Chicks Dig the Uniform

by Maria on August 26, 2012

My husband, E, has been deployed to Afghanistan for six months. He’s in Helmand province and spends most of his time working with the Afghanistan National Army, near Camp Bastion. He should be home by the end of September. Before he came back on R&R last month, I hadn’t seen any image or recent picture of him since March. That felt particularly strange, in this age of Skype and camera-phones. But even odder are the approximately dozen people who’ve asked me during E’s tour if I’m going out there to visit him. Overall, it’s astonishing the number of people, from acquaintances to call centre staff, who think the level of contact and risk of an infantry officer deployed to a war zone is about the same as someone making a business trip to Barcelona.

So here – more by way of personal expression than public education – are some observations about being the wife of a deployed British soldier.*

It begins six months before he leaves
Despite paying lip service to ‘minimising nights out of bed’, the military arranges pre-deployment training and planning so that soldiers are away from home much of the time. My husband is a battalion second-in-command, an infamously demanding job that meant he was away about three weeks in four from last autumn to when he deployed in March. His pre-tour leave vanished in a last-minute call from MoD for a suddenly urgent planning exercise a year or two in advance. Even when E. was home, he worked regularly till midnight and all weekend. I began to see why so many couples decide they may as well leave for the private sector where they may enjoy some relation between work and pay.

We doubled our number of lifetime rows in the last two months before he left. (I remember thinking it would be easier for a black helicopter to land unannounced in the back garden and just take him away, rather than endure another week of the corrosive waiting for the date marked in black on the kitchen calendar.) A few weeks before he left, I went to a welfare office briefing. The youngest wives showed knowledge of the geo-politics of Helmand that, a few years ago, would have impressed or perhaps worried the security services. Our kind, wise and acutely embarrassed welfare officer stood up to give a presentation on the emotions of post-deployment. The army has actually created a Powerpoint slide to illustrate the highs and lows of the soldier’s return, from, ahem, the first moments of joyful reunion to the inevitable and explosive fight that comes between thirty-six and forty-eight hours later. It’s ironic, really. They put so much thought into the psychology of gently asking wives not to be too demanding of war-weary husbands, but didn’t anticipate the bread and butter questions we were really interested in; when would leave dates be set and how likely were our husbands to be injured or killed? (‘Late’, was the first answer. ‘Much less so than last tour’ was the second. Both have proved correct, so far.)

You don’t cry much, saying goodbye
It’s neither safe nor fair to give full rein to the grief at his leaving. It’s embarrassing, exhausting and makes it harder for him to get on with what he’s doing. And the truth is, you’re saying goodbye to someone who’s already half-way there, mentally.

I said goodbye to E. at the back door of his battalion HQ, on a wintry, Scottish afternoon. He’d called a half-hour before, using his army-voice to say he was about to collect his weapon and be driven down to Brize. I walked into camp. He shut his office door behind me and we rehearsed the practicalities of when I might expect to hear from him. Mobile phones don’t go into theatre. And suddenly there was nothing more to say. We’d already decided he wouldn’t write an ‘in the event of’ letter, because we know what we are to each other. We held hands and looked at the carpet tile. I felt sick and empty. We got up. The soldiers in the front office kept their eyes down, but there was no need. We walked silently through corridors that smell something between hospital and boarding school, and came to the back of the building. For weeks, every kiss had had in it the taste of the last one. Now it was the last one. It was windy outside and my coat flapped as I walked away. I’d worn a dress and make-up, to keep my side up, and now I was cold. I looked back once, and he waved. I didn’t look again. I thought as I reached the gate, ‘this is almost as bad as it gets, but look at me, I can still walk,’ and then ‘at least now, the worst is over.’ It wasn’t.

Belief in the mission is irrelevant
Which is just as well, really. The men seem mostly to focus on tasks, not strategy. They tend towards a positive take on the impact they’re having, and don’t dwell on the big picture. I follow the news closely, though many wives don’t. We mostly just want our men back, nothing more. After Iraq, the notion that they’re doing something essential, worthy and with a high chance of success seems old-fashioned.

The purpose of their presence in Afghanistan is a bit like death; ubiquitous, hazy, easy to ignore, but disturbing if you think too hard about it. No one believes the Afghan government is competent or likely to become so within the next two years. Few care what happens to its people when we leave. The British government’s setting a deadline for withdrawal unravels the few thin strands of meaning right back to the moment you hear of the death of someone you knew. When the objective is a date, not an outcome, each casualty takes on the haplessness of dying after the armistice is declared.

I don’t come from the country my husband serves, but I’m still startled and moved at how proud I am of him and the people he serves with. I also think that if the government were equally proud, and truly believed in this war, it wouldn’t have neglected it in favour of starting another adventure, wouldn’t have under-resourced on kit and lied about it, wouldn’t under-provide for injured soldiers and their families, and wouldn’t be firing service men and women just months away from retirement.

Belief in the mission seems irrelevant to the government, too.

The phone company doesn’t care
No, he won’t be home on the weekend. No, I can’t ‘just call him’, or fax, text or email him, either. Yes, I can write and get his signature, but it’ll take five weeks to get there and back. No, he can’t just pop in to the branch and sign it. No, you cannot keep the power of attorney ‘on file’. Etc. Etc.

Before E. went, we did our wills and power of attorney and transferred as many bills as possible into my name (I hope he doesn’t ever need his credit score). Unfortunately, whether it’s repairing the car, dealing with the credit card or the IVF clinic, or suspending his mobile phone, the computer always says no. But to be honest, these are really just irritants or temporary barriers, in the scheme of things.

A friend’s husband was based in a big US camp, and used the iPad he bought there to be on Facetime with his family every morning. The UK military, with its shorter, more intense tours and stingier paymaster, considers queue-up phone banks to be more than adequate. (And that’s for those lucky enough to be close to a big camp.) Which means that when E. phones, usually around midnight his time and after walking for fifteen minutes and waiting for longer, he’s tired, grumpy, and I’m the one thing standing between him and his four and a half hours of sleep. If I miss his call, there’s nothing to do but have a quick cry to get the stupid remorse out of my system, and hope he tries again soon.

For deployed British military, there’s no such thing as getting a text message or using Skype. ‘Email’ just means typing my letter into a nineties style web-interface to be printed out three days later and posted to him locally. So we speak for about twenty minutes every week or two (unless there have been casualties, when the system is shut down). There’s a note of tiredness that comes into his voice when he’s had enough, and I either witter on for another five minutes or mercifully let him go. He’s too good to mind, either way. I write him many, many letters, and send care packages every two weeks, which the British Forces Post Office delivers free of charge.

R&R is for the soldier, not the family
We don’t have children, but I’m told by other wives that while they long for their husband’s leave, it is horribly upsetting for the kids. Daddy is home, and then he’s not, and the smallest ones have no concept of the time till he returns for good. Many wives find it much more harrowing when he leaves for the second time. There’s endless discussion on message boards about whether leave during a tour is good or bad for the family.

But after five solid months of eighteen hour days and seven day weeks, my husband was tired, thin, borderline ill and running on long-since-empty. My job was to give him food and sleep, take him somewhere cool and green, boost him up and send him back. Hearing the happiness and easy confidence in his voice a week after he returned to theatre filled me with pride and relief. So, as far as I’m concerned, R&R works.

I’ve noticed some other things, too. That after about four months, I forget what he looks, sounds and smells like, and it becomes easier to get along without him. That home-made flapjacks and gingernuts keep the best for the two weeks it takes to get there. But not chocolate – it melts, and messily! That – irrationally – the closer his return date comes, the more frightened I am of unexpected rings at the doorbell. That no one understands it quite like another army wife, and their friendships are what I’ll miss the most, when we leave. That I now truly agree with E. when he writes that if it’s only ever just the two of us, that’ll be alright. Not brilliant, I think to myself, but a bit more than ok. That it’s not actually disloyal to wear mascara or a skirt while he’s away, even if it feels it. That I’m not the only one whose life is on hold till his return; his mum’s is, too. And that I’m still so ridiculously, unexpectedly, gratefully lucky to be with him.

  • E. is in an all-male infantry battalion (except for a clerk or two and our lovely medic), so these observations are pretty 1950s patriarchal-inspired and, I’m afraid, very hetero-normative, because that’s our situation.

{ 93 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Denise 08.26.12 at 6:13 pm

*nodding* So much meat here. I can’t speak to the British methodologies, but I know with the American side of that coin, part of the “Family Preparedness” speechifying is such crap. They tell the spouses to not put too much undue stress on the servicemember returning from an “in harm’s way” deployment (and my ex was in Afghanistan also). What they frequently fail to do is warn the servicemember that life at home is enormously changed, because the spouse has had to *do it ALL*. That was part of the huge blow-out with my ex and me. He expected that he’d come home, and life would continue as though he had not been gone for 11 months solid. When that didn’t happen, he grew resentful. The kids didn’t understand why he was so short with them for coming to me with everything. There are just so many layers that civilian families do NOT truly understand.

And, I am SO thankful to be completely out of the military life. Being a military spouse is, in my personal opinion, the toughest job in the military…and I respect that role tremendously. Best wishes to you and E.

