As a Marine spouse I get a lot out of hearing the different impressions other military spouses have of the same events we all endure. For me, though, it is an odd hate/love relationship I have with the writings of other military spouses when the subject gets personal and painful. I can barely re-read my own pain, much less get through someone else’s perspective of it. I wonder if it’s because I’m also a writer. We often write what we cannot or will not say. For the military spouse, a lot of what goes unspoken could burn a hole through paper and its fire can only be put out by exasperated tears of anxious frustration.
A friend of mine asked me if I’d read Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, a collection of incredibly poignant poems penned by a Navy wife while her husband was deployed. The poems aren’t syrupy, sentimental reflections. Instead, many military spouses will find Jehanne’s poems have an eerie familiarity. She deftly describes the effort to maintain connections between home and spouse despite a gaping distance while keeping what is sometimes a tentative grasp on one’s sanity. The poems aren’t just touching; they reach inside a person. This will perhaps give the most reserved spouses permission to feel and think the way we all do at one time or another. Unlike my non-writer military spouse friends who thoroughly enjoyed Jehanne’s poems, I found myself exhausted by them, constantly wandering off in thought as I remembered every word I’d written while my own husband was deployed.
I won’t quote any of Jehanne’s poems here. The context in which she intended they be read is already provided to the reader in her book. What I will tell you, as a writer and a military spouse, it’s a must-read. If you are such a spouse, I would encourage you to keep pen and paper nearby. To say Jehanne’s poetry is inspiring is so understating it it’s almost insulting. Whether she meant to or not, her words open doors in the heart and mind – doors many of us shut and locked and only kept the key on the off chance someone would someday understand.
I can read another military wife’s take on toddlers, teens, moves, jobs, where and when to retire and non-combat deployments. But how it felt while he was at war … I just didn’t think I could do it again. When he was gone I typed and wrote longhand well into many nights. I took his call in the middle of a McDonald’s playland while my youngest played nearby. The call dropped right after a bomb went off. I couldn’t know if he was dead or alive, so I farmed out the kids to friends and sat on the side of my bathtub crying; and when that didn’t help, I tore the bathroom to shreds. And that didn’t help either.
Newly budding social media gave way to rumors spreading through homes and schools like wildfire and it’s no coincidence that many have been burned as a result. Having instant and constant access to the combat-deployed doesn’t just delay a spouse’s need to build a base of coping skills, it obliterates it to the point that when there is no instant access, the spouse left behind is also left in the lurch.
I quietly changed the sheets when my youngest started wetting the bed during nightmares at age nine, and I had many a heart-wrenching talk with my teenagers about the possibilities they knew existed and the subsequent anxieties they felt that affected everything from their grades to their behavior. We all remember when the deployed started coming home in pieces or boxes. I can’t even re-read this without tearing up some and these aren’t even the worst parts of that time in our lives. And for all the deployments, countries and dangers my husband faced before Iraq, I feel like such a whiner for getting this worked up about this one experience when there are so many whose spouses deployed numerous times, were horribly wounded, still suffer with PTSD, killed themselves, or were killed in combat. Who am I to tell my measly story?
And yet Ms. Dubrow did. She knows too well the language I spoke to myself when I couldn’t get to sleep and would wander around the house, peeking in on the kids as they slept, and how I looked longingly at the phone and the mailbox. Damn her, I didn’t want or need to be reminded. I know there are civilians who want to read all about it, and I know there are military spouses who yearn for the connection because they can’t put it into words themselves, and I completely understand their need, but I didn’t have the same need. So I thought.
I was sitting here just yesterday going through all the chapters of a book I still can’t bring myself to publish. It’s kind of a weekly thing for me now. I pull up the chapters and I revise a bit and edit some, but when I get to the pages from his time in Iraq, it’s like reading about someone else’s life. The person I was while he was at war was not the same person I was before he deployed – or after.
My husband, my kids and I – we gave so much of ourselves, and still all I can think is, “For what?” Twenty-plus years of numerous deployments and household moves under our belts, with all that collective experience and wisdom, and all it took was a combat tour to almost destroy our marriage and inflict major damage to his relationships with our older children. Retrouvaille saved our marriage, but there isn’t a program like it for the family relationship. Even though our marriage is better, it isn’t the same and it probably never will be; that and the devastating effect on us as a family is a loss I still find myself grieving when I read back on the stuff I wrote.
