The Twin Towers fell my freshman year in college. That fall, I had entered the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), in order to prepare myself to be a commissioned officer like my father. In the weeks that followed 9-11, I watched the country around me swell with patriotism and unify in a way I had never-before experienced. But, by the time my broken body had been rejected from military service, I had also gained new insight into how quickly moods and attitudes can change, and how easy memories can fade, after pivotal moments in history.
I met my husband several years after my stint in ROTC. At that time, I was well-ensconced in civilian life as a graduate student, working two jobs to support myself, bouncing between my apartment and my parents’ home, and preparing to become a clinician in a mental health clinic. Upon accepting his proposal, I once again threw myself wholeheartedly into the world into which I had been born – the military. Since then, I have been saddened to learn how little the average American knows about military life and how it affects the families of those who serve their country. It’s not that they do not love America or care about others, it’s just that they are just too busy working, raising their own families, and simply living their lives to keep an eye on the slow-moving nature of deployments, or the aggravating political and global news that can keep the spouses of our Servicemembers up at night with worry.
Yet, if there is one thing that I have learned in the past decade-or-so of marriage, it is that there is an ever-present undercurrent in the homes of every military family.
The only thing certain in a military life is the uncertainty.
For the sake of our Country, and the needs of the Department of Defense, much of our lives are left up to others who may never even personally meet us.
Where we live, when we move, and yes, even who is home at the end of the duty day is dependent on someone other than ourselves. Through all that, however, it is the civilian spouse and the children who are left behind to stay the course.
To America at large, the departure of our troops from Iraq in 2011 and the dwindling size of our country’s forces in Afghanistan seemed to signal an end to what began on 9-11. But for our military and the families that support them, the war has never ended. Rather, the lack of media coverage and the larger society’s concern for our military families is what ceased.
This past week, hundreds of military families found themselves “unexpectedly” saying goodbye to their uniformed loved ones. Families were given less than twenty-four hours’ notice and, while it might come as a shock to some, for many military families, it was just one more reminder of the harsh reality of the post 9-11 world in which we live. Many military families have lived, at some point, with the fact their Servicemember could be “rapidly deployed” on little-to-no notice. It might not be fair, but it’s a sacrifice military families are asked to make in support of their uniformed loved-ones.
These Servicemembers were deployed after a U.S. strike killed the commander of the IRGC-Qods Force near Baghdad, Iraq. The reaction from Iran and her allies has been vocal, and Iran has promised retaliation against the United States.
As a military spouse, this scares me. But it does not surprise me.
After calling for prayers with the Rosary for Warriors, I have once-again been reminded of how few Americans are even paying attention to what is happening on the global stage. I can’t say I blame them. But, as a Catholic military spouse, I have a few recommendations for those who may find themselves in church on Sunday with a family who may not know where their uniformed loved-one is or when they will see that loved-one again.
Don’t press for details. Most military families don’t exactly know where their Servicemember is going, and they don’t always have firm dates. Even if they did, they are explicitly told to not give out sensitive information. To quote an old slogan, “Loose lips sink ships.” Military Servicemembers’ lives depend on operational security and even seemingly innocent information can place both our Servicemembers and their families at risk. If you don’t ask for details, then we can avoid the awkward stares, the stammers, and the fumbling words about whether or not we can answer that question. Instead, simply let that family know, “I see your [husband/wife/father/mother] isn’t here today; I hope [he/she] is doing okay. We will be keeping [him/her] in our prayers.”
Offer assistance. One thing I have noticed about military spouses is that they pride themselves on being able to “do it all.” When asked “How do you do it?” by our civilian counterparts, military spouses invariably offer something along the lines of “I’ve learned to live with it” or “We’re just staying strong.” Let me give you an insider’s secret – we don’t do it alone, we “do it all” only by the grace of God. There comes a time, however, when even the strongest families will need assistance. In those times, God’s grace can be found in each of us. So, let me offer a few tangible ways in which we can all assist and be that instrument of God’s grace.
“Let me sit with you today at church.”