2

Maria 08.26.12 at 6:27 pm

Thanks, Denise. I’m so sorry your marriage didn’t survive deployment. I don’t know how much is done to prepare or support returning soldiers. It’s only the past few years that returning UK troops get a couple of days to cool off in Cyprus, before they come back into family life. I can’t tell you how many times this year I’ve thought ‘I don’t know HOW the Americans cope with 11 month deployments. Or how other wives, UK or US, do repeated deployments – as midway through this one, E’s planned exit from the military next year became a real thing.

In the UK, divorce in the military is double the rate in civilian life. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of one or two cases where a deployment came at just the right moment to give a couple some space. But on the whole, it’s just corrosive.

Also, I wonder if it’s the length of US deployments alone that is so destructive of people’s wellbeing? Do you have any thoughts on that? In the UK, we don’t do so badly as post-deployment US troops on rates of PTSD, suicide, alcoholism, domestic violence and so on, and I can’t help thinking that people can get through 6 or 7 months in that environment, but a year takes them away from normal life for too long to easily recover.

3

Satan Mayo 08.26.12 at 6:53 pm

I admire Maria for posting these valuable insights into deeply personal experiences while knowing full well that the ensuing discussion is going to be derailed by one or two pompous windbags saying “With all due respect, I see no reason why any respect is due to those who murder for hire on behalf of a morally bankrupt imperial ruling elite.”

4

Lynne 08.26.12 at 7:18 pm

Maria, thank you for a really interesting post. I recently read Joanna Trollope’s latest novel, The Soldier’s Wife, about a British soldier returning from Afghanistan, which raised quite a few of the same issues you mention. I don’t know whether you would enjoy it at this point or not! Maybe too close to the bone.

My father was in the Royal Canadian Air Force (later merged with the navy and army as the Canadian Armed Forces.) He was not deployed to a war zone, but he was away a lot (twice for a year at a time) and frequently transferred between bases in Canada and the U.S. I think we moved 13 times while I was growing up—lots of changing schools. Hard on families!

Thanks again for your post. I hope he comes home safe.

5

Emily 08.26.12 at 9:25 pm

Thank you, Maria, for posting this. Few people talk about what it’s like to be an army wife. Few people are capable of putting that jumble of feelings into words. Thinking of you and hoping for a safe return soon.

6

CP Norris 08.26.12 at 9:39 pm

This beautiful post deserves publication in a major magazine.

7

Brad White 08.26.12 at 9:52 pm

Your ability to frame emotional candor with an unsurpassed skill at using the written word is as enlightening, as it is humbling. Thank you for provoking thought on matters of the heart as much as of the mind! You and Ed are both pretty amazing people!

8

BJN 08.27.12 at 12:37 am

@3 With all due respect, I no reason why any respect is due to those who assume that anyone with a left of center viewpoint is incapable of compassion nor separating the low opinions we have of our leaders from the pain and sacrifice that the working men and women in the armed services endure. I’ve been to Occupy rallies, I was at the huge anti-war protests in DC in 2005 and 2006, and I’ve never heard those types of comments. “They don’t support the troops” is so last administration.

Thanks for this great post Maria. Interesting point about the difference in tour length. Knowing a few military marriages that fell apart, I have to wonder if the length of tour exacerbates the “you don’t know what it was like” type of feelings. The military necessarily creates a really intense fraternal bond inside, and with the experience in field being so vastly different from anything else in their life, it must create such a huge difference. A friend once told me it felt like he was living two different lives, and that as hard as things were over there, it was a part of him, and a part with as many ups as downs. Not being able to ever really share that has got to be a great strain.

9

LFC 08.27.12 at 3:24 am

it’s astonishing the number of people, from acquaintances to call centre staff, who think the level of contact and risk of an infantry officer deployed to a war zone is about the same as someone making a business trip to Barcelona.

This is interesting and would support what one sometimes hears anecdotally about the number of people who have no real understanding that there is a war going on and what that entails. You would think the abundance of news sources might counteract that, but apparently not.

10

Greg 08.27.12 at 12:07 pm

I don’t know if it’s the right thing to say to somebody who seems to be successfully coping, but Christ that sounds tough.

Thank you for the post and for your eloquence. I have honestly never given much thought to the reality of how families cope; next to the all the Big Picture stuff this question always gets relegated to the province of bad ITV drama serials and bad local news items by bad journalists. I’m sure I would also have made assumptions along the lines of business trips to Barcelona.

Working in the aid sector you meet a few ex-military who are now doing security for NGOs, and the two jobs seem so fundamentally different that it always provokes questions about motivation and rationalisation that I never have the balls to ask. But actually, your comment about being “task focused” seems to resolve most of those questions.

11

Sumana Harihareswara 08.27.12 at 1:56 pm

Thank you for writing and sharing this.

12

Doug Beattie 08.27.12 at 1:57 pm

As ever I am totally amazed by the resilience, support, courage and hope that our forces families show. I have completed 13 operational tours of duty but only recently realised the effect it has had on my own wife. I believe she is one of an army of unknown, unappreciated service families who live their lives day by day never knowing what the future will hold for them. For most it is to be reunited with their loved one, for some it is to be faced with the shadow of the man they once knew. For others there is no happy ending.
A fantastic insightful blog Maria – thank you.
Doug

13

Denise 08.27.12 at 2:30 pm

Hi Maria,

I apologize about my lack of clarity. The marriage with my ex did not end as a result of deployment (not directly anyway); there were other long-standing issues. If anything, I stayed with him longer than I probably should have because I was also raised by a military retiree; I was taught that one does NOT leave a servicemember during a wartime deployment. Truly, though, there were many other issues. My point was that there are all sorts of emotional/psychological complexities involved with couples and families who experience deployment.

Divorce in the military (compared with civilian life) is a subject rarely explored; deployment is one aspect of the difference, I suspect. My suspicion, though, is there are other factors involved. Again, I cannot speak to how things go in the UK; in the U.S., there is much blather about “family unity” and “support” — but it really is just chatter. In practice, spouses (often very young spouses) are left to their own devices without any guidance. Alcohol abuse by servicemembers is a subject that I’ve discussed before (purely observational, no research into the topic); and very little is done to help a servicemember or his/her family when all of the “unit morale” gatherings bleed into the home life and wreak havoc there. I long felt (and still feel) as though it was a kind of conspiracy of silence.

Yes, I have many thoughts on how the time and distance of separation (coupled with the effects of war/violence on the human psyche) play out for servicemembers. Regulations regarding length of deployment changed under Bush43′s administration; prior to Afghanistan, active deployments were not terribly different from what you note for the UK (6 or 7 months – I don’t have the specific regulation, so I’m speaking from memory here). Under Bush43 & Co., deployments were extended and downtime between deployments was reduced by half. Half! On top of that, psychological services for servicemembers is another one of those subjects that I believe are “in name only”…just to look good on paper. But actual mental health services for servicemembers and their families is utter shit. That has been true since before I was born, and it has only gotten progressively worse, in my opinion. Not to mention, the machismo expectation by military command–which I firmly believe is one enormous contributing factor to the problems of PTSD and all of the complications connected to it.

Sorry for the delay in response, and for the textwall. I hope my thoughts are useful to you…and I’m glad to read that E is getting out. Happy for BOTH of you.

14

Ralph Hitchens 08.27.12 at 3:03 pm

Beautiful and heartbreaking. Jesus HC, Vietnam was a million years ago & I thought we had it rough (though I was unmarried at the time, relationships are hard to sustain in the best of circumstances). I wonder why the British troops have it so much harder in re. family communication than the US forces? A high-level command decision apparently. Would be an interesting exercise in military sociology to compare the two national approaches. Morris Janowitz, where are you when we need you?

15

Chaz 08.27.12 at 6:24 pm

I saw some research a few years ago from WWI that showed soldier morale and combat effectiveness dropping drastically after about 6 months on the front lines, and requiring well over a year of leave to be repaired. If that applies to the current war (I would speculate that WWI was harder on soldiers, but who knows, the conditions may not matter as much as the time), then most of the U.S. soldiers must be dazed automatons by now. I’m afraid I don’t have a link.

“I wonder why the British troops have it so much harder in re. family communication than the US forces? A high-level command decision apparently.”

Maria implies that it’s a budget issue. The U.S. does spend a lot more so I’d believe it. Plus, with the U.S.’s longer and more frequent tours these efforts to boost morale and keep soldiers connected to home probably feel a lot more urgent to the commanders. The British may just say, “Well you’re only here 6 months and then off for 2 yrs. You’ve already got it way better than the Americans so shut up and write a letter.”

16

JW Mason 08.27.12 at 7:06 pm

When I was doing policy for the New York Working Families party in the mid-2000s, we explored doing a big campaign around support services for military families. I’m sorry to say we didn’t end up doing anything with it (it didn’t help that New York has the lowest proportion of servicemembers in the country) but doing the preliminary research was really eye-opening for me in terms of how little support military families in the US get. Even health insurance is not guaranteed, never mind housing, and certainly never mind child care. And of course the situation for families of veterans is even worse.

