At any given point in time, military spouses are sleeping alone. Some for just a few months. Some, forever.
The most difficult day I’ve had as a military spouse came a few months into a year-long scheduled deployment for my husband, Pat, to Afghanistan. I was informed by a friend that one of Pat’s closest friends, Rob, had been killed in action in Afghanistan.
Pat has impossibly high standards when it comes to people and even higher standards for Marines. Rob was one of the few people Pat not only respected professionally, but also enjoyed spending time with personally. Although this news would crush him, communication was sparse on Pat’s remote forward operating base, so I knew I had to tell him.
I requested emergency contact via email and he called me 12 hours later. Communication, especially via telephone, was a rarity for us, so his initial greeting was one of excitement. With a slight quiver in my voice I inquired if he had heard about Rob. He hadn’t. I then delivered the shattering news. He extracted all details I knew in a somewhat icy fashion and said he had to go.
That conversation is still raw to recall. I wish I didn’t have to tell him over the phone, that I could have offered him comfort in person as a wife should. I wish I could have stopped thinking about his own fate in a dangerous place, praying his life wouldn’t end the same way.
Pat wasn’t able to attend the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Another Marine wife and I went together. The eulogy was given by Rob’s father, a general in the USMC.To this day, it is still one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve ever heard. Expecting to be a sobbing mess, I was shocked during the speech when I was instead enthused with unparalleled patriotism to be a Marine wife.
When Pat returned from Afghanistan, we went to Arlington together. As we approached Rob’s grave, walking down a long row of identical white head stones, I was shocked at how many of the deceased Pat knew. He spent a long moment having a silent conversation with Rob and said goodbye to his friend. I hugged him gently and cried for both of us.
There wasn’t much time to discuss the recent deployment, because he immediately started the training period for his next deployment set to leave in six months. He was offered his dream job of Scout Sniper Platoon Commander and, even though it meant coming home early from one deployment to train and go on another, he capitalized on it. He buried himself in work.
The workup for his second deployment was brutal and Pat was away for three weeks of every month training. During the time he was home, he was laser-focused on preparing his Marines. His Marines thrived largely due to his dedication to the work, but our marriage suffered. We did the best with what little time together we had, but it was not enough to repair the damage that had been incurred by prolonged separation. Since his love language is physical touch and my love language is quality time, we went into the second deployment with our “love tanks” barely running on fumes.
The second deployment was a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and was very different from the first deployment. Communication was more frequent, but the quality of our talks became increasingly strained. He was afforded some liberty time during which he spent Christmas in Singapore and indulged in a long weekend in Thailand. I focused on strengthening other friendships, developed hobbies and threw myself into work.
But the distractions didn’t change the fact that I celebrated another batch of holidays without my husband and attended major events – weddings, births and funerals – without my partner. I had married Pat so we could share our lives, but instead found myself lonely and resentful. Because he elected for the second deployment, it felt as though he was choosing his career over our marriage. After two and a half years of a mostly absent spouse, we had come to share little more than a bank account and some really great, albeit increasingly distant, memories.
The dynamic that had become us was not the partnership I envisioned or expected of a marriage. By the time we celebrated our second homecoming, I was ready to amicably end our marriage. Part of me felt guilty for wanting to give up when he had so honorably been serving our country, but despite the righteousness of the reason for his absence, excessive neglect took its toll on me. I am strong, but had hit my breaking point.
Fortunately, Pat recognized the impact of his extended absence and refocused his efforts from war to fighting to save our marriage. Like the incredible leader he is, he inspired me to do the same. We spent the next few years living the good life, healing and then strengthening our bond. We doubled our family, welcoming children into the world. It took a lot of honest conversations, real work and time, but our bond became stronger than ever.
And then, we received word that he would be deployed to the Middle East this past fall. Anxiety flooded over me as I recalled my most difficult day as a military spouse. Concern flooded over him as he recalled the state our marriage was in the last time he returned from a deployment. Unease enveloped us both as we realized this time, among other things, he would miss our son’s first steps. You see, before the happy homecomings blasted on social media are the months of arduous separation. Life events are celebrated separately, including births and deaths.
In a moment of honesty, a friend shared with me that her strongest fear was that her husband would not survive his most recent deployment and consequently he would never have met his daughter, to whom she gave birth days after he left.
This is the reality of supporting a person who is willing to give everything to defending our great nation. It is rarely the glamour pictured in the sweet photographs of an exuberant child with arms wrapped around a parent in uniform, and more often, it is late nights spent with sick kids with no reinforcements in sight. The uniform is messy hair and tired eyes. It is explaining to a young child that, “I miss Daddy too, honey. He will be home as soon as he is able.”
It is whatever it takes, even standing in for your husband at his best friend’s funeral.
But, it is worth it. There are people out there who would not survive without the assistance of the U.S. military. Responding to the crises of the world while also preventing the success of terrorists takes drastic effort and dedication from our military members, which in turn requires tremendous sacrifice of their families. Even when lives are lost and sacrifices are made, the cause is just. Military spouses will sleep alone for as long as it takes so the rest of the country can sleep safely.