My husband and I spent the first year of our marriage apart, as he was deployed to Iraq with the Army Reserves. I consider myself lucky, because we seem to have experienced no long-lasting ill effects and because, so far, I have no reason to believe that I'll have to endure another deployment (although things can always change at any time). As a military spouse, I can tell you that deployment is truly hell and I would not wish it on my worst enemy.
For an entire year, I feared every day that two men in uniform would knock on my door to tell me that the most important person in the world to me was dead. I would wonder how it would happen. Would I come home from work to find a strange car in my driveway? Would they show up first thing in the morning when I was in my jammies with nappy hair? Is there something seriously wrong with me because I'm thinking about what I'd look like at a time like this? Would they be people I'd met before or total strangers that I'd break down in front of, and which would I prefer? Who would be the first person I'd call after getting the news?
My husband was deployed during the "surge" in 2006-07. For many months, I woke up almost every day to news on the radio that "another soldier with ties to North Carolina died today," something that doesn't seem to happen nearly as frequently now that he's home, so I feel like when I say that, someone will think I'm crazy or exaggerating. I probably was crazy, but I am not exaggerating.
If I heard from him, via email or the occasional phone call, every day, that was awesome. But he moved around from FOB (forward operating base) to FOB quite frequently, and some FOBs had better communications than others. When something bad happened, communications at the entire FOB would be suspended until the deceased soldier’s family was notified. The soldiers call this blackout period “River City.” Then, when communications were reinstated, there would frequently be long lines (two hours) to use either the phone or the Internet. And sometimes there’d be one River City after another. Inevitably, they would occur right after my husband had told me, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” And then I would spend five days with a horrible sinking feeling in my belly, trying not to be irrational, or short-tempered while going about my workday, or vicious when the Home Owner’s Association hassled me about where I parked my deployed husband’s truck.
At that time, I didn’t really know any other military spouses with whom I could share my frustrations. Reservists and their families don’t often live near military bases or even very near the drill hall where the unit reports each month, so we spouses likely don’t live near each other. But over the years, and especially through the Internet, I have met a few.
Last weekend, I got a call from the spouse of a deployed soldier. She was freaking out because she hadn't heard from her husband in several days. Normally he emailed or called daily. He had told her he might be out of contact for a while but that he'd call her on Saturday. She hadn't heard anything by Saturday afternoon (well into the evening in Iraq). To make matters worse, she'd seen a post on Facebook from another soldier who normally partnered with her husband, saying that he was doing well in Baghdad. This led her to believe that there must have been an event where someone else was NOT doing well in Baghdad. And if the partner could send out word on Facebook, why couldn't her husband? To top it all off, she was travelling in another state and was wondering how the uniformed men would find her to tell her the awful news. They wouldn't know where she was, and they don't call you on the phone with this kind of message.
You might think she was jumping the gun and overreacting, but I understood. These moments happen to spouses, more frequently than they'd probably let on. How freaked out does a spouse have to get before she starts making phone calls? How many other times was she badly freaked out but not quite to that point? The thing is, there was only so much reassurance I could provide. Given all those things, I certainly would have been freaking out in her shoes, too. I could only assure her that she wasn't crazy, which is hardly reassuring in that circumstance. I mean, I think I said it was probably too early to worry, and yet how can you possibly TRY not to worry? Fortunately, a few hours later, she texted me that everything was ok.
When my husband came home from deployment, he actually got home a bit earlier than we anticipated, a fact that we kept secret from friends and family so that we could surprise them all by showing up at his good friend's wedding. Everyone assumed he'd have to miss it by a couple of weeks as he de-mobilized, but he actually got home the day before the wedding.
I was happy to have him all to myself for 24 hours. I really didn't want an audience when we had said our goodbyes, nor did I want one when we were reunited. Both events seemed so intimate and personal. But of course I was going to be greeting him at the airport in a busy terminal, and I felt the need to bring a sign or a balloon or something. After all, he was coming home from war(!) and deserved some sort of hoopla, which I was solely responsible for, since we'd kept his return a secret from others.
I made a sign and picked up a helium balloon on the way. The airlines will give you a pass to get through security so that you can meet a returning soldier at the gate – if you ask nicely, and having a military ID helps. To my surprise, the TSA didn't hassle me about the helium balloon; they just put it under a plastic tub and passed it through the X-ray machine.
