As each of my husband’s Navy submarine deployments came to an end, local spouses would e-mail me about the ship’s uncertain date of return. They were attempting to sell tickets to a raffle in which the winner would be the first to kiss her returning sailor. When the time came, journalists would hover to capture the image as hundreds of families, many with young children like mine, waited for hours at an empty lot on base, sometimes exposed to rain, wind, or sun reflecting off the pavement.
As the crew disembarked, kids tried to catch sight of parents they hadn’t seen or spoken to for months, calling out to them from behind barbed wire fences. Amid the hubbub, a singular couple—curiously, almost always a young, white, attractive heterosexual pair—would enjoy the carefully manufactured privilege of having that first kiss.
Following one six-month deployment, I remember being told about the chatter aboard the sub when, through its periscope as the ship approached base, the long “ears” of the male partner of a male submariner were spotted. Being part of a community of “furries,” he was dressed in a giant rabbit costume. Other spouses and sailors wondered what it would have been like if that couple had gotten the coveted raffle ticket.
What message would the American public then get about military families? Would they even be allowed to appear? “It’d actually be kind of perfect,” a friend of mine and military spouse (about to enter a graduate program and live separately from her Navy husband for years) told me, wryly.
We agreed that such a moment would have offered a needed balance to the Stepford-wife-style images of military families to which Americans have grown accustomed.
Beyond the cameras
I’m a Navy spouse. My husband has served two tours on a nuclear submarine and spent two shore duties at the Pentagon while we’ve been together. We’ve moved three times with our young children and that’s a modest number compared to so many hundreds of other military families I’ve met in our community and through my work as a therapist-in-training.
While I haven’t experienced the life-and-death costs of war like the families of so many U.S. troops who have served in this country’s twenty-first-century war zones, I’ve co-edited a book, War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which documents the health costs of our endless post-9/11 conflicts. In 2011, I also co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which continues to document the human and financial tolls caused by those wars.
So I’m no stranger to the experience of war in its grim diversity. Which is why I cringed when, during President Trump’s recent State of the Union Address, he used a family reunion—an Army sergeant first class brought back from seven months in Afghanistan, his fourth tour of duty in America’s forever wars—to show his empathy for the strains such conflicts place on the U.S. military. In the process, he claimed a rare moment of bipartisan accord. An attractive young husband and wife embraced in the gallery of the House of Representatives while their two well-behaved children beamed. Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, clapped, and close-ups of figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence displayed solemn faces, respectful of this intimately staged public moment.
As I watched that scene, I wondered: What about the family members of the other 1.4 million active-duty service members today? What are they experiencing as they catch this scene and think about their families? What have their reunions felt like?
The family is probably the most significant form of support that American troops have today, so it’s obviously convenient to believe that such families are capable, stable, and instagrammable. Their capacity to withstand the repeated long deployments of the post-9/11 years, whether in war zones or not, says a great deal about this country, its unity, and its security.
I have some experience with this. I’ve spoken with hundreds of military families over the past nine years of my own marriage. The vast majority of them do not look like, act like, or fulfill the fantasies engendered by that couple Trump highlighted in his State of the Union moment; nor, in fact, do they resemble those who regularly seem to win that chance to reunite first with their loved ones during the end-of-deployment ceremonies I’ve witnessed.
Military families and marriages are anything but perfect or stereotypical. For starters, a surprising number of military couples are openly gay. Some are also headed by women—and their partners are often much less able or willing than the wives of male troops to follow their spouses from post to post.
Many military families I’ve met have at least one member with developmental or physical disabilities or a chronic mental illness like bipolar disorder or severe depression. And the vast majority of couples I’ve run into have significant marital conflicts related to repeated deployments in this country’s war zones and other parts of the world. In the military universe I live in, for instance, no one bats an eye when an officer appears alone at his farewell party at the end of a tour of duty without the spouse who originally accompanied him to that post. In my experience, this is the rule, not the exception for such events.
Even in the best of circumstances, when families stay intact, spouses often engage in risky practices like heavy drinking, drug use, spending way beyond their means, or gambling, among other self-destructive activities. Add in stressors like caring for heartsick, mentally ill, or disabled children alone, or being bullied by commanding officers or the spouses of commanders who pressure spouses to work at volunteer events to prove their love for family members overseas.
Remember as well that, during deployments, spouses can’t communicate honestly with each other, given censorship by military commanders who scan communications for “sensitive” information that might distress those meant to fight—like news that a family member is ill.
As anthropologists Jean Scandlyn and Sarah Hautzinger point out, the more months soldiers are deployed, the higher the risk of divorce, with 97% of such divorces taking place soon after a deployment ends. A recent National Institutes of Health study suggests that children of deployed parents display more aggressive behavior and greater symptoms of depression and anxiety than do civilian children (though the difference is modest).
As it happens, we know remarkably little about health indicators among military spouses. A recent review of health surveys from 2010 and 2012, however, suggests that one in five spouses of active-duty Army members were then overweight, a third were obese, and about 8% reported themselves as heavy drinkers. Many in this last group claimed to be stressed out by information (or the lack of it) regarding spousal deployments or other aspects of their spouses’ jobs.
In short, despite the image of that couple the president highlighted in that State of the Union moment, all evidence indicates that military service tends to erode the fabric of family life and that, in reality, the state of America’s most fundamental union is anything but strong.
And yet, who do we military families have to rely on but one another, however imperfect we may be?