While military and medical technology (and the demise of the USSR) means that combat is less immediately deadly for first-world soldiers than it was a generation ago (to say nothing of WW1, etc.), I think one consequence of the end of conscription that’s insufficiently recognized is how much older soldiers are than in the past and how many more of them have spouses and children. That creates, or at least exacerbates, another set of costs, as Maria so eloquently describes here.

17

straightwood 08.27.12 at 7:42 pm

There seems to be a strong desire to find continuity and rationality in the surreal and post-modern “war” in Afghanistan. The tactics of the insurgents inflict random casualties through ambush and IED attacks, and these tactics render conventional notions of battlefield heroism and campaign progress moot. Thus, the focus on “military life” as a central concern and the treatment of the absurd situation in Afghanistan as the war du jour. Making Afghanistan just another “deployment” normalizes the conflict and renders it acceptable.

The civilian population in the US, and presumably the UK, quietly accepts repeated declarations of “progress” in Afghanistan despite amply evidence that nothing of consequence has changed on the “battlefield” for years. It is this passive acceptance of endless war that Orwell chillingly predicted in 1984. It has now become the new normality.

18

John Quiggin 08.27.12 at 8:03 pm

Thanks so much for writing this, Maria.

One thing that’s struck me for a long time is that the armed forces continued to treat the relationship with their employees in 19th century master-and-servant terms long after everyone else (even police forces, for example) had been forced to change this. Essentially, it involves taking the battlefield power of unquestioned command, and applying it across the board. The obvious peacetime example is routine moves from one place to another – hugely destructive of family life, and a big reason people leave the military, but it can be done with the stroke of a pen.

This used to be balanced to some extent by paternalism – the army was the classic lifetme employer – but now it seems like the worst of both worlds. Forced redundancies and all the managerialist stuff that goes with that, combined with an authoritarian hierarchy that still thinks in terms of the King’s shilling.

19

r. laughlin 08.27.12 at 8:54 pm

boo hoo –
sounds luxurious compared to the ancient world war: Vietnam 67-8.

20

straightwood 08.27.12 at 9:33 pm

A thought experiment should set us all straight. If Maria’s husband could commute to a nearby office in which he could direct drones and robots to do the fighting on the other side of the world, all would be well, no? The endless killing in Afghanistan would then not be disruptive to the family life of the NATO soldiers. Would this not be a pleasing outcome?

21

peggy 08.27.12 at 10:42 pm

29 hours late, but “pompous windbag” predicted by #3 has finally arrived.

22

yonray 08.27.12 at 10:55 pm

@peggy and #3: yes – they’re here!
Maria – I join other commenters in thanking you for posting stuff I just don’t think I’d be able to read about anywhere else.
As it happens, I live in Spain and do actually take trips to Barcelona (or Madrid etc.) every now and then. I go further afield sometimes but even so I’m almost always back for the weekend. After these trips there’s always some domestic adjustments necessary, so I simply can’t imagine what it must be like after a long deployment. Or I can now, just a little bit.
You two are thick together and you have no complexes about it: good for you (you two, too).
Best

23

Meredith 08.28.12 at 3:24 am

What CPNorris said, Maria, about this essay’s deserving publication in a major magazine. And a larger public deserves ready access to it. Thank you.

A note on strains on marriages and other relationships: as a statistical matter, this shouldn’t be news. WWII veterans (whose deployments were not usually as long as what Maria describes and who had the full support and participation, even, of civilians at home) had a high rate of divorce so high that it kickstarted the general tolerance, then acceptance of divorce that social conservatives today so decry.

24

ajay 08.28.12 at 8:30 am

I saw some research a few years ago from WWI that showed soldier morale and combat effectiveness dropping drastically after about 6 months on the front lines, and requiring well over a year of leave to be repaired.

Current understanding is that you shouldn’t have troops in combat for more than roughly six months at a stretch, and, IIRC, not more than 250 days in their lives before they start to lose combat effectiveness.
Note, though, that that’s combat – not operational service. British troops in WW1, for example, almost never spent more than two weeks in the line at a stretch before being rotated out, first to the support lines and then to the rear areas for rest.

But even odder are the approximately dozen people who’ve asked me during E’s tour if I’m going out there to visit him.

OK, this cracked me up. If anything, I’d have thought that people would err the other way.

And a great piece of writing, thank you.

25

EWI 08.28.12 at 12:41 pm

I don’t come from the country my husband serves, but I’m still startled and moved at how proud I am of him and the people he serves with.

Proud of the people in his immediate working environment, or of the whole British Army etc.?

Just curious.

26

EWI 08.28.12 at 12:43 pm

@ ajay

Current understanding is that you shouldn’t have troops in combat for more than roughly six months at a stretch, and, IIRC, not more than 250 days in their lives before they start to lose combat effectiveness.

I’m interested to know if this lack of “combat effectiveness” includes mutiny and insubordination? I can imagine you’d start to get resentful after a period, considering how good a war many will undoubtedly be having.

27

LeftAtTheCross 08.28.12 at 12:50 pm

That’s a powerful piece of writing.

However, I am struck by the thought, and it has taken me a couple of days reflection to make this point, that the BA is a volunteer army, its members are not conscripted, it is the choice of the individuals to join and to serve. Not to overplay the freedom to act of course, but ultimately the people involved could refuse to go through with their assignment, not without consequences, but it is possible. That fact diminishes my sympathy for those involved.

I appreciate that there are questions of duty involved etc., but delving into that can of worms opens up the bigger questions of what is the BA doing in Afghanistan, and imperialism. That’s a long way from the individual suffering of the couple so humanly described in this piece of writing.

It’s a trite point but I’ll make it none the less that the victims of the BA’s aggression in Afghanistan don’t necessarily get the opportunity to pull on our heartstrings via the internet through pieces of writing like this.

War is sh1t really, for all those involved. Maybe people should stop being involved, where they do have those choices.

28

ajay 08.28.12 at 1:01 pm

26: I suppose it could. But in the British army it tended not to – it was the only major combatant in WW1 not to see large-scale mutinies in its ranks, for example.

27: Good point! I read a good article recently about the problems of single parents – largely, of course, single mothers – in coping during the economic downturn, especially with the threat of benefit and amenities cuts. But I am now struck by the thought, and it has taken me a couple of days reflection to make this point, that these women were not forced into sex, they made a free decision to become pregnant. Not to overplay the freedom to act of course, but ultimately the people involved could refuse to go through with motherhood, not without consequences, but it is possible. That fact diminishes my sympathy for those involved.

29

Ray 08.28.12 at 1:10 pm

Clearly what we need is a public education campaign. Rather than glamourising a career in the military, we should explain that there are many other ways to have fun in uniform. Teachers could demonstrate how not to sign enlistment forms (use a banana instead of a pen!) and other ways to avoid accidentally volunteering.

30

Maria 08.28.12 at 1:25 pm

Big thanks to the commenters who’ve complimented this article. I’ve noticed that when I write something so revealing, I tend to head for the hills for a couple of days, in terms of responding to commenters. It’s just a reaction to self-exposure, not a lack of appreciation for the kind things people have said.

As to it getting a bigger audience, I like writing this on a blog where I’m not worried about word count, deadlines and taking on a certain structure and tone that seems to be expected. The kind of NYT Modern Love sort of thing, or weekly peeps into family life that columnists do would feel very contrived (Not that anyone’s ever solicited my work for publication, either!). But many thanks to CP and others for the sentiment.

Now that I’m finally ducking my head back out from under the duvet, some responses to other comments below.

31

Katherine 08.28.12 at 1:25 pm

It is in fact possible to have Views about British aggression in Afghanistan and imperialism, as well as being unhappily cogniscent of the fact that many/most of the war’s victims in Afghanistan don’t have the ability to publish accounts of their experiences, without coming to a piece expressing personal anguish over the absence of a loved one who is a soldier and pissing all over it like you’re marking your political territory.

Maria, I hope your husband comes home sfe and sound and that things become easier thereafter.

32

Barry 08.28.12 at 1:28 pm

To the moderators – please get out the ban-jackhammer, and have at these guys. The rate of trolls is increasing sharply.

33

Maria 08.28.12 at 1:31 pm

Satan Mayo – I know what you mean about the imperialist pig line of argument, but as I’m not 100% unsympathetic to those sentiments, I don’t mind those comments as long as they don’t derail the thread entirely.

Thanks, Lynn. I actually did flick through my mother-in-law’s copy of the Joanna Trollope at Christmas. I also heard a piece about it on Radio 4, with army wives saying how realistic it seemed. From my fairly superficial speed-read, I took two things. First, that Trollope dodges the ‘joyful reunion’ moment of when the husband comes back, early in the book. As both an army wife and an aspiring novelist, I really felt that was such a dramatic moment (the only one where you can really let your emotions rip), that I thought somewhat less of the book for not including it. Also, I disliked the notion – sorry, plot-spoiler ahead – that the impossible conflicts between the army and family life could be even partially addressed in the plot by the main character becoming ‘the first army wife welfare officer’. It just seemed too pat. But there were many parts of the book I found not just well-observed, but truthful and apt.

