My husband was in basic training on our first anniversary. That was the first time I cried when he was gone for the military, but I think it was another dozen years before I cried that much again.
After basic, my husband’s first ‘deployment’ was just a two week trip to the Philippines. But we had just moved to Japan. We weren’t even unpacked yet. We hadn’t had time to get a lot of stuff done. Our moving in date was interrupted by a typhoon. I learned to drive on the left side of the road (with a stickshift I had to operate lefthanded) in a few minutes, passed the test and got my overseas driver’s license, and then had to drive myself and my children home, 45 minutes away through several unfamiliar towns and into our village with signs I couldn’t read, because my husband had to go to work and he was leaving the island shortly. I drove around the perimeter of the base a couple times first while I figured it out, and then drove off.
We were told by other guys in his squadron (and their wives) that he needed lots of money because TDY pay wouldn’t cover all his expenses. But we had no money, so we scraped what we could together, the kids and I reverted to baked potatoes, boxed mac n cheese, and ramen for meals. We did not go anywhere because I didn’t want to use the gas in the car. We didn’t turn on the heat because I was afraid of the expense- while it was a tropical island, it still got cold in our house, just a block from the sea, with windows so poor that the curtains billowed in the breeze when the windows were shut.
We lived off base. Far off base. I had no English speaking neighbors (I would later, but I did not then). The phone system was confusing, and the operators we had to go through were notoriously, breathtakingly rude and routinely hung up on us. I had yet to figure out the money system, and I never did learn to read the signs.
Over the next few years I stayed home with the kids while he went to the Philippines, Korea, London, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Shemya, Las Vegas, and various technical schools.
He had to go because that’s what we signed up for, and I do mean we. He had to go even when the kids were sick, even when it was pneumonia. He had to go even when I was sick and bedridden with a high temp. He had to go even when I was pregnant and not allowed to be on my feet more than a few minutes at a time. He had to go even when the kids had chicken pox. He had to go when they had the flu, croup, asthma attacks, and more. And his was an easy military job most of the time, with what was considered low travel.
He had to go whether or not the pipes were broken, the heat working, the car running, the dishwasher functioning, the bank account overdrawn, the house needed to be sold (actually, the house needed to be sold *because* he had to go), or the local EFMP officer was denying us the right to travel with him because of the Cherub. He had to go whether or not I had just had a miscarriage and we were in the process of adopting two more kids (a process that was actually postponed for two months while he went to Saudi)
I have heard from women who aren’t military wives that they couldn’t do what we did because they would miss their husbands too much and I have heard the unspoken implication that they love theirs more than I love mine. We have also heard hints of the reverse, that my husband maybe didn’t quite love his family the same way some other men loved theirs, since this was his career. They have absolutely no clue.
I have also heard that I was only a military spouse, not in the military, so I don’t deserve military spouse benefits. I heard that once from a relative whose daughter is now a navy spouse, and I wonder if he feels the same.
That’s just a small part of what being a military spouse means. You get it if you have been one. You don’t if you haven’t, and there’s nothing I can do about that but know that many people who have no idea what it’s like think they know.
When my husband left, I helped him pack, I put love notes throughout his luggage, hidden in his socks, stuffed in his shavekit (and he hunted them all out immediately upon arrival, never waiting to discover them day by day as I planned). I showed the kids where he was on the map, and we looked up stuff about the country while he was gone. I made him snacks to eat on the way. I made sure his buttons were tight and he had pictures of us and his boxers and t-shirts were clean and plentiful enough (he ironed his own uniforms). I helped the kids draw pictures to hide in his suitcase.
The kids and I carried on- we had school, we had read alouds in bed, we had strange meals that my husband never would have approved when he was home, we went to visit friends for weeks at a time, we had slumber parties in the living room when the heat went out in the house, as it always did when he was gone. We had friends over. We did things we couldn’t easily do when my husband was home.
I did not cry and I did not count down the days because I personally do better by not counting. I cannot think about it, or all is undone.
Once, when we’d been in the military for well over a dozen years already and I was long accustomed to the frequent absences, somebody at church said something to me like, “So, it’s another ten days until he gets back, are you missing him?”
Stupid, stupid question. My face froze in horror as I realized if I so much as opened my mouth I was going to burst into tears (something I hate doing at any time, and I didn’t want the kids seeing me break down like that over their Dad’s trip to Saudi Arabia). I couldn’t speak.
My questioner misinterpreted my expression and said, “Wow, I guess you don’t miss him at all. ” And he moved on.
I couldn’t do or say anything. I couldn’t even move. It took everything I had to just sit in my seat and not burst into tears. After about ten minutes, I could get up and go get in my car. I think I cried myself to sleep that night, the first time in a long, long time, probably since basic training. That person? He never knew what he had done, because I never was able to open my mouth to say those obvious words, “Yes, I miss my husband when he’s gone,” without feeling like I was going to burst into tears.
It’s been ten years since he retired, and this post still made me cry.