I remember very well putting my shoes back on while sitting in some chairs just after I'd successfully passed through the screening area. I was definitely still paranoid that his domestic commercial flight would crash just minutes before landing, and I was also mindful that he or we could very easily have still more troubles once he was safely at home – days, weeks, or months later. But I stood up and turned the corner and looked down the long terminal ahead of me, thinking, "This is it. The last stretch. At the end of this hall, he'll be there, and my ordeal will be over." The almost literal light at the end of the tunnel. I started to choke up, but at that moment, I was also very mindful that I was in public, and that a balloon and a sign were drawing people's attention to me. I swallowed and stifled the tears and walked on.
I had to wait several long minutes for the plane to finally arrive, plenty of time for the passengers at that gate to become aware of me. I knew they were all anticipating sharing in my happy reunion. However, the first uniformed soldiers to walk out of the jet bridge were not my husband, but two other guys from his unit whom I had met before, but probably only once or twice. I suddenly felt very awkward, like shouldn't I be making a hoopla for them, too? Wasn't there anyone greeting them? (My husband's unit does not deploy all at once like most units, and members live in several different states, so those who were returning home had an individual experience.)
So I briefly said hi to them, awkwardly, and welcome home, but I know my speech trailed off mid-sentence and my concentration totally flew out the window when I finally saw my husband. The crowd at the gate must have been truly confused at that point when I ignored the first two soldiers and embraced some guy who wasn't even in uniform instead. But I really can't remember what their reaction was at all, as I obviously had other things on my mind.
Later that day, we went to see the latest Harry Potter movie at the IMAX (my husband is a big fan, and he'd missed the movie's opening). The next day, he put on his dress greens, and we headed to the church where his friend was getting married.
Near the church, I want to say at a bus stop, we passed a stranger who saw the uniform and said something terrible to my husband, something derogatory about war or soldiers, something I’m glad I can’t remember. I told him to ignore her. "She doesn't know you. She doesn't know anything about you. Just keep walking."
Fortunately, things got better once we were inside the church, where we successfully surprised the heck out of his brother, who was an usher, several other usher friends, and the groom, who glimpsed him in the pew from the altar and did a double or triple take. My mother-in-law was also a wedding guest, and we were casually seated next to her. She had a somewhat unexpected reaction to see her son returned from war. She'd apparently had an inkling he might do something like this and seemed somewhat irked. Maybe we had deprived her of the type of reunion she'd been envisioning. The mother of a deployed soldier experiences her own kind of hell, the likes of which I’d rather not contemplate.
Nevertheless, it was still a joyous occasion, and as the days and weeks passed, mercifully, none of my fears came to pass. He didn't seem emotionally traumatized. He never woke up in the middle of the night screaming. He didn't appear to want to kill me with his bare hands. We had some trouble simply readjusting to living with each other again, and maybe he forgot where certain kitchen utensils were kept. Perhaps one time he was on edge upon hearing the sound of fireworks, but that's about it. I had been bracing for the other shoe to drop, but it didn't.
I actually found it kind of irritating. How could he have gone through this experience, being shot at and shelled and documenting the aftermath of car bombs, and be totally fine?! I myself didn't really feel all that fine! I felt like I'd been through hell, and ironically, *I* was wondering if HE could even understand.
Six months later, he surprised me with a trip to Atlanta to see the NHL All-Star Game. I'm used to flying stand-by on the airline for which my brother works, but my husband bought regular tickets on a different airline. I was used to Terminal C, but we were going through Terminal A.
We passed through the security checkpoint, and when we turned that corner to look down the long terminal in front of us, it sparked my memory.
"Hey," I started to say, "The last time I was here, I..."
But I couldn't finish my sentence. I choked up and started crying. I couldn't stop. We walked all the way to the gate and sat down, and I couldn't stop crying. It was as if that corner of the terminal, just past security, had recorded my emotions from six months prior, and when I passed through again, started playing them back. The last time I had passed that spot, I'd been staring down the light at the end of deployment; I'd wanted to cry then but quickly stifled the tears because I knew people were watching me. This time, the tears were coming anyway, regardless of who was watching.
I tried to explain to my husband, but my outburst was totally unexpected and bizarre even to me. I hadn't even been thinking about his deployment or return until we reached that spot in the terminal. It was like a trigger. Why I should be crying at what was really the memory of a happy experience is something I still don't quite understand. But I still have a hard time telling this story without tearing up.
There are so many other spouses, parents, children, siblings, significant others, and best friends of service members who are currently experiencing the trauma of deployment. At Veterans Day, I think about them, too. May the light at the end of their tunnel be just around the next corner. For ALL the troops.