Deployments are Forever

By Circe Olson Woessner

When our son, Iain, was about three years old, his class at the daycare center at Ft. Jackson, SC put on a Thanksgiving program for all the parents. My husband was out of town at a military school, so I went alone. Although I am sure that I was not the only “single” parent there, it sure felt like it to me, and for a moment, I felt a twinge of anger—or regret—or some other emotion—that my husband was, yet again, missing out on his kids’ lives.  I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, it turned out.

When I got the developed photos back, I was stunned. Iain looked sad in every picture—the sadness fairly oozed from the photo. It was palpable.

Why shouldn’t he be? In his short life, his dad had been deployed to Kuwait, had attended a nine-month school, had been in the field 260 days of one year and was now at yet another school. For most of Iain’s childhood a stranger named “Daddy” would drift in and out of his life, disrupting his routine, and would leave again.

At almost seven, our oldest had it figured out. “Mommy, why don’t you marry someone else who is home more, so you can be happy and we can have a real father?”

I laughed it off, hugged him tightly, and tucked him into bed. This was before cell phones, computers, and e-mail. Communication was slower—we’d wait weeks for letters and post cards—and for an occasional, rare phone call from our soldier—and we went about our lives without him.

Brook Payton wrote this in an essay in 2010:

“My mom has participated in three tours of duty in the last five years. Two were in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one was for Operation Enduring Freedom.  She is a dedicated Soldier, mother, mentor and hero. The only part of her work she apologizes for is that it sometimes takes her away from her family.”

Deployments are Forever.

Whether it is school or war,or some other deployment, that absence, that event, or experience shapes everyone forever.

Birthdays, holidays, life events happen, one party makes decisions without consulting the other, the horrors of combat are experienced or the guilt of infidelity eats away at the gut. There is regret for having missed the birth of a child, too many ball games, the death of a parent.  Life moves on.

First grader Michael Canahui writes, “My dad has to be very brave when he is at war. He has to be safe when he is gone so he can come home and be with us.”

When the military family is reunited, it takes time and, sometimes negotiation, for things to settle into a routine. Sometimes it never does.

After that conversation with my son, I went out into the living room of our post quarters with pen and paper and began thinking about all of Bill’s absences—basic training, OCS, field exercises, schools, war, anything I could remember –calculating them together.

Out of eleven years of marriage, he’d been gone seven of them.

As his military career progressed, we continued this boomerang lifestyle—and adapted to it. We understood the necessity of it, but didn’t always like it.  Even now, after retiring from the Army, Bill continues the same line of work he did while on active duty—the boomerang continues. (I haven’t dared calculate how much of our 31 years of marriage he’s been gone now!)

It is true that this is an all-volunteer military, and that service members know the risks and rewards of joining the service. However, very few people really contemplate their own mortality or possible long-term consequences of physical injury while signing the contract at the recruiter’s office.

When my oldest joined the military right at the height of both Iraq and Afghanistan, he was thinking patriotism, duty, honor–not death, dismemberment and life-long medical issues.  I guarantee that I was.

The military lifestyle impacts all family members. There are good and bad things associated with it.  Families experience living in different places and traveling to places they may never have had a chance to visit otherwise. Children grow up meeting other kids from all backgrounds and experiences.  For the most part, the family has financial stability, adequate housing, medical and dental care.

8th grader Gabrielle Every writes, “My dad spent 26 ½ years in the Air Force…completed 13 assignments to include four overseas…I feel privileged to be part of this nation built by heroes.”

On the flip side, with the constant comings and goings of the sponsor—or his or her prolonged absences, divorce rates are high. Family dynamics shift. Some children drift away from their military parent, not sure they have anything to say to this “stranger”. Many families have to deal with the effects of alcoholism, PTSD or TBI and the myriad of emotions that combat veterans express.

Army brat Tracy Hutchinson recalls, “I remember the man that left was not the same man that came back. He drank and angry a lot. He hurt us…badly.”

 Who can process all of it?

My husband was shot and disabled in Vietnam by a 7 year old girl. It took him more than 10 years to admit to me that they had to kill her. She had wounded others too. It never left his mind. He also suffered continuously from Agent Orange exposure, which was not recognized as a disability by the military until after he passed away. Vietnam vet support group meetings helped him deal with it over the years.” Judy.

Another wife whose husband has never spoken to her about his combat experiences tells about his recurring dreams, where he’s running away—or towards—something. She hears him panting and he thrashes around in the bed. And when he’s awake, he says simply, “I must have had a bad dream.”

If a service member is wounded, the family must deal with the sometimes overwhelming bureaucratic process of getting the appropriate services and benefits. They must deal with on-going medical appointments and the physical and emotional stress of being a caretaker.

In The Hard Road Back, the New York Times has been exploring some of the very real issues military families experience in a series of articles and videos chronicling the experiences of military veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan

On Pinterest this pin sums up one military spouse’s sentiments:

 “Falling in love with a US Soldier has been the scariest, loneliest, toughest, most stupid thing I have ever done. And I couldn’t be happier.”

No matter what the circumstances, no matter how the deployment went, no one is the same as he or she was pre-deployment. Life has moved on, circumstances have altered. Friendships are made, friends are lost; lessons are learned; people have moved on. Life ends.

As our son continues our family’s tradition of military service, I wish his future family to have as much love, support and understanding as we had. Throughout my husband’s military career—through all the good, the bad, and the ugly, our small family held together—and continues to hold together—through resiliency and love.

“Despite all the grief and stress and anger this job provides, my dad loves our country too much to back down. He charges through the rough spots and trudges through the sadness. When you look at him, you see a focused man, but if you really look at him, you can see bravery, determination and love.Nicole Woodruff, 2011 ASYMCA essay contest winner.

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