34

Maria 08.28.12 at 1:43 pm

Hi again, Denise,

I take your point about certain aspects of army culture perpetuating what may be unsound marriages. It’s purely subjective, but I get the feeling the US military puts more pressure on wives to stand by their man, etc. etc. So, in a way, it’s the worst of all possible worlds with deployment and constant moving (and yes, a big drinking culture) being actively destructive to family life, and then huge peer pressure on women to stay in bad marriages.

Also, wow, GWB really did a number on the armed forces, didn’t he? I’m astonished at how many US military are Republican-supporting, given the abysmal record re. veterans and serving soldiers. The treatment of US reservists seems much more unsympathetic than what the Territorial Army over here get, too.

Also, what you, Chaz and Ajay have to say about six-month tours is eye-opening. My thoughts on it were purely a hunch, based on observation. It’s very worrying that there’s clearly a lot of research and solid data about the destructiveness of the US’s 11-month and repeated tours, but that they are now the accepted norm.

Also, one thing E’s stressed frequently – before he deployed – was that PTSD in the pure, clinical form is relatively rare. Where you get a lot of problems are the lower level but terribly harmful destructive behaviours tied up in alcoholism, depression, drug abuse, domestic violence, and so on. i.e. the incidence is so much higher amongst post-deployed men, but, as someone on the thread mentioned, these are under-reported and under-treated, and so very widespread.

35

Maria 08.28.12 at 1:46 pm

There’s sympathy with a view-point, and allowing trolls to derail. (Point taken, Barry.)

r.laughlin – you are banned from any further comments on this thread.

straightwood – you are banned from any further comments on this thread.

I will put any comments from you in moderation and delete them. If you persist in trying to comment, you will be banned from this blog altogether.

36

Maria 08.28.12 at 1:49 pm

Ralph and Chaz, re. the communications issue – I’m just presuming it’s a budget issue. I’ve heard some of the usual security hocus-pocus in relation to Skype. But if the Americans are using it, given their often OTT approach to comms security, I expect that is just an excuse.

And yes, given the shorter tours UK military do, it’s not the end of the world that our comms are so bad. I just wish people didn’t assume we were on bloody Skype with our soldiers every bloody morning!

37

Manta 08.28.12 at 1:50 pm

Beautiful and moving piece.

Maria’s husband is someone who chose a military career, and now he fights a war he knows and admits has no purpose.
As a human being, he (and Maria) have all my sympathy (it is quite possible that in similar circumstances I would behave the same way); but, as a person who tries to think rationally, I find his behaviour a perfect example of the expression “the banality of evil”.

38

Maria 08.28.12 at 1:55 pm

EWI @25 – my pride stretches only to the soldiers I know, for the most part. I don’t have an abstract pride in the BA as a whole, though I do have a greater appreciation than before for what many of the individuals within it do. And no, though not that you’ve asked, the Union Jack does not now make my little heart beat any faster.

39

Maria 08.28.12 at 2:02 pm

Hello, Leftatthecross. I can go as far as saying E chose the army – though the government chooses the wars – and I chose E. But it’s not like I picked him out of a catalogue and ‘selected in’ for the military, myself.

You’re not saying this at all, but you would be amazed by how many people say to military spouses ‘you knew what you were getting in for’. a) no I did not! and b) people are people, not packages of attributes you get to click out of.

As to the Afghans (and Iraqis, and Bosnians, and Northern Irish, etc. etc.) who’ve suffered and don’t get to write on this blog about it, yes, that’s true. Part of why I am writing about my own experience is to both show and interrogate the idea that someone can love the man, disagree with the effectiveness or even on occasion morality of the mission, still feel proud and still know that this is a very low rung on the ladder of human suffering. All without, I hope, being intellectually or emotionally dishonest.

40

ajay 08.28.12 at 2:03 pm

Also, what you, Chaz and Ajay have to say about six-month tours is eye-opening. My thoughts on it were purely a hunch, based on observation.

Thanks – I should stress that I’m basing this purely on what I can remember from lectures on post-deployment issues several years ago now, and you shouldn’t regard my comments as load-bearing structures. But the point was made in these lectures that the six-month tour length was specifically chosen because that’s the longest you can be expected to be in combat without efficiency starting to drop off fast, partly but not entirely due to psychological issues. And, of course, six months in Helmand pretty much is six months in combat; not like fighting in, say, NW Europe in 1944 or 1916, when you would spend a good deal of time in reserve or rest areas.

Another note: for at least some of the time in Iraq, the US army was working not on 12-month tours but 15-month tours. Not sure how much leave that included.

41

Maria 08.28.12 at 2:06 pm

By the by, E. thinks very differently to me on many topics, particularly army ones. All these are emphatically my views, not his.

42

Manta 08.28.12 at 2:11 pm

@41: I completely misunderstood this point, Maria: then apologies for my comment @37

43

Maria 08.28.12 at 2:29 pm

No worries, Manta. Thank you.

44

Tim 08.28.12 at 2:34 pm

Maria, as an American Army officer who recently returned from Afghanistan, I found your essay fascinating. Your experience – the mixed emotions leading up to the actual day of deployment, the clueless questions from people (“Are you planning to go visit him over there?”), concerns about “the mission” and the government’s handling of the war and the troops – almost exactly mirrored the experience of my wife and other American military spouses.

My wife and I were both surprised by the challenge of resuming life after the deployment. My mentors told me about this before I deployed, and they were spot-on. She reported feeling like she wasn’t in control anymore, and feeling like I was intruding on her space and disrupting her routine. Then she felt guilty for getting upset because she had been so excited for me to come home. Her expectation was that everything would be perfect and she’d be really happy, but reality did not meet expectations despite my best efforts. Like a just-married couple that moves in together for the first time, I think you have to go through a painful period of adaptation again. I realized that we had to talk about everything well in advance (when we would eat, what we would eat, what time we’d go to the gym, who would drive, etc.) until we established a routine together.

Since you wondered about the year-long deployments we’ve been doing in the US Army, I’ll tell you that I don’t think it changes the experience a whole lot. You get into a new routine, and time just marches on. The total amount of time deployed, however, does seem to lead to a higher divorce rate and incidence of PTSD and its effects among our troops. For us, the ability to communicate back home varies with location. Thousands of American troops at small outposts are cut off from the world just as your husband was. I was fortunate to have internet in my tent, so we could Skype daily. That can be problematic too. My base came under attack half a dozen times while we were on Skype. One day my wife heard a rocket fly over my head, explode 100 meters from my tent, and watched as I dove for cover.

45

Maria 08.28.12 at 2:55 pm

Hi Tim,

Thanks so much for your comment. I’m amazed even Americans think we wives are popping back and forward to Afghanistan for conjugal visits!

I’m wondering if, just as a deployment seems to start 6 months before it actually does, whether it’ll take that long again for us to get back to normal, or a new normal. That’s a really good tip on how to manage the adaptation, i.e. talking through all the day to day stuff you don’t need to think about when you’re in sync. I’ve had the run of the house, car and all of it for many months. Our CO joked that when the men come home, we may have trouble relinquishing the remote control. Yes, and some.

Speaking only for myself, I think another thing to work through when he comes home is my unfair & irrational but nonetheless real anger at him for leaving me. It’s so stupid and mundane, how this stuff manifests. Only today I was out fighting with the lawnmower and caught myself thinking ‘and he NEVER mows the lawn. He’s ALWAYS in bloody Afghanistan’…

On the possibility of having too much contact, wow, I don’t know how I’d react if I saw E. ducking for cover. Less is certainly more, sometimes. A friend of mine in DC made a student documentary a couple of years ago about how being in touch with their families all the time puts pressure on soldiers. An extreme example: She had some amazing footage of wives in the delivery ward with the laptop and Daddy on skype by the bed. But that would be pretty hard to live through, if you’re thousands of miles away and can’t do anything to help our partner. Even just being expected to take part in day-to-day family tiffs on the one hand, and then go out patrolling or whatever on the other, sounds hard to manage.

Thanks for commenting and enjoy your well-deserved time at home.

46

Lynne 08.28.12 at 3:43 pm

Maria,

This made me laugh out loud: “Only today I was out fighting with the lawnmower and caught myself thinking ‘and he NEVER mows the lawn. He’s ALWAYS in bloody Afghanistan’…”

Very true, and more so for women raising families alone—could the army deploy a single-parent father? Isn’t the fact that they deploy fathers assuming they have two employees for the price of one, as churches used to assume of their clergy? The military is not the only employer to do that, of course—many companies expect their employees to travel, assuming the other spouse will take care of home and hearth for weeks at a time. I’ve been that spouse, and was unamused that my husband’s travel time was never made up for in days off when he got home to me and our small children.

But I came back here to reply to your comment on Trollope’s novel. She may be my favourite novelist, but I did not think this novel was successful, mainly because of the end. As you said, she skipped over the joyful reunion, and that way missed a chance to show the reader what the woman loved about her husband. As it was we saw none of his good points and all the many downsides to the wife being married to him so I kept thinking she should leave him, though I didn’t think Trollope would choose that ending.

