Due to the sensitive nature of the military member’s profession, this article is posted anonymously.
With the start of a new decade, I have found myself looking back at the past ten years. I began the year 2000 with nothing but bright horizons and no idea of what was in store for me. I didn’t realize that my whole world would change because of two little words: I do.
Making the decision to get married for me was not easy. I know you are probably asking yourself, “What’s the big deal? Lots of people get married!” You see, the biggest obstacle for me was that by putting that ring on my left hand, I wasn’t just becoming a wife; I was becoming an Air Force wife. I was entering unchartered territory into more than a marriage but an entire new lifestyle.
Two weeks after my wedding, I said goodbye. The Adonis that had stolen my heart boarded that airplane grinning, nervous, and cracking jokes. When I saw him again, all those months later, I was stunned at the change. He’d added muscle to an already athletic frame but he was so thin that even his mother had trouble recognizing him. His demeanor was entirely different as well. He’d become serious and cynical. His eyes seemed to observe everything around us before he reacted. When he talked about his training, it included hand to hand combat, grenades, rifles, pistols, driving techniques, pressure points, joint manipulation, apprehension and restraint maneuvers, convoy procedures, and lessons in emergency medical care. It is a bitter pill to swallow to realize that the government has turned the person you love into a combat ready, trained weapon.
That shock was only the first of many because the Air Force decided that our first base was going to be two thousand miles from home. So at eighteen, I packed up and left my friends and family behind. My days became a blur of his training and learning to live on my own in a world that has its own language and uses acronyms for everything. There were times that he wasn’t able to come home for days on end and I had no idea what he’d been doing. He’d just call to say that he was on his way. He’d walk in the door, covered in gun powder, exhausted, and dressed in camouflage.
It had never occurred to me that our military is trained to use lethal force until I attended my first “spouses function”. I was in a room full of alpha males who were telling jokes about shooting each other with paint balls during their last exercise, which was apparently about breaching their way into a building and then clearing the rooms with each taking turns as the bad guys. My only memories had been my husband coming home covered in bruises and that he hadn’t eaten in fourteen hours. But when the presentations started and the troops in the room started chanting, “Two to the chest, one to the head”; I had to take a deep breath. My husband had been trained to kill.
The base we were stationed at was in the middle of a training exercise that to me meant long waits to get in the gate, showing identification everywhere, and being stuck inside buildings on base until the all clear was given. One morning, our phone rang and it was a neighbor. She was hysterical. Her husband was in the field that week. I heard a grumpy male voice tell her to calm down, that the heightened threat level would be lowered when the training was complete, and then his footsteps head downstairs as the doorbell rang. He turned on the television just in time to see video of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. My husband’s face froze. Before long, other friends and neighbors came over to watch with us because the majority of troops had already showed up for the duty day prior to the events. The moment it was reported that the Pentagon had received a hit; I heard his voice say “We’re at war.” He was calm, matter of fact, and completely resolved. He started to gather his gear up and when the phone call came for him to report in, he didn’t hesitate. Dressed in his pajamas, I remember him saying “Turn your heads, ladies.” That was right before he dropped trou to pull on his uniform and boots in the corner of our living room. He kissed me and was gone.
Later that day, he came home long enough to pack a rucksack. It was chemical warfare gear, gas mask, bullet proof vest, Kevlar helmet, and his web gear (a vest that holds lots of ammunition and is worn over their battle uniform). I drove him to a helicopter hangar across base and didn’t see or talk to him for a week. Huge concrete barriers blocked streets and entryways to buildings. Every sign and building display had been covered. There were troops walking down the street with M16s (think, BIG rifle seen in every war movie in the last fifty years) and others could be seen on the rooftops. All the gates to the base were closed; it was a strict, no one in and no one out. Even phone lines had been frozen. I was trapped on base, in my house, not able to go to work and I couldn’t even call to tell them I wouldn’t be there.
In the aftermath of September 11th, my world changed. The security measures that had been annoying before became part of my every day routine. The biggest addition though was the constant worry and fear. I got used to my other half being gone six months out of every year, being on call constantly, working twelve hour days, spending hours at the gym to keep his fitness levels up, with no way to depend on him for anything. We had to plan our vacations six months ahead of time and then cancel at the last minute, more than once. He missed three Christmas holidays in a row, both our children’s first birthdays and many thereafter, our wedding anniversaries, and milestones like first steps, first words, and the first day of school; with me left behind to carry on. His phone would ring in the middle of the night and he’d leave for days on end. I had no idea where he was or what he was doing. Explaining his job and responsibilities to our children and those unconnected to the military became an arduous task. Trying to tell an employer that I had no family close by to help out or a husband to lean on when my kids got sick has meant a very patchy resume. Discussing financial matters was like beating my head against a wall because I could only present a power of attorney and had to make every money decision without knowing if he would approve or not. There was one instance that I was attempting to buy a car and the salesman kept asking me to call my husband at work, I tried outlining that he was unreachable until he contacted me due to operational security but to no avail.
