If you’ve been following my blog, you know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, and that I actually removed it from public reading for some time. Deployment got hard, and I didn’t know what to write anymore, because it was extremely personal, I was sad, and I didn’t think anyone would want to read the same ol’ rabble of “I miss my husband” all of the time. So, I stopped.
But now, I’m ready to write about my experience of deployment, how dust-off and post-deployment have been, and how everything has changed us. It’s going to get personal, and there’s some information that I’m still not sure about including, but honestly, if it will help other military couples survive deployment, it’s worth it.
To recap, November 1, 2010 my husband deployed for OEF in Afghanistan. It was the saddest day of my life [so far]. One part of you wants to fall to pieces – you’re saying good-bye to the one you love with everything you have [one would hope, anyways, if you marry someone], to your life, because your life will never be the same again. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the next year is full of unknowns, every day you wonder if he/she’s OK, you listen to the news for reports on deaths in Afghanistan, and might even Google it – you want to, but you don’t want to, all at the same time. If you don’t receive a phone call for a few days, you hope it’s just because he didn’t have the time to, or there’s a communications blackout (which you hope isn’t because someone’s been killed), you hope for all the things that mean people aren’t dieing, but you just don’t know. Every day I worried that every time I looked out a window toward the driveway, I’d see that black car pulling up.
I did move back home for the duration of my husband’s deployment – everyone thought this would be easier for me. Which, in a way it was, but if I had to do it again, I’m not sure I would necessarily move home. The pro’s were that I was close to the closest people in my life – parents, in-laws, and my long-time friends. I gained employment (something that is difficult for a lot of spouses who stay on post…maybe easier for some, but there’s a lot of competition out here), so we were earning two incomes again. And there was more for me to do – there’s not a lot to do out here, honestly. But at the same time, the people who were supposed to support me, help me through everything, didn’t really know how to. Our parents were going through it, too, so it was hard for them to even be able to talk my fears out with me. My friends were there for me, but in ways, they struggled, to. Love them for trying, and they did well. I had one friend back home who had been through deployments with her husband, so she understood what I was going through. But I feel like I needed more support from people who could understand what I was going through, feeling, thinking, dreading, because they’ve lived it, too. But even still, what can anyone say that will console your fear that your husband will die? Sure, he wasn’t on the front lines and never left his base, and where he was stationed was relatively “safe,” but when you say anywhere is in a war-zone, what’s the scale of safety? There were IED attacks and mortars, who’s to say that one day he wouldn’t he walking between buildings or out for a run, and be unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? I needed to know how to cope with the possibility that this might happen, to talk it out. If I did wake up one day to only discover within that day that I was a war widow, what would I do?
I prided myself on the fact that I didn’t cry while he was gone. I was able to be strong for him, strong for our families, while he was away. I wanted to be that woman, that wife, that was strong enough for anything. Hearing news that he had died would have devastated me and collapsed everything I was building my strength on. Would I have spent weeks, months, in bed sobbing, with no will to get up for anything? How would I grieve? How SHOULD I grieve? I know what I wanted for the final outcome, to be strong, to move on, to forever love him but be able to live, to enjoy life because he no longer could. I suffered my quarter-life crisis.
I began to throw caution to the wind, and I began to live. Missing my husband didn’t mean I should put my life on hold, and be the zombie that I felt like I was for a year. I went four-wheeling for the first time (I know, right? Grew up in Maine, and never rode or drove a four-wheeler!), I took solo road-trips around the state, exploring familiar places but roads I’d never been on, I got a tattoo. My husband hates when I talk about this, but on one of my solo trips to our favorite beach, I went into the water around the time of Hurricane Irene, when the coast was experiencing astronomical high tides. The water was more turbulent that normal. And I went in the water to body-surf, only the waves pushed me under. On my second wave, it pushed me under, and kept me there, rolling me and pushing me down. Eventually I was able to come up for air, and decided I didn’t want to play that game again.
The first time I really remember crying, sobbing, was when I said “good-bye” to him after R&R. I had him for two weeks, I knew he was OK, he was safe, alive, and I had to give him back, go back into a life of not knowing, and hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.
The closer the end of his deployment came (which is always an elusive date, because you never know exactly when until it’s time), the harder deployment got for both of us. I got use to a routine, having a job again, doing things for myself again, I was finally adjusting to life as it was. The stresses deployment put on both of us started coming to a head, and it got hard to bite my tongue. I tried to be the kind of wife who could always put her husband in a better mood when he called, always tried to be positive. And I did that, for a while. But then we started doing the communicating we should have been doing all along. And it wasn’t always pretty. Divorce came up, from both of us, but as it turned out, we thought about it at different times. So when he was coming home, we didn’t know what it would mean for us, as a couple. I still loved him, but I was so fed up with deployment, and other things about our relationship – the things that I tried to push aside and either pass off as “it’s because he’s deploying”, or wouldn’t want to bring up BECAUSE he was deploying, which became more noticeable the more I was away from the relationship. And of course trying to have these discussions over the phone, when he’s still in theater, was difficult. And it wasn’t smart. I prided myself on being able to not bring up the negative, to be there for him always, but I hit my limit, and things needed to change, and I got tired of waiting. I know the waiting wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t just decide to pack up and come home at any time. But I didn’t know how else to be angry.
