues that are dividing the nation. The sessions were held in conjunction with the Taylor and Bliss institutes at the University of Akron. The participants were granted confidentiality in exchange for a free-flowing conversation involving some difficult personal situations. Here are their stories.
“[Did the Sept. 11 attacks] change his patriotism? Not at all. Did that make him probably anxious in going to a place that he had never expected in a million years that our country would be using the National Guard as regular Army personnel? I’m sure that it did stress him out. I know that it stressed our family out.”
— Becky, on her husband’s reaction to being called up to active duty from the National Guard.
Iraq and Afghanistan were just countries on a map when Becky’s husband enlisted in the National Guard. Faced with debt after earning a master’s degree, he saw the Guard as a way to get part of his student loans repaid. He expected to be responding to natural disasters in the United States, not serving half a world away.
But then al-Qaida sent passenger planes hurtling into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and aimed another at the White House.
Three years later, he was on a plane to an undisclosed location in the United States, headed for the first of five deployments.
And his family in rural Medina County was headed for struggles it never foresaw.
For six months, Becky and the couple’s two daughters had to survive on the family’s savings while his military paycheck was delayed by complications with the transfer of Guard members to the regular Army. Even when the first check finally arrived, it was half what he makes when he’s home and working his regular job.
Becky, who volunteers at her church’s missions pantry, suddenly found herself on the receiving end.
Church members donated food. Family members offered assistance.
The adjustment was tough, but “you learn to thank God for the things you have,” she said, her voice quavering. “And you learn to appreciate your support groups around you and your church friends and your family members, more than you ever thought you could do that.”
Becky has learned something else through the experience: how to be the sole head of the household.
When her lawn tractor broke down, she had to figure out how to fix it. When the bills need to be paid, she writes the checks. When the family’s vehicles need routine maintenance, she takes care of them.
She teaches her daughters to be self-sufficient, too. She knew her efforts were paying off when the lawn tractor broke down and her younger daughter used the family’s four-wheeler and a winch to tow it back to the house.
If he doesn’t…
Always, in the back of Becky’s mind, there’s this realization: “If he doesn’t come home, we need to do this stuff long term.”
The family manages during his absences and rejoices when he returns. But even then, life is far from simple.
Every time her husband returns, Becky must revert to sharing the parenting and the decision-making. She has to bend the routine she has so carefully crafted and let him back into the family’s life.
And she has to accept the realization that her husband has changed.
To her husband, so much is different when he returns home — the smells, the brilliant green of the grass, the leaves on the trees that contrast so sharply to the scrubby landscape he left behind. It takes a while for him to stop looking down the street every time he carries the garbage out, scouring the bushes for someone lying in wait.
Eventually, family members settle into normalcy, or the closest they can come to it in their war-altered life. Becky stocks up on toilet paper and laundry detergent whenever her husband is home, taking advantage of their higher income to prepare for his redeployment and the return to leaner times.
Then, inevitably, comes word that he must return to active duty, and the cycle starts all over again.
It can be hard living an existence that few outside the military fully understand. Becky remembers her husband’s first deployment, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. As she drove home after his unit left from Lima, she was struck by the normalcy she saw around her — children playing, people shopping, drivers maneuvering their cars.
“You look around, and it was almost surreal to see the world happening,” she said. “… There was this big disconnect. And it was just — it was weird.”
Others can feel the pain
That’s not to say people outside the military don’t care. Becky recalls waiting for her husband’s plane to board at Cleveland Hopkins Airport when he traveled alone to his current deployment. His fellow travelers, who moments before had been laughing along with the family’s quirky humor, were moved to tears as the family said goodbye, crying and clinging to him. The tears passed down the line of passengers waiting to board as, one after another, they realized what was happening.
Before every departure, Becky steels herself for her husband’s absence, for the loss of his moral and financial support. The kids pull inward, detaching themselves emotionally from their father in a subconscious attempt to lessen the pain of goodbye.
It’s almost as though they’re preparing for a death, mourning his absence before he’s even gone.
It’s a roller-coaster life, but Becky holds no resentment. She’s proud of her husband, proud of the men and women who sacrifice in service to their country.
“This is his job. This is something that he signed up for. … As a wife, I supported him in that decision,” she said.
“And so I don’t blame anybody.”
“I always promote the military. It’s been a godsend to my family.”
— Deborah, who counts 30 relatives with military experience.
Deborah wears the reassuring air of one who’s been there.
She is calm and matter-of-fact when she talks about America’s military involvement and the lives it touches. Yet she is also empathetic, a wise and unflappable mother figure.
It’s a strength that comes from experience.
Deborah’s son is an Army major who is serving stateside after returning in April from his second deployment to Kuwait. He is one of 30 members of their extended family who have served in the military, eight of whom are currently active.
She knows what it’s like to wait for word of her child’s safety. She knows what it’s like to say goodbye repeatedly. And she knows what it’s like to support loved ones who are called to serve in a cause she doesn’t fully agree with.
She questions leaders
Deborah questions America’s role in Iraq, a war that was prompted by what turned out to be faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. She fears it diluted the country’s focus on rooting out al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan, and as a consequence, may have prolonged the fighting there. She’s concerned about the repeated deployments military members are facing as a result and their risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, and she worries that Americans are becoming so war-weary that few pay attention to what’s happening in the Middle East.