Oh, I hear you about ducking out for a time after posting something personal. But you’re back now. ;)

47

Tim 08.28.12 at 4:07 pm

Despite the enormous cost to taxpayers, all the flags and bumper stickers, and frenzied activity of our military, the civil-military gap here in America is very wide. Only 0.5% of the population serves on active duty, and that 0.5% comes from an even smaller percentage of families (we joke that it’s a family business). That disconnectedness results in a lot of wild misconceptions about how we live and what we do. Some people sent me care packages full of cheap canned foods as if I were starving and homeless over there, and they talked to my wife as if my death or injury from combat were inevitable. Other people, in addition to asking my wife about plans to visit, would ask me questions like, “What is there to do for fun on the weekends over there?” My own mother asked me how I was planning to spend the 4th of July since she figured, of course, that none of us would be working on the holiday. It can be frustrating, but I try not to fault people for their lack of understanding. I’m probably just as clueless about people in some other unique walk of life.

My wife reported feeling the same irrational, inexplicable anger toward me for leaving her and going to Afghanistan on several occasions.

You make an astute point about daily communication with family putting more pressure on troops. I remember one night when another guy in my tent (Sam) was listening to his wife talk about their son who had gotten into trouble at school. Sam’s wife then told their son to sit down in front of the computer and she asked Sam scold him and administer discipline via Skype. He did, and listening to the whole thing felt surreal for me. Being able to continue acting as a functioning member of the family while in combat on the other side of the world can be great, but it’s also asking a lot on top of everything else that a soldier has to deal with.

48

Denise 08.28.12 at 4:47 pm

Hi Tim,

*nodding emphatically*

I agree that the continuity of family life and involvement may place too much pressure on servicemembers (I mean, honestly, it’s not as though having your life on the line daily is enough pressure, eh? /sarcasm). I’m reminded, though, of a comment my ex made about this topic when he returned from Afghanistan. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said that talking with the kids (including occasional discipline) lent a sense of normalcy to an otherwise godawful circumstance, and being a parent (if in absentia) brought him an immense sense of comfort that he otherwise might not have had.

I suppose, in the end, it’s a fine line to skate, balance-wise.

And…welcome home. :-)

49

ajay 08.28.12 at 5:00 pm

On the possibility of having too much contact, wow, I don’t know how I’d react if I saw E. ducking for cover. Less is certainly more, sometimes.

Related, I’ve got my own grandfather’s letters home to family and friends from WW2 – he was MO of an infantry battalion – and there is a definite difference between the sets [stuff I put in my letters home to Mum and Dad] and [stuff I put in my letters home to my friends from university]. Mum and Dad get interesting buildings, encounters with fellow Scots, the occasional bird spotted near their bivouac. The friends get phrases like “the other end of the barn in which we had set up the RAP was being shelled continuously by an 88″ and a bit more detail about exactly what state the fellow Scots were in when he encountered them.

50

r. laughlin 08.28.12 at 5:02 pm

just to Maria — since I can no longer comment…

I was drafted in 1966 and spent the years 1967-68 filling about 7,000 body bags… I was in graves detail and photographed remains for identification and certification.

War lasts because it is made comfortable. to those who see if from a remote, ideal vantage point, and … ah what’s the use.

See Ya and That Is All Folks.

51

Denise 08.28.12 at 5:03 pm

Hi again, Maria,

Two comments you made (@34) helped to pull a couple of things from my memory. I’m going to attempt to articulate clearly — we’ll see how successful I am (lol).

The question of American military and Republican support. I don’t know what the percentages are between Republican/Democrat/Independent/Other – I’ve never searched for the numbers. Off the cuff, though, I would guess that more than half of the military leans Republican, and the reasons for this (I suspect) are multifaceted. There is a longstanding “rumor” (in quotes because I’m not sure what else to call it) that the military fares better under a Republican administration. Frankly, given the actual history, I personally disagree strongly with that assessment; the rumor, however, is pervasive, and it is perpetuated in civilian circles as well as military circles. Another facet, I think, has to do with what news is made available (cough-propaganda-cough). The most commonly read newspaper by most of the soldiers I knew during the entire course of my marriage with the ex was “USAToday” — which is chock full of right-wing talking points. (sigh)

The second comment was E’s assertion about PTSD. Quite likely, he is correct in the purest clinical sense – in terms of the checklist symptoms-to-diagnosis. The memory that surfaced when I read that, though, was of a man I met when I was living in Hawai’i. I worked at a clinic there, and one of the patients there (initially unbeknownst to everyone) suffered from PTSD (Vietnam era). Imagine my shock when he flashed back while I was recording his vitals. I had never actually seen a full-blown PTSD flashback, and this (truly wonderful) man transformed before my eyes. Bearing in mind when the Vietnam War ended, and the experience I’m sharing occurred in 1998…how many servicemembers remain undiagnosed for decades? Even my dad (Korean conflict era) has said he still has nightmares, and he’s in his 80s now.

There is just so much that needs to be explored…and my heart hurts for so many men and women who put everything on the line, and how badly our government (no matter which political party is in office) has failed them.

52

EWI 08.28.12 at 6:39 pm

@ Maria

It’s not just GWB and the US military. I’ve spent my adult life in the (Irish) Defence Forces and the observable change in outlook has been marked even in twenty or thirty years of exposure to increasingly prevalent right-wing Anglo media and culture which glorifies militarism. Neutrality, non-alignment, respect for the Geneva Conventions, even decency towards civilians (seen as the enemy in many ways) are not popular among the younger generations. A lot of the sentiments you routinely hear echo the worst of what has scandalised in the conduct of Western military adventurism of the past.

The private forums on IrishMilitaryOnline and the like would give your average Tea party blog a run for their money in terms of racism, xenophobia and all round Tory/Republican-like worldview (including hate aimed at their direct Irish military predecessors of a hundred years ago, bizarrely enough).

53

Tim 08.28.12 at 7:40 pm

As far as political leanings of American service members, I recall seeing numbers published after the 2008 presidential election that showed 70% or more of service members had voted Republican. I’ll take a stab at why…

1. Denise is right about the persistent “rumor” that Republican politicians do more for the troops. Maybe it originated during the 1980s when we saw massive military spending under Ronald Reagan. Reality is that American military spending continues to accelerate regardless of which party is in power (because nobody wants to be accused of being weak on defense and not supporting the troops, and because defense contractors have cleverly spread themselves across voting districts all over the country).

2. At least in recent decades, Republicans have had unconditional love for everything related to the military. Democrats are more likely to question the conflicts we are in, the policies we have as an institution, etc. That’s not a bad thing for the nation, but many service members interpret it as criticism and disrespect from people (civilians) who, frankly, they believe are inferior (and that’s a whole other issue).

3. The sort of “tough love” policies proposed by Republicans resonate with us more than other groups of people. The prevailing culture of the military is “quit crying, quit coming up with excuses, quit asking me for a handout – I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth either so I played by the rules, joined the service, worked hard, and earned what I have in life – toughen up and you can do it too.” That’s what you’d expect to hear from your drill sergeant or first sergeant. We are talking about an organization that is heavily weighted with men who have very traditional views about males being tough and strong and able to take care of themselves. Some people think this is ironic because the government takes care of all our needs, but I disagree. Our relationship with the government is as employee-citizens, not merely citizens. The benefits are compensation for the job, not some kind of public entitlement or safety net. Again, the culture is one of “you get what you earn.”

54

Diz Pareunia 08.28.12 at 8:08 pm

What a strange world we have created, in which an apology is in order for being “hetero-normative”.

55

Meredith 08.28.12 at 9:44 pm

I don’t know how to thank Tim and others for their insights (with continuing thanks to Maria for prompting them). (I feel grateful even to r.laughlin, now that I’ve learned a little of his history.) Flashbacks, PTSD — yes, certainly. But the life-long effects of having seen combat (or having filled body bags, and god knows what other “ancillary” activities of military life) are life-changing no matter what. I grew up knowing that my uncle had a purple heart after being injured at Peleliu and that he also fought at Okinawa. Peleliu was the more formative experience for him, that was clear, but he refused to talk about it and insisted that he’d only gotten some shrapnel in his ass while sleeping in his tent. After he died (a little over 10 years ago), my father corresponded with some of my uncle’s old Marine buddies (though a college professor, musician, and a somewhat effete guy, my uncle maintained the most intimate connections with his WWII Marine buddies, from all walks of life). One of these guys detailed for my father their landing on Peleliu, drawing diagrams of exactly where they’d landed, the disposition of other American forces (mixed units) and the Japanese, the details of how it took them a full day to move 60 yards to the left their communications equipment since they’d landed in slightly the wrong place….

All this detail, some 50 years after the event. My uncle had never shared any of this with anyone in his family — and maybe the man writing my father had never shared the details with anyone in his family. But every moment still lived with the man (perhaps coming back to haunt him only in his old age), as they had no doubt lived with, and perhaps haunted, my uncle.

Just to say that post-combat “adjustments” go on for a life time.