Finally, his deployment was over, and he was on his way back to the states. And of course, that date wasn’t a guarantee. That always makes the anticipation worse. I was given a day and a time, and then that time changed, twice. Then I was told the following day, and a time, and it finally came true. So Monday, October 24th, my husband was officially back on Post, on US soil, and we were awaiting to be reunited. As any loving wife will tell you, it takes everything we have to be able to stay on the bleachers and not run out and tackle him, once we recognize him in a sea of faces in ACU’s. Despite the issues we had towards the end of his deployment, I was still excited to see him again, to hold him, to be with him. Even though both of our parents traveled out to see him when he came back, I requested that I be the only one to attend his Homecoming Ceremony. I wanted that initial moment, to have him to myself. He’s my husband, and I’m his wife, and we come first with each other. I would hope that other families were respectful of this, as well, unless they’re invited to the ceremony. Otherwise, they can be waiting at the house/apartment/hotel for his arrival, and they’ll have their moments with him. But that first moment, I think should be reserved for the couple, or family, if you have children.
After the hangar doors were raised, and the soldiers all walked in, I started peering at the faced (from the back row of the bleachers), hoping I picked the right side of the hangar to sit on. And I saw him, fortunately in front of me, three rows back in formation. I hoped he saw me, and the sign I made for him – which thankfully my mother-in-law brought poster paper and markers for me!, on which I wrote “Welcome Home Cupcake!” The ceremony was short, thankfully, and everyone dispersed seeking their loved ones who have been over seas. My husband didn’t have his glasses on, so he couldn’t quite recognize me from the distance, and didn’t want to chance running up to some stranger, which of course I didn’t know until after I reached him. We embraced, and it felt nice to finally be together again, for him to be home for good, to sort everything out that we’ve been going through, and for life to resume, ultimately.
Deployment changed both of us, and I like to think we’re lucky enough that it was for the better. I realized that I was sacrificing a happy marriage by pretending everything was OK all of the time, of being what I thought he wanted me to be instead of just being myself. Not that “myself” is perfect, but it’s better than being something I’m not, or at least my complete self. So now when things don’t make me happy, I speak up about it. We talk about things more. I’d try sometimes before, but he wouldn’t want to, so we wouldn’t. But now we know that in order to maintain a happy marriage, and sustain a happy marriage, we have to talk about things. And how we communicate with each other has gotten better. Ultimately, even though it sucked, and I feel terrible for how it was all handled, we needed what happened to happen. If it didn’t, we probably would have ended in divorce for reasons that could have been avoided, mended. And there would have been resentment. We’ve become best friends again, on a deeper level.
If you were to ask me if it’s “perfect” now, I’d have to question what “perfect” is to you. We still disagree, we still fight, and we still need our days away from each other. And that’s fine with me. It means we’re not passive and apathetic. But we don’t fight often, and it’s not always bad when we disagree, we learn from each other when we do. It doesn’t mean we’ll ever agree on certain things or change how we feel, but we learn, and accept. He knows more of what I need from him, and I know what he needs from me. I know now that he loves me for who I am, not who I try to be for him.
I know that it doesn’t always work out the same way for other military couples who go through hard times in their relationships, during deployment or not. It’s not to say that it should, either. Some couples are better separated than they are trying to make it work. Every person, every couple, every situation is completely different. But I would advise that being able to communicate with each other is definitely key to making a relationship work, or at least ending it on amicable terms if it comes to it. Especially before deployment, put everything on the table, be able to talk with each other.
Keep people in your life, whether you decide to move home, or stay on Post and all/most of your friends return to their home states, that you can talk to regularly who are going through deployment, too, or who had gone through deployment. Other people in your life who aren’t or haven’t experienced military life and deployment won’t be able to understand what you’re going through. They’ll try to help, and while it’s still help, it’s not everything you’ll need. You’ll need to hear from people that they have or are going through the same thoughts, emotions, experiences, so you don’t feel alone. So you don’t feel wrong for dreading the unspeakable. No military wife should feel shamed for fearing on a daily basis that her husband is going to die (or husband for their wife, if she is enlisted and he’s the civilian). We can try to convince ourselves it won’t happen, people can tell us it’s not going to happen, but the truth of the matter is that we’ve convinced ourselves that despite how many times we hear it, no one can guarantee it won’t happen. As the date got closer for my husband’s homecoming, I began to imagine that the real tragedy of everything would be if something happened to him just before he was scheduled to return state-side. It’s normal, it’s OK to feel these fears. We’re not hollow, unfeeling, unfearing, as much as we may try to be.
You’re going to have your bad days, where you’ll want to break down, and that’s OK. Accept this, and you should do better than I did. I put it upon myself to be strong always for everyone, so I wouldn’t let myself break down, feel much of anything…I numbed out. It’s not the best response. You will have to be strong, but know that you’re allowed to feel, to cry, to be mad at the world, and allow others to have to be there for you, too, when you need them.
Continue to live. Work if you can, it’ll be something to get you out of the house, and on a routine. And the extra paycheck is nice, too. You’ll get out and socialize with more/new people. Plan and do something for you every now and then. Spend more time with people you love.
[Admittedly, my husband has mixed feelings about how I spent deployment without him. He’s glad I was out doing new things, but at the same time, he’s regretful that he wasn’t there to do those things with me. Remember that tattoo I mentioned? It was my first one, and he wasn’t here to be with me when I had it done. He would have loved to experience a lot of new things for me, with me. I took up target shooting (with real guns, yes), I visited places we both enjoy, and new places. On the one hand, he felt left out, like I was “moving on”, which regardless of if we were having issues or not, he would have felt. But again, he’s happy that I wasn’t sitting at home all of the time missing him, doing nothing. Just make sure you and your spouse are under the same understanding. I plan to take my husband to all the new places I found, shoot together, and so on.]
I hope my words of experience and suggestion come in handy to couples going through similar things. Deployment isn’t the exact same for everyone, or every time. What you experience may be completely different from what you expect. Just do the best you can, for yourself and for each other, love each other, and the rest will fall into place. It might not be easy, and it might not work out, but I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, we learn and grow from each experience.