As many Marines (soldiers and airmen) do when they return, my husband maintained that because he came home in one piece, we should have been back to normal as soon as he stepped off the bus. No amount of talking got him to understand that while he was able to leave behind the physical reminders of that time in his life. and even though we were so glad he was home and safe, we still needed time to adjust. None of us got that time. He was back to work three days later. You know those post-deployment screenings “everyone” got when they returned? He wasn’t screened. A lot of the Marines weren’t screened. They were asked how they were doing and their “I’m fine” was taken at face value without further inquiry.
No one of any authority told him to keep an eye on himself or insisted that he check in with a professional, so he didn’t. The man who was pretty good about listening to me shut me out and wouldn’t hear anything contrary to his version of reality. The thing is, our youngest didn’t magically stop having nightmares. Our teenagers didn’t suddenly stop grappling with the juxtaposition of the father who left and the man who was essentially a new man in their lives. For all his insistence that life was back to normal, it was anything but, and less than 90 days after he stepped off that bus, we moved 5,000 miles away from what little normal we had to a whole new everything that, unlike all our other military moves, included a new culture and language. It was even worse for him because he had jumped through three different countries, climates, cultures and languages in less than a year’s time.
He started drinking in what was a military-condoned environment within the walls of his workspace. This is where many a Marine went to “deal with it all” with the stocked and accommodated blessing of the command, but “dealing” is not what occurred. Incurred instead were a series of military police blotter entries wherein things were written down that should’ve first and only been logged in certified counselor records. That my own husband didn’t have any run-ins with the law is irrelevant. Others did, and they shouldn’t have been spoon-fed the option to get to that point; and it was in their company where my husband thrift-shopped for coping skills.
We argued constantly and he had no tolerance for teenagers, which sucked because we had two of them who were pissed about leaving their old high school three months into their senior year on top of everything else. The words “sacrifice,” “duty,” “loyalty” and “love” bounced off the walls of our new home as they were thrown around by all of us except our youngest who just stood there helplessly wondering what the hell was going on. And for as loud as we all were, no one was listening to the other. One hundred and ninety six boxes it took to move our household and we’d forgotten to pack respect and regard.
In 2003 not a single counselor in this area was remotely qualified to deal with a post-combat deployment family; and in fact a few of them they made things much worse. I began to write about the stuff that was going well in an attempt to keep my focus positive. I shared this with my husband and our kids and it did seem to help a little. But in truth, it wasn’t positive most of the time.
One of the chapters in my book that I still can’t seem to get right had started out as the end product of an email interview my husband and I had with a couple of college psychology students who were studying the effects of combat deployment on families. I can’t seem to get through what I wrote all those years ago, and I wonder if I just shouldn’t pitch that chapter from the book entirely.
On the one hand, I know there are readers who would get a lot out of it. On the other hand, there is the feeling I’m writing someone else’s story without permission despite the go-ahead from my kids and my husband. Every time I read it I’m right back there in the throes of it all, but instead of being the woman I was, I’m watching her. The idea of making her pain public just seems so … invasive. I gave a very long answer to the last question in the email interview, but I ended it with one word: “Permanently.” The question was, “How was your family affected?”
I could have just started and ended with that, but it actually took me two pages to make my way to that one word. I was going to delete it all before emailing it, but I thought, “What the hell? Let them read what it was really like, and if they can’t muddle through a lousy two-page summary of an entire combat deployment, then screw ‘em.” They didn’t use my answer in their project and maybe that’s another reason why I want to dump that chapter out of my book. My life is not a reality show. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea of letting an unforeseeable number of people into the heart and mind of the woman I was at that time. It’s one thing to tell a couple of psychology majors “Here’s how it was,” but to allow just any old person to click and buy their way into how dark it was and hear how loud the cries got, I’m not sure I can do it until it no longer feels like a betrayal of the woman I used to be.
To answer my friend who’d asked me if I’d read Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, the answer is, “Yes.” To answer the question she didn’t ask, I strongly recommend it. I only wish it was sold with a journal and pen.