56

Glenn 08.29.12 at 3:15 am

Hi Maria – this was a well-written and thoughtful piece. I am a Canadian civilian on a second tour in Afghanistan, with also a period away in Africa, and have experienced the sense of dislocation on return a couple of times. My tours are a year long, but mercifully not in combat – just stressful and uncomfortable but completely do-able. I don’t know how people survive the contrast between combat and home, then going back into combat. But some don’t, I guess. I have heard, anecdotally, that divorce, alcoholism and drug abuse are way up in the Canadian Forces. Some of these guys have done 6+ tours. Amazing how normal many of them are afterward.

57

ajay 08.29.12 at 10:58 am

I don’t know how people survive the contrast between combat and home, then going back into combat.

In this context, it’s interesting to note that bomber crews had the shortest tours – 25 missions – of any combat troops in WW2 before they were regarded as burned out. Part of this may be because of the very high casualty rates they suffered, but part of it may be the contrast that they experienced each time: living in the peaceful English countryside, and then flying over to cross the Kammhuber Line.

58

Denise 08.29.12 at 12:08 pm

Hi Tim,

I couldn’t help but chuckle (in that ironic way) when I read @53. I am routinely called a “liberal” the moment I open my mouth. I suppose, by American definitions, I probably am a “liberal.” Never minding that the American L-R spectrum sits entirely to the right of the international L-R spectrum.

When you noted the 2008 election, my immediate thoughts went to one John McCain, and my dad’s & my argument over him. I spent much of my youth in Arizona, and my dad has long disliked “The Maverick.” That said, when push came to shove in the voting box, my dad voted Republican. I won’t even go into SB1070, Jan Brewer, Joe Arpaio, etc….because those avenues of discussion move outside of the actual topic being discussed here about the military.

What surprises a lot of people when they learn a bit about me, though (and, incidentally, why I’m responding to you — since I have the sense that this factoid will amuse you), I spent all four years of my high school experience in JROTC. I walked away from three full-ride scholarships to the major AZ universities…and walked away from a nomination to the USAF Academy from the desk of none other than John McCain.

And…(nodding again at your #2 bullet point)…yes, the military typically views civilians in a distinctly inferior “other” category. That is another entirely separate conversation.

59

Denise 08.29.12 at 12:13 pm

Hi Meredith,

Your uncle, I would bet serious money on this, would not have spoken with anyone about his wartime experience except someone who had been through it. Not necessarily the same war…just another warrior. My dad’s best friend endured a different war than my dad did. So far as I know, my dad never EVER spoke to anyone about his experiences in Korea except to his best friend…who was a Vietnam vet. All dad ever says about Korea is that he hated the smell, though he does occasionally allude to a tree on the DMZ line and something he saw there. The story of the tree is (or used to be) available online. I’ll see if I can hunt it down and post it. It might help to read that…I know reading about that tree helped me a lot – opened my eyes to a few basic truths that I would not have otherwise understood about combat reality.

60

Denise 08.29.12 at 1:15 pm

Found it: The Axe Murder Incident.

61

LFC 08.29.12 at 2:12 pm

Re Tim @53 and Denise and others who may be interested:
On voting patterns of US military personnel and veterans, see the posts linked here.

62

Denise 08.29.12 at 2:27 pm

Oooh, thank you, LFC!

63

Uncle Kvetch 08.29.12 at 2:28 pm

At least in recent decades, Republicans Americans have had unconditional love for everything related to the military.

Fixed.

You have to go to the far-left fringe of public opinion to find anything but absolute, unquestioning reverence for the military in this country. “The Democrats don’t support the troops” is a (highly effective) fiction of the right-wing noise machine.

64

Philip 08.29.12 at 2:46 pm

Re this point: ‘I also think that if the government were equally proud, and truly believed in this war, it wouldn’t have neglected it in favour of starting another adventure, wouldn’t have under-resourced on kit and lied about it, wouldn’t under-provide for injured soldiers and their families, and wouldn’t be firing service men and women just months away from retirement.’

I’m not so sure, ISTM that there have always been problems of resourcing the BA or providing support for demobbed soldiers. Our attitudes toward the military are quite contradictory. There is pride for military successes but a lack of sympathy for individual soldiers, the government doesn’t provide what it should then there are charities like the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes. A lot of it is probably to do with the class system. There are also the contradictions in armistice day, is it honouring (glorifying) the dead or remembering the waste o f their lives?

Of my two granfathers one was in the Royal Artillery before WWII and was severely injured towards the end of the war, he lost an arm and an eye. The other one was Polish and was taken by the Germans when he was 18 and used as slave labour on the railways until he escaped in Italy and joined a Polish regiment in the BA, I know he fought in Monte Casino but he never discussed the war. My British grandfather did tell me Dad things and he heard his stories as he drove him to reunions.

When my Polish grandfather came to the UK he wanted to work as a joiner but couldn’t as the union wouldn’t let non-British nationals in. My British grandfather got a job operating the lift at the Post Office but felt that promises made to him weren’t kept. When my grandmother decided to marry him she got a lot of pressure, even from her family, e.g. ‘why can’t you marry a whole man?’. She later got MS so my grandfather had to take over more of the household tasks. He never saw himself as disabled and celebrated the anniversary of when he was blown up as ‘survival day’, though he did have nightmares of old battles when my dad was a kid.

65

Maria 08.29.12 at 3:20 pm

Diz @54 less an apology for this being a hetero-normative account than an acknowledgement of the many men and women, both straight and gay who both serve in the BA and have partners who do.

66

Maria 08.29.12 at 3:23 pm

EWI @52, wow, that’s pretty shocking. I never would have expected that brand of reflexive and poisonous right-wingnuttery to have made the leap to the Irish military. Depressing.

67

Maria 08.29.12 at 3:32 pm

Philip, yes the relationship between the British military and governments has been historically pretty ambivalent. I read Alan Mallinson’s The Making of the British Army a couple of years ago. It was a real eye-opener in that respect. I mentioned it in a post from a while ago on the creeping sentimentalisation of the BA.

Thanks for sharing the story of your grandfather. A friend was telling me only the other day of a Hungarian grand-parent (or possibly great-grandfather) who fought for Britain in WWI, was decorated, and then interned for much of WWII, leaving his family with no wages.

68

EWI 08.29.12 at 9:03 pm

@ Maria

The generational change has been something to see. We’re just another arm of the Western (and of course particularly Anglo) war machine in everything but a few legal restrictions now, and I expect those to be under serious attack soon enough, particularly given the signal of who our new Minister for Defence is (how many people realise that Irish troops have been sent to Afghanistan?).

69

Simeon Prowse 08.29.12 at 9:25 pm

Maria,

Your work is excellent and your sentiments (along with some of your frustrations) are echoed by my wife on a regular basis.

I know E and worked with him occasionally during his unit’s pre-deployment training, he does a wonderful job and is one of the small percentage of officers whom I believe are totally committed to the army with true selflessness (I’ve been in for 28 years and have met plenty that disappointly do not). That degree of effort does however come at a high cost to family life and I will be leaving the forces next year too as the return that we get for our dedication is not a price worth paying any longer.

I am biased as it written by my wife, but if anyone is interested in a book written by an Army wife about an Army wife then have a look at Poppy Day by Amanda Prowse. It is a work of fiction that starts with a young army wife whose husband is half way through a tour of duty in Afghanistan getting the knock on the door that families dread.

It asks the question ‘How far would you go to bring home the one you love?’ Originally printed by the Royal British Legion, 100% of the proceeds from it and all royalties have been donated to the RBL and it will be re-released this Nov, this time by a professional publisher who are honouring our pledge to give all monies to the RBL. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon at the following link.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Poppy-Day-Amanda-Prowse/dp/1781851115/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1346273888&sr=8-2

I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling it but the reviews from the first edition will give people an idea of some of the emotions that are explored in the book. This is probably a bit harder hitting and realistic than Joanna Trollope’s ‘The Soldier’s Wife’ as it is based on some personal experience. It is also very humourous though so is very uplifting (and it also has some great twists).

Alternatively, we will be at a Waterstones near you in December, it would be great to meet you, so please come and say hello (maybe bring your wives club along and we will sort out something special for you all). Details of event dates are at http://www.poppyday.co.uk or mail Amanda at amanda@poppyday.co.uk

Best regards,

Simeon

70

Meredith 08.29.12 at 11:39 pm

Denise, thank you for the link to the Axe Murder Incident. Just the kind of detail, most of it frighteningly mundane, that my uncle’s friend provided — and the sense of space, location, the map in the brain. The vividness.

71

Meredith 08.30.12 at 6:14 am

With apologies to those for whom, as primary actors or spouses or children or parents, these attempts at imagining are totally inadequate to the experience. We’re trying. We are longing for your return.

72

Maria 08.30.12 at 8:13 am

Hi Simeon, thank you for your kind words about E! It’s just as well he doesn’t have the Internet over there as he is generally mortified by my soppy outpourings around here. So it is very nice to hear him praised by someone who has worked with him.

Rushing out now to by a copy of Poppy Day.

