A Spouse Confronts the Military-Civilian Divide
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
A Spouse Confronts the Military-Civilian Divide
By HEATHER SWEENEY
As published in the NY times this week.
As long as I’ve been a military spouse, I’ve always lived in a military town, surrounded by military families. Typical discussions with friends revolve around the trials and tribulations of deployments, packing and moving, and our husbands’ unpredictable work schedules. I’m blanketed with empathy, and I never have to articulate my feelings because those in the military community understand.
It never occurred to me that my lifestyle was a foreign concept to civilians until a conversation I shared with a nonmilitary friend during my husband’s second combat deployment. After asking the usual questions about how he was doing and how long he’d been gone, she startled me with this one: “So how long after he returns home can he get out?”
“Get out of the military?” I asked, somewhat confused.
“Of course,” she continued, somewhat confused herself. “Doesn’t he want a normal job? Don’t you want him to have a normal job?”
I offered a feeble attempt at explaining that my husband had no intention of leaving the military anytime in the near future and that I wholeheartedly supported his career despite the hardships. But as her eyes glazed over and her attention waned, I felt my words were falling on deaf ears. That’s when I realized how wide the chasm was between civilian and military communities. If a close friend, someone who has an emotional connection to a service member, isn’t able to comprehend our lifestyle, then how can I expect the general public to understand?
I’m certainly not the only military spouse who senses that disconnect. According to a 2010 survey conducted by Blue Star Families, a nonprofit organization supporting military families, 92 percent of military family respondents felt that the general public did not truly understand or appreciate the sacrifices made by service members and their families. The psyche of the military family probably isn’t a blip on most people’s radars. And I’ve learned to accept that without considering whether there is a way to bridge the gap instead of ignoring it.
After that conversation with my friend, I became more guarded about my military lifestyle, sharing as little information with civilians as possible. I know that the second I reveal to the nice mom sitting next to me at the playground that my husband is deployed, I’ll be barraged with a series of frustrating questions, and my answers will do nothing but open the door to more frustrating questions. “No, I don’t know exactly where my husband is” leads to “Yes, it bothers me that I don’t know when I’ll hear from him again,” which of course paves the way for “I don’t know how I do it all either, but I don’t have any other option.” When the discussion inevitably shifts gears with the introduction of a political debate about the war, I politely excuse myself and blame my children for a bathroom break.
Military life, with all of its inherent complications, isn’t easy to comprehend, but sadly, I’m not certain the general public wants to understand it. I’ve seen the apathy in the eyes of women who brush me off with a quick, “I could never live like that” before changing the subject. And I’ve read the not-so-subtle cynicism in the comments of blog readers who wish we would all stop complaining because, in their eyes, we knew what we were getting into when we married a service member during wartime.
Most of the questions and comments directed at me have been harmless and well intended, but some of my friends have been on the receiving end of much more insensitive interactions with civilians. They have dodged questions like: How do you feel knowing your husband may have to kill someone? What would you do if your husband was killed? How can you support the war? How can you have children when you know what kind of life they’ll be forced to live? Don’t all military spouses cheat on their husbands while they’re deployed? It’s a shame to think that these questions may be a reflection of how the public perceives military spouses, and that perception does nothing but widen the gap.
On the other hand, I have encountered people who do show interest in learning more about military families, and I don’t mind answering questions that are based on genuine curiosity. I do mind questions that either force me to state the obvious or put me on the defensive. “How long will your husband be deployed?” is perfectly acceptable and expected. However, “Don’t you hate it that your children are without a father for that long?” isn’t the best question to ask. Of course I hate it (stating the obvious), but even after admitting that, I feel obliged to offer an explanation as to why I’ve allowed my husband to shirk his parenting duties (now I’m defensive).
I realize that it may be awkward interacting with a military spouse who is coping with a deployment because the right words don’t seem to exist. But I can let you in on a little secret. The two best questions I’ve ever been asked were “What does your husband need and where do I send it?” and “Do you need a free baby sitter?” Questions like these may not prompt insightful portrayals of our lives, but they open the door to future discussions as well as convey a desire to help.
In a way, I can’t blame civilians for their lack of awareness. After all, before my husband joined the military I had no idea what it meant to be a military spouse. I had no clue about the sacrifices we would both be making in the name of patriotism, nor did I anticipate the challenges of the lifestyle I had unwittingly agreed to when my husband raised his right hand and took that oath. Everything I know about military life is through personal experience and the adventures I’ve lived vicariously through other military spouses. But for people who can’t experience the lifestyle themselves or through a friend or family member, it’s easy to overlook the military population.
I often think back to that conversation with my friend and wish I had made more of an effort to talk about my life instead of dismissing her as uninterested. I wish I had explained what I was going through at the time and asked her for the support I was silently seeking. She might not have been able to empathize, but she might have been a shoulder for me to lean on. Maybe one day we can pick up where we left off and find a way to meet somewhere in the middle of that great divide.
Heather Sweeney is married to an active-duty service member and lives in Virginia. She is a mother of two, a teacher and a freelance writer.