The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War
Alison Buckholtz, M.A., English Literature, Writer, author
Alison Buckholtz never dreamed she would marry a military man, but when she met her husband, an active-duty Navy pilot, nothing could stop her from building a life with him - not even his repeated attempts to talk her out of marriage. He didn't want her to have to make the kinds of sacrifices long required of the spouses of military personnel.
Enlarge this imageThey wed shortly after September 11, 2001 and, since then, their life together has been marked by long separations and unforeseen challenges, but also unexpected rewards. The mother of two has written a book about what it's like to be a military wife. We publish an excerpt (Chapter 20) of "Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War."
Excerpted from the book Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War by Alison Buckholtz. Copyright © 2009 by Alison Buckholtz. Reprinted by arrangement with Tarcher Books, an imprint of Penguin Group.
The New Normal
I carried my camera with me everywhere in Anacortes and had filled four photo albums before it seemed like any time at all had passed. I documented our time in Washington state as if it were just another trip about to pass into memory; I was a tourist in Anacortes, in some ways a tourist in my own life during that period. I regarded our time there as Scott's tour of duty, and tour connotes something brief, with a built-in expiration date. The thing is, Scott's orders landed us there for three years. Over a year had already passed. I knew I was supposed to be living in the present, and yet I felt I was already practicing saying "Oh, that happened during our time back at Whidbey." But it didn't feel like a vacation; living there during that early period often felt like work.
I hungered for perspective, for some corrective lens to refocus my vision. I was hardwired to think of myself as a fortunate person, though stanza after stanza of screamingly positive self-talk didn't seem to be working anymore: "At least you have a husband you love!" "At least he's only going to be deployed for seven months, not a year!" "At least he's on a carrier, not on the ground!" "At least you don't have financial issues!" "At least your kids are healthy!" "At least you have a supportive family!" And the inevitable chorus, chanted in booming baritone, led by the thunderous voice of God: "Just think how much worse it could be!" But at that moment life seemed pretty bad. Many people had warned me that all would go wrong the first months of deployment. They must have been clairvoyant-or experienced. In the weeks after Scott left, a tree fell in the yard following a windstorm, all three toilets backed up, Esther and I got locked in a bedroom when the doorknob fell off on the other side, all of the circuits in the house shorted, and the washing machine broke. Both kids got sick, of course, and threw up in bed for several nights in a row, which coincided with the demise of the washing machine.
The worst, though, was that once again Ethan suffered classic dad's-on-deployment symptoms: depression, anger, and withdrawal, a mockery of his best self. I asked him to draw his feelings, and he tore the pencil through the paper, ripping it to shreds. One morning I told him that I would write a letter to Daddy from him if he told me what to say. Here's what he dictated:
Dear Daddy, I wish you were home right now. I really miss you. I'm crying right this second, and I'm holding my shirt over my face. I wish you were home right now. I really really love you. Please tell the driver of the aircraft carrier to stop the boat. My dream was about you leaving home. You were in bed, and other people rang the doorbell and took you away, and me and Esther were pulling you back, and you had to drive away and we followed you but couldn't find you, and I cried and cried and cried. That is all done. Love, Ethan
Ethan wasn't alone, of course. Although one Army-sponsored study concludes that "military children and adolescents exhibit levels of psychopathology on par with children of civilian families," it acknowledges that military children face "significant life challenges" not shared by their civilian peers. Boys with a war-deployed father may suffer especially frequent "emotional, behavioral, sex-role, and health problems," according to one particularly influential Army study.
Esther reminded me what a difference a year makes. The previous winter, as we had adjusted to Scott's long and frequent absences during workups, she seemed to barely notice that he had left. Her extreme affection toward Flat Daddy alone hinted at her memory of Real Daddy. But after Scott's deployment, she became very clingy, which is a typical response to deployment for young toddlers. For several weeks she refused to go to her babysitter's. She had always been one of those kids who ran to her friends and never even looked back, but after Scott's departure for deployment, she begged to be held, sobbing pitifully when I disappeared from view. Her well-meaning babysitter, an older woman who adored her, watched with great dismay.
