[photopress:Meredith_and_her_husband_70.jpg,thumb,pp_style]by Annette Lyon
Mama, I love Dada. Dada all gone.”
Meredith’s daughter was 10 months old when her father was deployed to Afghanistan. She’s nearly two now and coping well, but late-night moments like these are hard.
Recently I interviewed five military wives whose husbands were pulled from different units and deployed with I Corps Artillery to Afghanistan. Their experiences differ, but they share commonalities and challenges they wish those not in the military understood.
While the media focuses on Iraq, the U.S. army is still in a very real war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, often the “forgotten war.”
“I Understand; My Husband’s Gone on Business”
These wives have found the most common misconception about deployment is that it’s essentially like being a single mother, or that women with busy husbands can relate.
“The worst possible thing a woman can say to me is that she knows how I feel because her husband travels a lot,” Liz says.
Meredith agrees. “It would help if people saw beyond the fact that my husband is away, to the fact that he is constantly in harm’s way.” During one phone call, an air raid siren sounded, and her heart nearly stopped. She was put on hold for ten minutes. Meredith held her breath, not knowing if she’d ever hear her husband’s voice again. She discovered later it had only been a drill.
“Such things don’t happen on business trips!” she exclaims.
Bethany points out that when your soldier calls home, you don’t know if it will be your last conversation. “You pray the last thing you do before you finally fall asleep—if you are fortunate enough to sleep that night.”
When asked about their regular schedules, the common thread was the never-ending burden of worry. “I have to keep reminding myself that I’m experiencing a normal response to a very abnormal situation,” Sarah says.
Bethany describes her typical day: “I wake up trying to leave my husband’s life in God’s hands.”
With the time difference, the wives each greet each morning wondering if she has an e-mail from her husband. Perhaps he’s on-line and can chat. Maybe he’s in an area where he can call. Or is he dodging bullets? She’ll check the computer regularly until lunch, wondering, worrying. She’ll read the wires for news of bombings or casualties. Will the doorbell ring, with two soldiers bearing the worst news of her life?
Eventually she’ll let her mind rest—somewhat—because he’ll be in bed. In Sharissa’s husband’s case, that bed has consisted of old boxes that are now imbedded in sand, a Humvee hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), where the vehicle burned as her husband tried to radio for air support. And it’s been in a tent where he’s been so covered by tick bites he’s prayed for relief from the itching so he can sleep.
If a soldier has been killed, all communication lines will be closed down, and a wife will wring her hands until she knows whether the soldier was hers.
If she doesn’t hear from him in the morning, she’ll start checking e-mail and waiting for the phone to ring again in the evening, because he’ll be waking up then. When the kids go to bed, she’ll collapse in front of the television in the dark and fight the loneliness.
Another aspect of deployment is that the fears won’t end when the husbands come home.
“We won’t slip back into normal life because ‘normal’ will have to be redefined,” Sarah points out.
Meredith’s husband has promised to tell her about the dangerous, hostile fighting he’s dealt with, things he’s not yet ready to talk about. “I hope I’m prepared for what he has to say. I hope he’ll be able to get back to his life smoothly. I’m afraid of the mental state he’ll be in. I’m afraid of what I’ll hear when he’s ready to open up. I fear that I might not ever know everything he’s gone through.”
Sharissa nurtures poignant worries too. “When he comes home, I hope no one asks if he killed anyone, that they define him as such. I hope they treat him as they always have, perhaps with a little more respect and appreciation. I hope they don’t tell him how much he has missed. He knows. I hope they tell him how much he was missed.”
Through their trials, these women have found faith and hope, primarily from their Heavenly Father.
Meredith admits that sometimes going to church gets difficult, because she feels the most incomplete then, due to the family focus. “We go to church because I want my kids to know that just because life gets hard, that doesn’t mean we stop living the gospel. We live it more.”
They agree that their Heavenly Father has answered their prayers in powerful ways and has been mindful of them, especially their children. Each bore frequent testimony of her greatest moments of strength coming while on her knees and in the temple. When they have needed help, it has come, often in the form of beautiful miracles.
Bethany shared some deeply spiritual moments, and Meredith concurred. “I have had some of my most sacred experiences during this deployment that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
The simplest acts of service make all the difference for military families—acknowledgment that they’re going through something difficult, which others cannot fully understand.
“For me,” Sarah says, “the acts of kindness that have meant the most are the ones where people see a need and step in without me needing to ask,” including something as simple as a mother sending her daughter to help with children during a difficult sacrament meeting.
A welcome service is a listening ear if a wife wants to talk—but not to expect an outpouring. Talk to them as if they’re still the same person as before. “We have our bad days when we need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to listen to us,” Liz says. “And then we have our good days, but it still doesn’t mean we’re really okay.”
Give any service at all. Look for things that her husband used to do.
Provide child care, so the mother can have time to herself—especially to attend the temple.
Sympathize, don’t judge. “I had someone tell me to stop whining, that this experience would make me stronger,” Liz says. “This was really hurtful, because I already knew this, and I didn’t need anyone to say it.”
Pray for the military family. The wives have been touched and uplifted upon hearing, “I don’t know what to do, but my family has been praying for you.”
Meredith insists, “If anyone wishes they could do more, but they can only pray, they have done enough!”
If all goes well, these women’s husbands should be home in a few more weeks. Until then, they’ll be hanging on, and like Sharissa says, clinging to her motto from Finding Nemo, “Just keep, swimming, swimming, swimming…”
One of the lessons they’ve learned is something all Relief Society sisters can strive to embrace, summed up by Liz: “We are sisters in Zion, in this together, looking out for each other.”