73

ajay 08.30.12 at 3:15 pm

how many people realise that Irish troops have been sent to Afghanistan?

Not me for one. Seven of them, to be exact… I wonder what they’re doing? (quick google) “The seven Defence Forces personnel currently participating in ISAF are all located in ISAF headquarters in Kabul and work in staff appointments in planning and administrative roles. The Minister for Defence is satisfied that the work carried out by these personnel, particularly by those in the counter-improvised explosive device cell, represents an important contribution to this UN-mandated mission.”

74

Ian Razzell 09.01.12 at 3:35 pm

Maria,

I also know your husband and echo the thoughts of Simeon, I look forward to the return of the Bn and hope that you and E can get the quality time you need on his return. His committment, focus and true devotion to his chosen art are clearly echoed by yours as his devoted wife and confidente. Good luck to you both.

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Maria 09.02.12 at 6:00 pm

Ian,
Thank you so much! I am absolutely glowing, having read your comment. I can’t tell you how good it is to hear how well E is though of. I hope we get a chance to meet up, at some point. Warm wishes, m

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Helen Toal 09.02.12 at 6:47 pm

Hi Maria, Colin Murphy brought your piece to my attention, and I’m so glad, it is beautiful writing. I hope you are well. Best, Helen

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Adam 09.04.12 at 2:16 am

Just to give another perspective, I’m also the spouse of an Army officer, as well as an Army officer myself. I’m in an all-male combined-arms battalion, and she’s in a mostly-male field artillery battalion.

I have to say my experience is quite a bit different. First, we both work twelve-hour days and often through weekends to begin with, so neither of our lives grinds to a halt when the other isn’t there. In fact, it isn’t much different to have her away than it is to have her here, other than that the house is generally cleaner because there is only one person making a mess rather than two. All of our bills are paid by auto-debit out of a joint account, so there aren’t any financial issues.

I don’t even know any of the wives of her fellow officers and certainly don’t hang out with them in their husband’s (and my wife’s) absence, as frankly, that just feels extremely inappropriate. For her part, she has no involvement with the wives in my unit because she feels no kinship with non-working women whose main concern is family (which we don’t have) and getting their husbands back (I don’t get the impression she much cares whether I’m here or not except to mow the lawn). Her experience is just too different from theirs.

We did go through many of the same issues the last time we reunited after a deployment (last fall). It was awkward just being around each other for a long time. We’ve had sex twice in the last year. She constantly yells at me about tiny things that she would find anyone else insane for getting mad about, like leaving a damn beer bottle on the table overnight rather than putting it immediately into the recycling bin. I actually appreciate the Army’s attempts at behavioral health services. We went through marriage counseling for a while. It was free, and the counselor seemed to know what she was doing. My wife was rarely able to show up, though. She couldn’t commit to dates in advance and cancelled all the time. You’re supposed to get out of virtually anything for a medical appointment, but she wouldn’t admit to anyone she had appointments because she doesn’t want to appear weak as a woman trying to cut it in a male profession.

I doubt our marriage will survive. I’m extremely unhappy, and though she never talks to me about anything other than work and triathlons, I imagine she isn’t very satisfied, either. We’d be divorced already, but I just don’t know what else I’d do. Neither of us wants to be single. It’s expected of officers to be married and it’s certainly easier to get by with two incomes. I have no interest in supporting a non-working wife, but the locations of Army posts and the periodic moves make it nearly impossible to find civilian employment for a woman as educated as me, and I’d like to be married to someone with comparable education (second-tier schools, but two masters degrees). Frankly, I don’t want to put someone through this who actually loves me and at least I know with my current wife that she definitely chose this life for herself and can’t blame me.

I’ll probably be out after my current contract, for all the typical reasons: to make more money, work shorter hours, stay in the country, and live in a real city again that has educated single women as part of its population. It’s too bad because I love my job. I love my soldiers. I can’t imagine getting the same level of satisfaction from any other type of work, so regularly watching teams come together and watching young people making major life progress and accomplishing things they’d have never thought possible, certainly things I’d not have accomplished as a teenager. I’ll never have another job where I’ll trust every single coworker with my life. I’d like to have a real marriage at some point, though, and it’s just not possible like this.

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Troy 09.04.12 at 9:34 am

Love this — spot on and so heartfelt. Reading your breakdown brings me back to do many of the same feelings .. I am so thankful you have shared this. If you do not mind, I would love to share this on my blog — http://thelieutenantswife.blogspot.com/2011/07/my-therapy-experiment.html?m=0

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Phil 09.04.12 at 10:26 am

Belief in the mission is irrelevant

This is one of those things that civilians tend not to understand, but once you see it from the forces perspective[2] it’s blindingly obvious. We nearly had a fight break out at our singaround one week when a squaddie came in and told us his story[1]: the key point was that he was going to be shipped out either just before or just after the New Year, which (just to add insult to injury) would also mean leaving either just before or just after his birthday, and the army couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him which it was going to be. Anyway, that – and his obvious state of distress and anger, not helped by the beer – was difficult, but it would have been manageable. What nearly pushed things over the edge was a well-meaning (and rather drunk) sympathiser – We’re behind you! We want to bring you all home – they should never have sent you out there! and so on. This made the guy get really agitated – Don’t say that! Don’t say that! You can’t say that, you don’t know what you’re talking about! – to the point where they very nearly came to blows.

The thing is, whatever else about the rights and wrongs of military service – and about the suffering that gets inflicted on other people as a result – it is a very, very hard job, and you don’t want to make it even harder. Believing in the mission would make it harder, because any failure or screw-up would really matter – and of course, not believing in the mission would make it a lot harder. So you get the “pride in the job” mentality – just doing a job and doing it as well as we can – and if you can also point to something good that happened because you were there, so much the better.

[1] We brought this on ourselves. The problem was that the pub had a new barman, and when an unfamiliar but efficient-looking figure appeared in the doorway somebody called out “Here’s Chris the new barman! A big hand for Chris!” Whereupon he naturally explained that he wasn’t Chris the barman, he was Joe the squaddie, and…

[2] I am of course a civilian, but I lived in a Forces town – well, a Forces rural backwater – when I was a kid, and I’ve always had a definite respect for a certain kind of military worldview. The sense always was that anything you could do with muscle, firepower and organisation, they could do it – with the subtext that actually there wasn’t much you couldn’t do with those three things, if push came to shove. This also relates to the sense of superiority to civilians, I think – if you thought that, with a bit of effort, the Army could be ruling the country by the end of the month (I mean, who’d stop them?), it would be hard not to feel that civilians didn’t have a clue.

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SamJohnson 09.04.12 at 10:57 am

This article is well worth a read http://truth-out.org/news/item/11211-your-must-do-assignment-for-this-year-read-this-chart-and-pass-it-on

I spent some years going through separations of varying durations while working in the international development business, one of two years with just annual leave trips home, when it was no longer possible to keep a family overseas.

The thought that haunted me constantly was what could be achieved for peace and development with just 1% of what the world spends on weapons. 57 cents of every $1 of tax raised in the US — more than all the rest of the world combined.

I grew up in Ireland and in my first job I worked for a man who had been kicked and insulted and told by British soldiers to walk in the gutter when passing certain buildings — in Dublin, his own city. I can only imagine how an Iraqi or an Afghan must feel being on the receiving end of occupation (my boss joined the IRA; hearing his account of the chain of a getaway bicycle breaking after an ambush was rite of initiation). Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars — a good single volume history that links together a lot of familiar detail — has a passage on the effects of men invading and searching women’s quarters (a serious taboo), and doing so with dogs (regarded as unclean). Actions that could not be more effective in ensuring that some wives will not see their husbands again. The stupidity of “hard power” at times is beyond staggering.

E is very likely a thoughtful and intelligent man. This helps limit the damage, not just to the other side but our own. But, really, a plough (plow) would be cheaper and fewer would die — and for nothing too.

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rf 09.04.12 at 12:02 pm

“Belief in the mission is irrelevant”

I don’t know about this. Perhaps it depends on your role in the military, (are you a career soldier etc), but anyone I’ve ever met that served in Afghanistan, (generally from the demographic that joined in their late teens and quit in their mid-twenties, )has been pretty adamant that they knew what the mission was and ‘believed’ in it to some extent. It might not have been the main reason they signed up, but it wasn’t irrelevant, especially not as they justified it to themselves in civilian life. I think Phil’s story reinforces that point, it has to mean something to the people that fought it. How could it not?

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Phil 09.04.12 at 12:11 pm

I think Phil’s story reinforces that point, it has to mean something to the people that fought it.

Not really. As I understand it there’s a pride in doing as good a job as possible – and upholding the honour of the army – in whatever circumstances, for whatever overall political purpose, alongside that refusal to argue the rights and wrongs. Geopolitically it might be an utterly pointless mess, but you still go where you’re sent, do as good a job as possible and (further down the list) try to stay alive. This may be a British thing, though (see also ajay’s point on our lack of a history of mutinies).

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rf 09.04.12 at 12:18 pm

“This may be a British thing, though”

Its been British soldiers I’ve met. I never found that to be honest. (In fact quite the opposite, you couldnt get them to stop talking about it!)

