Reality of life when husband’s at war

June 30, 2011

The bouquet was sitting beside the front door when we woke up, an arrangement of lilies, roses and snapdragons in a range of pastels. “Happy 4th Anniversary,” the card read; attached was a wrinkled $10 bill. “Ice cream on me! Jake.”

Jessie gathered the vase in her arms and brought it inside. She was beaming. June was sitting at the kitchen table, rubbing scrambled eggs into her face and babbling. A cardinal pecked at the bird feeder outside the window. Later, after June had a nap and a bottle, we drove into town and enjoyed a few scoops of cookies and cream. The only thing missing was Jake.

Jake is in Afghanistan, 7,000 miles away from his home in Lexington, Va. It’s his second deployment — he spent 18 months in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 — but his first tour since he and Jessie married. He left for training in March, when June was just 8 months old; he flew to Afghanistan in May. June turns 1 in a week and a half. Jake, who spends most of his nonmilitary life on his feet building fences and tending to horses, won’t see her learn to walk. The reality of this makes me want to cry.

Despite the presence of 90,000 U.S. servicemen and women in the Afghan region, Americans don’t seem to be doing much crying, or even talking, about the war. Just over a week ago, during President Obama’s announcement of a troop drawdown, I was relaxing in a U Street watering hole with two serious-minded Beltway journalists; aside from a text message from the White House urging me to watch the speech, the topic never came up. The next day, when I asked a friend and political analyst to describe reactions to the president’s speech, she didn’t know what to say.

“There really weren’t any,” she sighed. “No one seems to pay attention anymore, except for people with friends and family there.”

“No one pays attention anymore.” The same could be said about Jessie, albeit for different reasons. For her, avoidance of the reports out of Afghanistan is less about lack of interest and more about self-preservation in the face of crushing anxiety. She doesn’t want to know if Jake’s base was mortared or if a colleague was shot at: “I won’t be able to function.”

She takes the same approach to news about supposed successes, like claims of troop withdrawals or regional stabilization. Jake will be back next April, she hopes. That’s as far as she’s willing to go, because, she says, when you’re living it, “you learn not to listen too closely to what turns out to just be noise.”

Sacrifices to acknowledge

I’m hesitant to call Jessie a military wife. She is so much more — a writer, mother, daughter, sister, gardener, cook, friend. A former New York City magazine editor, she moved to Virginia a few years after meeting Jake while on assignment at a Montana rodeo (he used to be a cowboy). She paid her way through college, navigated the cutthroat terrain and low pay of the Manhattan media scene and somehow found time to create a vibrant social life. Even so, I think she’d agree that being married to an Army captain is one of the most demanding and rewarding roles she’s taken on, not just for the logistical and emotional challenges it presents (upkeep of an eight-acre rural property, care of a young child), but the reactions it inspires in others.

Everyone, of course, means well. People drop by unannounced, bearing gifts of food and labor: an armful of vegetables from Phyllis’s garden, Ellen’s homemade cookies and cakes, Bill’s offers to take the trash to the dump or remove a wasp nest. Invitations to movies and cookouts abound. Her neighbors across the road regularly come down the hill to cut the grass or drop off a pound of deer jerky or some moonshine. (The moonshine comes in flavors such as apricot, pear-cinnamon, strawberry and peach. It’s lethal.) Friends living far away call or text her and worry if she doesn’t respond. At least I do. The other day, a group of local women pooled their funds and gave her a gift certificate for a 90-minute massage.

The constant attention, however, can get tiring and isolating. The questions are often the same: “How’s Jake? How are you holding up? Is there anything I can do to help?” So are the answers, which run the gamut from “I’m doing great” to “It’s not so bad.” Jessie admits that she hasn’t returned the calls of a woman from the Army’s Family Readiness Support group trying to check in. “Sometimes I don’t want to give people the real story, so as not to dishonor the sacrifices made by my husband,” she explains. I try to remind her that she has her own sacrifices to acknowledge and honor.

Support systems

Obviously, Jessie isn’t alone in her situation; there are 2.2 million service members serving in the U.S. military, 53 percent of whom are married. Of those who have been deployed abroad, many, like Jake, are reservists, which is to say that they and their spouses never really expected to find themselves in this position. Joining the armed forces was about serving the country, yes, but it was also about learning life skills and achieving some semblance of financial security. Then life — and two wars — intervened.

This year, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden launched a program to help support military families, which the president praises as “the force behind the force.” The initiative, called Joining Forces, aims to raise awareness of and inspire gratitude for the struggles and successes of military families. Businesses and nonprofit organizations, including Best Buy, Sam’s Club and the YMCA, have signed on to donate time and resources. In mid-June, the first lady met with a group of Hollywood writers and directors to urge them to consider telling more stories about military families.

