For Veteran’s Day Week – A Love/Hate Relationship with the Army

This week we celebrate Veteran’s Day. There will be school assemblies and deals and days off work (for some).  Our timelines will be full of patriotic symbols and cute sayings honoring our servicemen and women. Anytime a military holiday comes around, I reminisce about our time in the Army. For us, it was neither all roses or thorns. It was a lot of both/and.  We still have lots of friends and acquaintances in the military and this post goes out to you.  (You’re in the love side of this equation, by the way…)  Today’s post is about the thorny side.  Tomorrow will be super rosy!

Things I hated about my husband being in the Army:

  • High OPTEMPO – OPTEMPO refers to the tempo of a unit’s training and operations schedule.  My husband entered the Army through ROTC right after college. He graduated in May of 2001. Remember what happened a few months later?  It is no exaggeration (for anyone) that September 11th, 2001 literally changed everything. For those in the armed services, it was/is even more true. Once he made it to his first assignment, it was clear that we were headed to war.  His unit was often in the field, training for deployment. When they were home, they were working long hours readying equipment and personnel for deployment.  No one knew exactly when something was going down – but everyone knew it was only a matter of time.  One watches the news with such a different level of intensity when your husband’s unit could be affected (I remember being glued to Colin Powell’s UN speech and feeling so utterly conflicted afterwards.) It was a season of high stress and anxiety.  During those first few years, there were weeks, months even, where he was “home” but not really home.
  • Deployments – I (kinda) knew what I was getting myself into when I married my husband – I knew he was ROTC and was excited about the prospect of traveling and figuring out military life. Our entire dating life was long distance as well, so I figured we were going to be just fine with whatever short term deployments he had. The realities were much, much harder.  The first time he left, our oldest was 11 months old. He was gone for almost one year.  Multiple things occurred that year that had nothing to do with the Army, but I will admit I was quite annoyed that THEY had taken my husband away during perhaps one of the most stressful times of my life.  After that deployment, it became clear that ongoing, regular deployments would be a part of normal army life from that point forward.  My friends who are currently still in the military will have to confirm this for certain – but I believe it is still the case that active duty service members can expect to be deployed at least one year out of every three.  I can remember sitting in an FRG (Family Readiness Group) Leader’s luncheon where a 3-star general was thanking us spouses for our support and laying out that we would be greatly needed in the years ahead. He told us we could expect our spouses to be gone a lot and he hoped he could count on us to keep the home front sailing smoothly. If I hadn’t gotten a Commander’s Coin that day that outranked any my husband had yet gotten (score!!), it would have been the most depressing moment in my time as an army spouse. Ultimately, it was the high optempo and multiple deployments that caused my husband and I to decide our time was up.  The costs to our family and marriage were too high to sustain – and we actually got off pretty easily – no injuries, or PTSD or TBI or infidelities, etc. I know there are many, many families who have different stories to tell.  I pray for my friends still in the military all the time to be able to handle the stress of these multiple deployments well.
  • Mandatory Fun – ok, this one is a bit lighter than the first two, but for an introvert like myself, it was horrifying! About once a quarter (at least), there would be an event for all the officers and their spouses. The title says it all – we had to go (or at least there was extreme pressure from the upper ranks to attend) and it was supposed to be FUN! Except it never was. It was always super expensive (why do they put the Colonel’s wife in charge of these things? LTs make more than the average soldier, but we weren’t exactly rolling in the dough!). The alcohol flowed so freely that you “got” to see everyone “loosen up,” which, translated, means you saw your spouse’s boss and other coworkers get completely drunk and behave in a manner quite surprising had the person been in uniform.  Thankfully I was pregnant or breastfeeding most of the time we were in that particular unit and so wasn’t expected to drink. But there was definite pressure to drink, and to drink in excess (every time).  Twice we were in situations where we couldn’t graciously bow out – because we literally were stuck on a boat in a river, or in a train car traveling to a certain destination. All my introvert friends just shudder with me!
  • The hero worship – Hate is probably too strong a word to use here, but it still makes me feel uncomfortable at the very least.  I am so appreciative of all the kind comments that people make towards servicemen and women and their families, but the hero word just doesn’t sit right. First of all, just putting on a uniform does not make you a hero.  There were bad eggs in the army (all through the ranks) just like there are in every part of human society.  I think the hero worship of everyone in uniform makes it easier for the bad eggs to hide and for abuse of power to go unchecked.  I also think that calling every soldier a hero diminishes what real heroes have actually done.  If you read through the descriptions of what any one of the Medal of Honor recipients have done, it is simply astounding.  They are heroes. Most of the men and women in uniform are good, solid, people who have a strong sense of honor and duty and who keep their head down while doing amazing work.  I suppose some might call that heroic – but if so, we need another word to talk about the sacrificial, selfless acts that very few are capable of performing.  What made me even more uncomfortable were the few times that I was called a hero – cringe!! Because I stayed faithful to my husband? Because I cared for my children? Because I made sure the bills were paid on time? Again – all hard work, but not heroic, really.
  • Cultural doublespeak – This one still kinda bothers me, but I wasn’t as aware of it until we were immersed in military culture. While there is certainly widespread admiration for those who serve in the military, there is still a huge divide between civilian and military.  For the most part, civilians don’t understand what it means to be in the military. There is often either unspecified hero worship or almost complete ambivalence or even ignorance of the daily concerns of the hundreds of thousands who serve our country in the military.  I remember watching a sitcom during one of my husband’s deployments where a long-running theme was just how long it had been since a certain character had had sex.  I just sat there, knowing that this was a series that was played on AFN (the Armed Forces Network, often the only English-speaking or American tv available overseas to military members).  I thought about all the thousands of married service members who are working so hard to maintain their marriages in tough situations.  It just felt so incredibly removed from the life I was living and it made me sad.  This particular episode was not the only time the issue came up, nor was it the only show that made it a big theme.  I guess it feels like a petty thing – after all, I didn’t have to be watching tv anyway. I could have turned it off (and often did!), but I never really saw anything on any media that even tried to broach the very real ins and outs of a military family.  (The show Army Wives doesn’t count…pretty fun, but only slightly realistic…) The culture says it wants to honor and appreciate our service members, but it doesn’t value the things that actually do turn your average soldier into a hero – self-sacrifice, honor, integrity, preserving the dignity of others. Perhaps if I saw these things being celebrated in the mainstream public sphere more often, the gags on sitcoms about a character’s sex life (or lack thereof), wouldn’t hit such a raw chord.

Ok – well this post got really long!! I promise the one about what I loved will be just as long. Stay tuned for Part 2 – Things I loved about my husband being in the Army

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