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AR 09.05.12 at 5:31 pm

I’ve been behind in my reading and Brad said it all. “Your ability to frame emotional candor with an unsurpassed skill at using the written word is as enlightening, as it is humbling. Thank you for provoking thought on matters of the heart as much as of the mind! You and Ed are both pretty amazing people!”
Thanks for sharing Girlfriend.

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Brendan 09.07.12 at 10:11 am

Marie,

I heard your interview on RTE radio yesterday.

I found your piece very interesting and gave me a better perspective on how the difficulties my wife experienced while I was on deployments. I enjoyed my time in the Services and it gave me great benefits/ experiences which have been very useful in civilian life, I have no regrets about leaving the military., it was part of my life but I have moved on as I have no doubt your Ed will do the same.

Congrats on the blog.

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Claire Sutton 09.11.12 at 10:39 am

Hi Maria,

My name is Claire Sutton and I work for Newstalk radio station. We are a national broadcaster here in Ireland and Winner of PPI 2011 Station of the Year!

I produce a Saturday afternoon chat and music show called Shenanigans which airs from midday until 2pm.

The presenter is Sile Seoige

We would love to have you on the show to talk about what you have written about being the wife of a deployed British soldier

We could pre-record over the phone or do live over the phone

Can you let me know if this is possible?

I would appreciate if you could pass me your number so i can give you a call or you can email me on clairesutton@newstalk.ie

Kind regards,
Claire
_____________________________________________
Claire Sutton
Producer -Shenanigans with Síle Seoige
Producer -Under the Covers with Henry McKean
Newstalk 106–108 fm
Marconi House, Digges Lane, Dublin 2.
Tel: + 353 1 644 5115
Fax: + 353 1 661 1602
http://www.newstalk.ie

Newstalk 106 – 108 fm – PPI Station of the Year 2011

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Hilda Ferguson 09.11.12 at 12:15 pm

Congrats on your interview and your writing, so clear a picture of the awful time before as the date draws closer, and the actual day; as a merchant navy wife in my younger days I can identify with many of the emotions and reactions you describe.

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Laura Maher 09.15.12 at 8:24 pm

Maria, thank you for writing this accurate and honest blog. My husband is a deployed officer in Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. He is from Dublin and so many of his friends and family just don’t get what he’s doing or what I am dealing with at home, we like you have had Irish family asking if I was going out there to join him! like yourselves we have no children ( a bit tricky when your husband is away as much as they are pre tour) we have been married just over a year and he was inevitably in Afghanistan for our first wedding anniversary. We have spent 80% of our first year of marriage apart and the time we had together before he left was just as you described. He left mentally months before he actually deployed.

I sympathise with what you say about your military wife friends, I know the close friends I have made during my husbands deployment will be friends for life and no one understands the daily angst like another wife. We are being posted the week my husband returns from Afghan so I will be running the gauntlet of moving house and setting up home with my husband after months of separation and the inevitable distance that creates whilst leaving my support network behind, I know I am going to miss them and it’s going to be really hard, we have been each others family for the last six months.

So much of what you said rings true to me, forgetting the sound of their voice, trying to deal with utility bills, insurance, banking. I had to look twice at him in Brize when he came home for R&R he looked so different and so so tired.

I have less than 2 weeks to go now and the dread you describe is so accurate, today’s news reportings I am sure you will understand causing that dreaded stomach churning horror. I know he is fine, he managed to email me and tell me not to panic but it brings the fear right up there.

Thank you for writing this blog, I believe you have been all over the Irish media. My father in law told me about your blog tonight when he called to check that everything was ok ( he has just seen the news). He said he wanted to come and give you a big hug, he was horrified to realise what life was like for us. If your blog has helped even just one member of my extended family comprehend what we as military wives are dealing with theuniform fateful.

Yes, I dig the uniform, I can’t wait to see my man come through those sliding doors in Brize, i am undescribably proud of him and thankful every day for him, it’s not easy, but it is worth it and I know we are stronger as a couple because we got through this together.

Thank you for articulating my reality.

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leederick 09.16.12 at 1:01 am

“anyone I’ve ever met that served in Afghanistan, (generally from the demographic that joined in their late teens and quit in their mid-twenties, )has been pretty adamant that they knew what the mission was and ‘believed’ in it to some extent. It might not have been the main reason they signed up, but it wasn’t irrelevant, especially not as they justified it to themselves in civilian life… How could it not?”

I completely agree with this. It might have been different with say the Falklands, but we’ve been at war in Afghanistan for almost 11 years now. Anyone currently involved would absolutely have known what they were signing up to do.

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Maria 09.17.12 at 8:29 am

Hi Laura,

Thanks so much for your comment. Lots of it rings true for me, especially the guilty double-take as he comes through the doors. Your father in law sounds like a dote! I went on the radio twice, and I think I’m definitely done, now. But it was amazing how much interest there was and yes, I hoped it might explain things a bit to those connected as well as satisfying some of the wider curiousity.

Wow, good luck with moving the same week he comes home… That is a big ask! I really hope his next job brings some more time for you together. All my very best to you, m

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Jessica 10.17.12 at 9:22 pm

My husband is in Afghanistan now. Its the first time he has been away since I have been with him.

Not to critisise what you have written, because this is your experience but I don’t recognise this at all. I am in my 30s and we haven’t been married long. I have known that my husband would be going away for some time now so I’ve been prepared for this. He speaks to me a few times a week, he doesn’t expect me to stay in to wait for his call, if I’m in, I’m in. He has told me that he wants me to stay the way I always have been. So I’m going out every weekend just like I normally do – In no way does it feel a betrayal to “wear lipstick or a skirt”- I do this when he is at home and I go out alone so why not now – My husband would expect no less of me. Why would this be a betrayal?? My husband married a woman who takes pride in her appearance and enjoys dressing up for the sake of dressing up. I don’t do it to please him, or to please other men. I do it becuase I like doing it.

I look forward to hearing from him, but I appreciate my independence – and since we are thinking about starting a family when he comes home this is probably my last chance to have a quiet house and an undisturbed lie-in!

We don’t live on base and I have my own circle of friends who have nothing to do with the Army. They check how I am but I’ve made it clear I don’t want to waffle on about my husband, I want to get on with the here and now. He will be back soon enough, and we can pick up where we left off.

Please don’t think I’m cold or un-loving. My husband is without doubt my best friend. I love him and I miss him. But I am an independent woman and, just like when he is home, I have my own focus and interests and life goes on.

Before he deployed, I attended a briefing and was horrified at the dated, patronising information we were given (‘do make the effort to get out of the house while he is away’ – seriously???!!! and ‘make sure he tells you where the important documents are kept and where the fuse box/ stopcock/lawnmower is kept’ – I know ALL these things – its my husband that doesn’t!!!)

Becuase of the way we are, while he is away, he knows he doesn’t need to worry about me, which means that he can focus on what he is doing without worrying that I’m not coping, and I can focus on what I’m doing. I work in quite a serious, involved and often dangerous job and I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t have this attitude.

My life isn’t on hold while he is away. The thought of that horrifies me because we are very much a marriage of equals. Because of this attitude, every time we do speak, we have a great catch up and are happy to be able to chat, and we know that when he comes home we both have lots to tell each other.

Like I say, each to their own. I’m looking forward to him coming home, but I believe in living every day to the full and I’m not going to miss out on enjoying 6 months of my life because my husband isn’t here. I couldn’t deal with him being away in any other way!

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Rachel 11.30.12 at 6:23 pm

I cannot comment enough on how much this resonated with me, even though it is the US Infantry that my husband is a part of. You have stated so much of what we experience, as well ( also, not all the American forces have good contact/communication – in 3 12-month tours, we’ve been able to use a webcam exactly two times, it’s all about luck and where someone is stationed).

I don’t think most people are aware of the long hours that get put in prior to deployment, and how a soldier is mentally half-gone before he ever leaves the country. In fact, I don’t think most people are aware of much that occurs in the deployment process.

Also, I must say, it made me laugh to read comment about people asking if you can go visit him. I think it might be one of the most common questions that I get asked! :)

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Craig 12.11.12 at 10:09 am

What fantastic words you write, very descriptive ands emontional. I am a soldier of 21 years and have done my fair share of deployments. My first marriage ended with a mixture of me being unable to get back into life, being continually restless, bored and doing some things that I now regret. I didn’t understand any of what was going on until I was diagnosed with PTSD after my divorce.
Years later I can now read your story and empathise with those left at home.
I grew up around the Army (pad brat), but I had forgotten what its like to be the one left at home waiting and trying to catch a glimpse of my dad on the tv.
Your story should be published to the wider community, the sooner that people realise that we are not going away to summer camp and that our job effects everyone around us, often moreso, the sooner people might have more understanding.
I know when we go away we are purely focused on our task, we have no thoughts on politics, we have trained and we have a job to do, but its when we are crashed out in our bunks after a long hot day that we think of home, when we wish we were elsewhere, at home in a warm clean bed, but these thoughts fade with sleep and the next days task or patrol. Your words bring it all home, thank you.

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