Now that our country has been actively fighting the war on terror for more than eight years, I find myself realizing how far forgotten the military community has become to the American public. Everyone knows of someone who is serving in uniform but not many know anyone personally. While politicians and the media argue each other to determine who is right and who has the best idea, my family has to continue on. And prepare for the eventualities.
My husband recorded videos of himself reading children’s books so that our kids can get their bedtime stories. He wrote them letters too, to make sure that they know just how much he loves them. We’ve had to explain in very simple terms why the sacrifices our family makes are worth it. Our daughter says it best, “My daddy protects the United States flag.” The kids learned at an early age to put on a brave face when the phone rang from a government number. Very few people write a will when they are in their early twenties but we had to, just in case. I’ve had to realize that this man I adore may not come home and that has meant contemplating every possible future for myself and my little ones.
Among military spouses, we all live with what is called “the blue car nightmare”. It is a dream in which we see a blue car with government plates pull up in front of our home. We watch a pair in uniforms approach the front door solemnly and then brace themselves to ring the bell. We stand there, on the other side of that barrier, knowing that turning the handle will open a wound from which there is no recovery. This nightmare is made worse because there are so many men and women who are married to airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines for whom this scenario became a reality. Their presence is a constant reminder of the ‘what if’s.
So while my friends from back home worried about if they could get the time off to go to a concert that weekend or if they forgot to contribute to the beer fund, I was unable to relate. Sure, they’d all bought the “Support The Troops” magnets for their cars but I’ve never met a single military member who actually received that support. Newsflash, those little yellow ribbons were a scam, a business profiting off of Americans who were willing to part with a mere five dollars, once, to alleviate their conscience and fulfill their civic responsibility.
When the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 were underway, I was often asked by civilians who I supported. I wasn’t able to answer that question. Because regardless of the person who becomes the Commander In Chief, my life will stay much the same; my husband will still have to head overseas to carry out his missions, he’ll still be overworked and under-appreciated. He’ll still get up long before the sun comes up to do his duty, he’ll still shake his head when someone tells him that he could have chosen a different path. And after watching spoiled college kids put on demonstrations protesting the war, berating our men and women who are fighting, and then burning the flag, he is still willing to die to defend their right to do so.
I know that the last few years have been hard on this nation; people are suffering. Jobs are being lost left and right and for many, there is no light at the end of the tunnel with bills piling up and no means to pay them. Families are losing their homes and putting food on the table has become a struggle. Doctor visits and higher education are beyond the reach of a growing number of Americans. With the economy in dire straits, I’ve been told that I should be grateful (and I am). I know for certain that on the first and fifteenth of every month, a paycheck is going to be deposited in my husband’s bank account. He is going to get an allowance to help with groceries and for our house. We will never have to pay for a doctor bill or trip to the dentist. Every member of our family has a life insurance policy and can continue learning for as long as they would like due to the educational benefits, scholarships, and grants available. I am very aware that I have a comfortable life and have been cushioned against the worst of the financial woes. But that security has a very steep price, my husband leaving us behind to complete the terms of his service to the best of his ability, regardless of the inconvenience and heartache it causes to our family. At some point the economy will recover and lives will get back on track but this military world is constant.
I have an incredible sense of pride in my husband. He grew up with few options and used the Air Force to pull himself (and me) out of poverty to a better life. He has used the opportunities available to him to better his career and we are provided for. He makes the choice to put on that uniform every day and go to work, unsure of what the day will bring or cost him. He faces the risks with confidence and caution. He is uncomplaining when it comes to what the military requires of him. He makes sacrifices willingly because he knows that, in part through him, our nation is secure. There are times that I wish he had a normal Monday through Friday job but I realize that he is so custom built for this path, he might have been issued dog tags at birth. This life isn’t easy and it should never be entered into without extreme consideration. It takes a special kind of person to serve their country, to be patriotic enough to risk their safety, to have the will to pull those combat boots on every single day, and to do whatever it takes to protect their comrades. My husband once told me that in order to celebrate Halloween via a webcam meant having to stay awake after a full day’s mission to make up for the eight hour time difference and then wait in line to access a computer that he was only allowed to be on for fifteen minutes, just to watch our little girl grin and say, “I dressed up in a poodle skirt, Daddy!” But to him, that made it all worth it.