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.