"Have you talked to your husband about getting out of the military?" the woman asked one morning, as I tried to distract Esther with a toy. She had never tread on such personal ground before, and I couldn't believe my ears. I talked to no one about Scott's career plans. Among the more seasoned officers and their spouses, discussing one's aspirations is just Not Done. It's considered immodest, just as talking about salaries is taboo in other professions. I must have looked as shocked as I felt.
"Well, it's obvious he has to get out. Just look what it's doing to this sweet child," she insisted.
I've never been good at responding to a provocation. It's not that I think of the perfect thing to say later, as I'm driving away. I just never think of the perfect thing to say. "Hmmmm," I mumbled, sliding Esther's arms back into the sleeves of her coat. I decided, in that moment, to take her home.
"The country needs healthy families," the woman said, meeting my gaze. A challenge. Sure, the country needs healthy families. Who could argue with that? The country also needs a military force to protect all those healthy families, I thought, offended. But it was impossible for me to engage. Scott had left a few weeks earlier, and I felt like a human pincushion. I carried Esther out. We were scheduled to return to my parents' house for another visit the following week, and after the new year Esther would be old enough to begin at Montessori preschool.
Part of me knows-knew even then, though I couldn't allow a pinhole of light to penetrate my camera obscura-that I said nothing in my own defense because there is no defense. Ethan and Esther, and countless other military kids, sacrifice a sense of personal security for America's national security. It's not fair. It's not right. And in our case, it wasn't going to change anytime soon. Other military friends experience the same sorts of interactions with teachers, neighbors, and even priests, but this time, knowing we weren't alone didn't help. Reading and rereading Ethan's heartbreaking letter and reflecting on Esther's transparent insecurity, I felt bereft. Both kids were suffering. I felt guilty they had already spotted me crying, since military brochures press the point that it takes a healthy parent to raise a healthy child. I remained careful never to transmit a sense of fear to my kids and always stressed that although they were apart from their dad and everyone was sad about it, both he and they were safe.
The problem was how to navigate my path back to solid emotional footing. Scott had left our lives for seven months to fly in a war. In whose reality was that supposed to be acceptable? And more to the point: Why should I pretend it's normal? It was one of many moments when it seemed inconceivable that our family could reconstitute itself intact. We had such a long way to go, such an endless wait ahead.
But that was buying my ticket to the pity party, as some of my military girlfriends called it. Other wives cheer on their peers during deployment by chanting "Tigger! Tigger!" to remind them to emulate the cheerful character from the Winnie-the-Pooh book series rather than the perpetually gloomy Eeyore. All of these exhortations echoed in my head, calling me back to a more practical reality. Time to move on. It may not have been normal, but it was our normal. Or, as spouses in my circle had renamed the Navy's increasingly unpredictable and demanding deployment schedules, "the new normal." The new normal required creative coping.
I quashed my negative thoughts that day and walked out to the deck for a breath of fresh air. And then I thought I saw something. I looked up in search of the eagles. They'd returned for a few weeks, fishing for spawned-out salmon on the Upper Skagit River, and I'd spotted two circling overhead earlier that morning as I drove across Deception Pass. I remembered hearing that some of these majestic creatures have a five-foot wingspan. I'm five feet tall, and my outstretched arms don't even reach five feet. It was hard to believe that those eagles compared to me in scale. I smiled, vowing to stop thinking of myself as a short person and start regarding myself as a tall bird.
No eagles appeared at that moment, but as I scanned the washed out winter sky I reminded myself that people can feel out of place for any reason, any variety of circumstances. It's far from just a military phenomenon. At one time or another, everyone believes that the true life is being lived somewhere else.
It was a fresh start-one of many during Scott's deployment- as I learned to live a life very different from the one I trained for. It was a good life, and any time I stole away for a few moments of reflection, I realized I liked the person I was becoming much better than the one I had left behind. Just as pauses between notes create energy and emotion in music, just as the punctuation between words adds meaning and tone in prose, the spaces between our family's crises-those peaceful times in which I regained my equilibrium-built my new identity as the wife of a naval officer. And when that interior silence faded, I called BobbiJo.