Technological advances are making a difference, too. During Jake’s 18-month deployment to Iraq, Jessie spoke to him two times on the phone; now the couple talk multiple times a week, often with video accompaniment starring June (bless you, Skype). Jessie sees where Jake sleeps, what’s in his wooden locker (toiletries), what he’s wearing (Army fatigues or silk undershirts), the stray puppy he adopted (she doesn’t have a name yet). Jake follows his family’s day-to-day activities via Jessie’s blog, which, I’ve noticed, sounds increasingly written for a specific and intimate audience of one.

Even so, the sense of loss is palpable. Jake’s heavy machinery sits unused at the edge of their property; his cowboy boots stand at the ready in the mudroom out back. There are still three bottles of his homemade tomato wine in the kitchen cupboard. “When I Come Back to You We’ll Have a Yankee Doodle Wedding,” promises a World War I-era album cover hanging in their home’s entryway. The fences all over Rockbridge County bear his handiwork and his name. He is both everywhere and nowhere.

Independent woman

On Monday, I’ll be celebrating Independence Day by sleeping in, enjoying a hot dog and beer, and praying for Jake’s health and safety. But Jessie, like so many other women and men in her position, is my real American hero. In many ways, marrying into a military family was her declaration of independence, demonstrating just how reliant on others she’d once been — to cook her food, solve her problems, even move her around from place to place. (There’s a reason city folk are accused of living in a state of extended adolescence.) Now that Jake is gone, she feels more self-sufficient than ever. “I can change the oil, start a fire and catch a chicken,” she boasts. I’m in awe of her courage and confidence, and I plan to tell June all about it when she gets older.

Even so, I’m scared. Scared of what might happen to Jake. Scared of what might happen to Jessie. When I visited her last August, she had two dogs and a husband beside her. All are gone now.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I told Jessie last Saturday as we sat on her front porch, drinking wine and watching the occasional pickup truck roar by. The sky was darkening, the fireflies were out and coyotes were howling in the woods nearby. June was asleep in her crib. “I think you should get another dog.” Just a few days before, at the Washington and Lee University library, a young man sneaked up behind her and exposed himself. The experience left her feeling violated, deeply unsettled and unable to sleep. Jessie gave me a look. “Don’t worry,” she smiled. “I learned how to use the Glock.”

by Anna Holmes

The bouquet was sitting beside the front door when we woke up, an arrangement of lilies, roses and snapdragons in a range of pastels. “Happy 4th Anniversary,” the card read; attached was a wrinkled $10 bill. “Ice cream on me! Jake.”

Jessie gathered the vase in her arms and brought it inside. She was beaming. June was sitting at the kitchen table, rubbing scrambled eggs into her face and babbling. A cardinal pecked at the bird feeder outside the window. Later, after June had a nap and a bottle, we drove into town and enjoyed a few scoops of cookies and cream. The only thing missing was Jake.

Jake is in Afghanistan, 7,000 miles away from his home in Lexington, Va. It’s his second deployment — he spent 18 months in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 — but his first tour since he and Jessie married. He left for training in March, when June was just 8 months old; he flew to Afghanistan in May. June turns 1 in a week and a half. Jake, who spends most of his nonmilitary life on his feet building fences and tending to horses, won’t see her learn to walk. The reality of this makes me want to cry.

Despite the presence of 90,000 U.S. servicemen and women in the Afghan region, Americans don’t seem to be doing much crying, or even talking, about the war. Just over a week ago, during President Obama’s announcement of a troop drawdown, I was relaxing in a U Street watering hole with two serious-minded Beltway journalists; aside from a text message from the White House urging me to watch the speech, the topic never came up. The next day, when I asked a friend and political analyst to describe reactions to the president’s speech, she didn’t know what to say.

“There really weren’t any,” she sighed. “No one seems to pay attention anymore, except for people with friends and family there.”

“No one pays attention anymore.” The same could be said about Jessie, albeit for different reasons. For her, avoidance of the reports out of Afghanistan is less about lack of interest and more about self-preservation in the face of crushing anxiety. She doesn’t want to know if Jake’s base was mortared or if a colleague was shot at: “I won’t be able to function.”

She takes the same approach to news about supposed successes, like claims of troop withdrawals or regional stabilization. Jake will be back next April, she hopes. That’s as far as she’s willing to go, because, she says, when you’re living it, “you learn not to listen too closely to what turns out to just be noise.”