Yet she doesn’t dwell on the issue. “It’s done,” she said. “We were there, we’re out, we can’t go undo it.”
Neither does she let it shake her faith in the military. It has provided employment and opportunity for so many members of her family, and she sees it as a particularly beneficial route for African-Americans.
For her, supporting others in her shoes has become something of a mission. She periodically attends meetings of a support group for the families and friends of those in the military and has spoken to the group twice. She pores over websites and clips newspaper and newsletter articles about military matters to keep for reference. She reminds other military families that rather than feel isolated or neglected, it’s up to them to keep the community engaged.
Her own church is an example. When she and her husband joined about three years ago, it had no military support mission. So she suggested it send care packages to its members in the service. The response was so positive that it cost $200 just to mail the donated items to the seven soldiers.
Others can be irritating
She understands that people without ties to the military have less motivation to pay attention. Still, she wishes they were better informed. She bristles when they post outdated news about the war on their Facebook pages in a well-meaning but misguided attempt to make a point. And she takes issue with people who call for an immediate troop withdrawal without understanding the logistics involved and the potential fallout.
She wishes, too, that more people knew the good side of the military, the work it accomplishes and the way it serves others.
She knows the dangers, but she isn’t consumed with worry over her loved ones’ safety. Instead, she relies on her faith.
“[O]n a day-to-day basis, I just trust the same God who’s keeping them when they’re in the States is the same God who’s keeping them wherever they’re stationed,” she said.
But she can never forget the risk involved.
She was reminded of that when she attended the funeral of a brother-in-law who died of cancer three years ago. A retired Army sergeant, he was buried with military honors.
Deborah was emotionally exhausted from having helped her sister plan his funeral, but she held herself together through most of it.
Then she heard the haunting strains of taps and broke down in sobs.
“It’s the idea that my son is in the service,” she said. “I hope I never hear this for him.”
“ I just pray all the time. Please protect him.”
— Christine, on her son in the military. [Her name and that of her son have been changed to maintain confidentiality.]
Christine always answers her cell phone.
No matter whether she recognizes the caller, she always takes the call. She knows phone calls from deployed soldiers can be routed through unfamiliar numbers, and she doesn’t want to take a chance.
She doesn’t want to miss Matthew.
Matthew is her 22-year-old son, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan on his first tour of duty. In her purse she carries a doll bearing his image. It’s a way to keep him with her always.
He is an adult, yet he is her child, and she worries about his well-being.
Shaken by killing
Already Matthew has tasted tragedy. He lost three members of his unit in a suicide bombing, including a superior whom he had left just minutes earlier.
The experience shook both Christine and her son deeply.
In the weeks that followed, Matthew tried to come to grips with his loss. The spirited young man who once flaunted his bravado in Facebook photos pulled away from the social networking site. He drew inward, taking strength from his chaplain and the intensified bond among the members of his unit.
Meanwhile, Christine struggled with her own depression. At first she responded by climbing into her van and driving aimlessly, as though she were lost. Then, as the days passed, the reality of the physical and emotional risks her son faces sank in.
She started steeling herself against the possibility that the kid she sent off to war might not come back the same.
“I thought, I need to start preparing myself for either him coming home without any legs or arms or him dying,” she said, “or him coming home and becoming an alcoholic because he can’t handle what he saw. It’s just such a big worry.”
So she clings to her faith like a life raft and prays continually for his safety. She takes comfort in knowing the experience has strengthened her son’s convictions.
“He’s determined now, more than ever, to help his country,” she said. “Because he’s a very patriotic person. … He believes in the Army, and he wants to protect us and allow America to be the wonderful country it is.”
That love of country is rooted firmly in her family’s experience. While they were raising their son, Christine and her husband took him along on short-term mission trips to other countries, including trips to Haiti and a yearlong stint in Russia. They saw the remnants of oppression firsthand, and it led Matthew to dedicate his life to protecting his country and its way of life.
Christine admits to having paid little attention to the situation in the Middle East before her son enlisted, and she speaks of his military service as almost a ministry. She talks about her son helping others, educating them about freedom and democracy.
The less romantic picture that Deborah and Becky paint during the focus group seems to hit Christine like a slap. When they talk of an invasion prompted by mistaken intelligence and of the Taliban stealing clothing and medical supplies that American soldiers had given to Afghan villagers, she appears deflated.
“But what about the attack?” Christine asks Deborah at one point, referring to Sept. 11.
“Al-Qaida was based in Afghanistan. They were not in Iraq,” Deborah tells her. “Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction.”
She seems increasingly discouraged as the discussion unfolds and as a small group of observers without military ties joins in the discussion.
Maybe she has misled herself, she eventually concedes. “Maybe I talked myself into that. Maybe I talked myself into thinking that it is a good purpose and there’s a reason why we’re there and there’s a reason why kids come home, young guys, without their legs and arms.”
She needs to believe the deaths and injuries are not in vain.
“I don’t want my son to come home without any legs for no reason at all, you know?”
Does your family have someone who has served in the military or do you know someone who has? What are their most pressing issues? What can or should be done to help our soldiers and their families adjust more effectively?
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Computer assisted reporter Doug Livingston provided statistics for this story.
The entire America Today project can be found at www.ohio.com/special-projects/civility.