“Let me drop a meal off for your family.”
“Would you like to come over for dinner?”
“Let me know if you need me to watch the kids while you go [grocery shop, do the laundry uninterrupted, etc.]…”
Our families most likely won’t take you up on a generic offer to, “Let me know if you need anything.” But I can almost guarantee that if you offer specific assistance, when they are up to their eyeballs in solo-parenting, our civilian spouses will remember you and gratefully accept your offer – even if you have to “encourage” them a little at times.
Have a little extra patience. I learned during graduate school that for every move a child makes, expect up to a ten percent developmental regression in any given area – it could be physical regression (milestones like potty training are standard regression areas), or it could be emotional regression (like sleeping alone during bedtime). These regressions are typically temporary, but can take months to overcome. One area of regression that is traditionally misunderstood is behavioral regression. And, these regressions do not just occur with moves to new stations, but often pop up when the Servicemember parent deploys. The uncertainty of where their parent is, when they are coming back, or yes, for older children, if their parent is returning, can lead to significant behavioral outbursts. These manifest in various ways – talking out of turn, temper tantrums for any age child (the older and wiser to world events, the more potentially explosive the tantrums can be), picking fights, talking back, and so many more. I will be the first to say that there should still be boundaries, firm and clear expectations, and consequences… But they should come with compassion and empathy, rather than labels and stereotypes. Too often, even the most emotionally sound and healthy adults struggle with these unknowns, and we place unrealistic and unfair expectations on our much-younger children in trying to force them to have no affect in the face of the uncertainty.
Speak positively. Regardless of your opinions or political views, and regardless of the tone of the country and world, remember that these world events have a very real and personal impact on our military families. Before you criticize the President or denounce what he has directed our military to do, remember that neither these families, nor their spouses have much (really, any) say on their deploying to support the decisions of the Commander in Chief. It’s not the time to ridicule what is wrong with the world. And, it most certainly is not the time to denigrate the hard work and sacrifices of the Servicemembers pulling long hours, often in dangerous places, away from their families. So, for the sake of that family in front of you, Be Positive. Yet, at the same time, avoid promises you personally cannot keep. Don’t say, “It’ll all be okay,” because at the end of the day, you can’t promise their Servicemember will be okay. Instead, talk about the weather, talk about the kids’ sports or academic achievements, talk about work, or simply talk about subjects that are meaningful, while avoiding attacking those in positions of authority and leadership over the Servicemember.
Listen and take cue. Some spouses and families will pick up and lead on without much of a hiccup to their daily routines. Other spouses and families will make their worry visibly known. The absolute best way to assist the solo-parenting military spouse in the pew at church, or the grandparents who suddenly have their grandchildren living with them, is to ask them how they are doing, and to truly listen to their answers. Don’t just listen with your ears, listen with your heart. Many families say one thing, but when listen with your heart, you may hear a different response; don’t ignore your heart and don’t be afraid to pry a little deeper (so long as it’s not about the “operational details” of course 🙂 ). Ask what they plan to do when all the children are asleep or at school, ask who is in their support system, and ask if they are connected with resources for all the various needs they may encounter. If possible, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the services in your area (the community support networks, the military family readiness support, and yes, the spiritual support services offered through the installation chapels).
There is a saying that, “Nobody prays harder for peace than Servicemembers and their families.” As a faithful military spouse, you will find me at the foot of the Cross this weekend, fervently offering my prayers for peace.
I invite you, as a fellow citizen of this world, to join me in praying for peace.
And, I beseech you to take these ideas and share them with your own family and friends. Click the share button, or share directly from social media.
While less than 1% of the United States serves on active duty, many civilian churches will have reservists, national guardsmen, or their families in their pews this weekend.
I encourage you to approach those who have no assistance in the pews, whose heavy hearts may be lifted toward that Cross, and raise them up by offering to be an extra pair of hands, an extra shoulder upon which to cry, or simply another knee knelt at the foot of the same Cross.
From one Military Spouse to you, dear reader, thank you for continuing to support our military and her families during this uncertain time.