Sacrifices to acknowledge

I’m hesitant to call Jessie a military wife. She is so much more — a writer, mother, daughter, sister, gardener, cook, friend. A former New York City magazine editor, she moved to Virginia a few years after meeting Jake while on assignment at a Montana rodeo (he used to be a cowboy). She paid her way through college, navigated the cutthroat terrain and low pay of the Manhattan media scene and somehow found time to create a vibrant social life. Even so, I think she’d agree that being married to an Army captain is one of the most demanding and rewarding roles she’s taken on, not just for the logistical and emotional challenges it presents (upkeep of an eight-acre rural property, care of a young child), but the reactions it inspires in others.

Everyone, of course, means well. People drop by unannounced, bearing gifts of food and labor: an armful of vegetables from Phyllis’s garden, Ellen’s homemade cookies and cakes, Bill’s offers to take the trash to the dump or remove a wasp nest. Invitations to movies and cookouts abound. Her neighbors across the road regularly come down the hill to cut the grass or drop off a pound of deer jerky or some moonshine. (The moonshine comes in flavors such as apricot, pear-cinnamon, strawberry and peach. It’s lethal.) Friends living far away call or text her and worry if she doesn’t respond. At least I do. The other day, a group of local women pooled their funds and gave her a gift certificate for a 90-minute massage.

The constant attention, however, can get tiring and isolating. The questions are often the same: “How’s Jake? How are you holding up? Is there anything I can do to help?” So are the answers, which run the gamut from “I’m doing great” to “It’s not so bad.” Jessie admits that she hasn’t returned the calls of a woman from the Army’s Family Readiness Support group trying to check in. “Sometimes I don’t want to give people the real story, so as not to dishonor the sacrifices made by my husband,” she explains. I try to remind her that she has her own sacrifices to acknowledge and honor.

Support systems

Obviously, Jessie isn’t alone in her situation; there are 2.2 million service members serving in the U.S. military, 53 percent of whom are married. Of those who have been deployed abroad, many, like Jake, are reservists, which is to say that they and their spouses never really expected to find themselves in this position. Joining the armed forces was about serving the country, yes, but it was also about learning life skills and achieving some semblance of financial security. Then life — and two wars — intervened.

This year, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden launched a program to help support military families, which the president praises as “the force behind the force.” The initiative, called Joining Forces, aims to raise awareness of and inspire gratitude for the struggles and successes of military families. Businesses and nonprofit organizations, including Best Buy, Sam’s Club and the YMCA, have signed on to donate time and resources. In mid-June, the first lady met with a group of Hollywood writers and directors to urge them to consider telling more stories about military families.

Technological advances are making a difference, too. During Jake’s 18-month deployment to Iraq, Jessie spoke to him two times on the phone; now the couple talk multiple times a week, often with video accompaniment starring June (bless you, Skype). Jessie sees where Jake sleeps, what’s in his wooden locker (toiletries), what he’s wearing (Army fatigues or silk undershirts), the stray puppy he adopted (she doesn’t have a name yet). Jake follows his family’s day-to-day activities via Jessie’s blog, which, I’ve noticed, sounds increasingly written for a specific and intimate audience of one.

Even so, the sense of loss is palpable. Jake’s heavy machinery sits unused at the edge of their property; his cowboy boots stand at the ready in the mudroom out back. There are still three bottles of his homemade tomato wine in the kitchen cupboard. “When I Come Back to You We’ll Have a Yankee Doodle Wedding,” promises a World War I-era album cover hanging in their home’s entryway. The fences all over Rockbridge County bear his handiwork and his name. He is both everywhere and nowhere.

Independent woman

On Monday, I’ll be celebrating Independence Day by sleeping in, enjoying a hot dog and beer, and praying for Jake’s health and safety. But Jessie, like so many other women and men in her position, is my real American hero. In many ways, marrying into a military family was her declaration of independence, demonstrating just how reliant on others she’d once been — to cook her food, solve her problems, even move her around from place to place. (There’s a reason city folk are accused of living in a state of extended adolescence.) Now that Jake is gone, she feels more self-sufficient than ever. “I can change the oil, start a fire and catch a chicken,” she boasts. I’m in awe of her courage and confidence, and I plan to tell June all about it when she gets older.

Even so, I’m scared. Scared of what might happen to Jake. Scared of what might happen to Jessie. When I visited her last August, she had two dogs and a husband beside her. All are gone now.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I told Jessie last Saturday as we sat on her front porch, drinking wine and watching the occasional pickup truck roar by. The sky was darkening, the fireflies were out and coyotes were howling in the woods nearby. June was asleep in her crib. “I think you should get another dog.” Just a few days before, at the Washington and Lee University library, a young man sneaked up behind her and exposed himself. The experience left her feeling violated, deeply unsettled and unable to sleep. Jessie gave me a look. “Don’t worry,” she smiled. “I learned how to use the Glock.”

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