When the toddler of a spouse in my husband’s command was gravely ill, we other spouses helped her locate a civilian doctor agreeable to treating the child at a reduced cost outside the military hospital where doctors chalked up the toddler’s dwindling weight to poor parenting. When, during a different deployment, a partner grew depressed, another spouse gave her mental health counseling free of charge every day.
Other spouses and I have shared countless opportunities to workshop our resumes, introduce one another to prospective employers, share information about reliable childcare, or look after one another’s children when someone grew ill and we were far from family members who could help. In 2016, after a difficult move, I compiled some of our concerns into a letter to Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, founders of Joining Forces, documenting the lack of access to healthcare and childcare for military spouses, as well as the military bureaucracy’s grotesque lack of accountability for such things. With another spouse, I requested a meeting, but never received a response.
In recent years, however clumsily, the government has come to recognize how crucial loved ones are to caring for veterans, if not the troops themselves. In her essay “Afterwar Work for Life” in War and Health, anthropologist Zoe Wool describes the Veterans Affairs caregiver program that provides wives and other immediate family members of war-injured veterans with salary replacement, specialized training, and mental health services, among other kinds of support.
Strikingly, however, only about a third of the people actually taking care of post-9/11 veterans—with or without government support—are spouses. About 25% are parents and 23% are friends and neighbors. Yet the government will fund and assist only people who are either related to veterans or live with them and will support only one caregiver at a time per veteran, an immense burden for a single person.
What happens when the soldiers from the Afghan War finally come home?
The Trump administration is now preparing for an (already somewhat shaky) pull out of American troops from Afghanistan by 2021. Meanwhile, those of us in military communities are looking for reassurance that some of the 600,000 uniformed troops who have survived the longest war — and the war with the largest number of troops serving multiple combat tours of duty — in American history have lives to return to. About a million service members from those post-9/11 wars have some kind of officially recognized disability. Many more live with unrecognized injuries, often invisible and related to mental illnesses such as depression and PTSD, chronic pain, or traumatic brain injuries.
Raising American consciousness about the aftermath of this war is going to be tough, though. Fewer veterans have fought in Afghanistan than in any other recent American war and it’s been the veterans of foreign wars who have kept alive the issue of the health problems such military families face. It’s veterans who often help returning troops register for disability status, counsel them on how to navigate the court system, drive them to their medical appointments, and serve as peer health advocates and counselors.
All this leaves me wondering what will happen to Afghan veterans who endured longer and more frequent deployments than their counterparts from the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the first Gulf War. With the end of our draft system in 1973, it’s become so much easier to convince the public that military families are okay. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center Survey, more than three-quarters of adults aged 50 and older reported that they had an immediate family member who had served in the military. Only a third of adults ages 18 to 29 could say the same.
In short, most Americans no longer have first-hand or even second-hand knowledge of what it’s like to serve in the military during such wars. Bases, even in this country, are enclosed and heavily guarded. (They weren’t always this way.) And the unpaid volunteer work military spouses are expected to perform does not help them interact with civilian families.
In other words, Americans know remarkably little about the lives of the uniformed troops who fight wars in their names and largely live separated from them on islands in this country.
One alternative might be for every American to begin bearing witness to the disastrous forever wars of this century, to those Americans still fighting them, and to the many hundreds of thousands of people, including civilians in the war zones, whose lives have been uprooted and damaged by them or who have lost their lives in them.
Believe me, the beautiful family at Trump’s State of the Union address represents next to nothing when it comes to actual life in the military in 2020. Nor do I. Nor does the gay couple I mentioned at one of my husband’s submarine homecomings.
In fact, there is no category that can simply be labeled “military family.” There are only shared experiences among people who often disperse as quickly as each tour of duty ends, as each war fades from public consciousness.
Certainly, if you want to get a different impression of America’s wars and life in the military, you could sign up for the Costs of War Project’s mailing list or that of UCLA’s Palm Center, whose courageous research and advocacy for marginalized members of the military, including transgender and female service members, provides a much-needed counter current to clichéd images of husbands and wives embracing.
Afterword, after war
Recently, my husband made the difficult decision to leave the submarine service so that our family might have a chance of spending our lives (or at least the next few years) in the same place together, whatever his service might be. He had grown tired of returning from trips to find that our children no longer really recognized him; nor, sometimes, he them. He used to blush and look at the ground when extended family and acquaintances commended him for the sacrifices he was making in serving our country.
After he announced that he would never again serve on a submarine, I noticed him using the word “sacrifice” for the first time; he would, the implication was, make the sacrifice of leaving that service. This felt odd to me. After all, he would spend the next several years working eight-hour days instead of 16- to 18-hour ones. He would be relatively immune from hazing by commanders with unrestrained bad tempers and untreated combat trauma. And of course, we would be together.
I soon learned that what he felt he was sacrificing was a sense of meaning and of belonging to something larger than himself.
At the same time, what we both knew but never stated outright to one another was that, had he continued on those submarines much longer, our family, even if together in name and law, would no longer have understood one another.
In the meantime, maybe it’s a moment for Americans not in the armed forces to stop thinking it’s enough to thank anyone in uniform for his or her service or place those yellow-ribbon bumper stickers on their cars—and to focus instead on almost 19 years of disastrous and destructive American wars abroad and what they’ve done to those very troops and their families. If more people studied up on the lives of military personnel and their families, they might write and lobby members of Congress strongly advocating support for them and for stressed out military children and their parents who are forced to leave their friends, doctors, and relatives behind every few years. Because make no mistake: even if (and that’s a big “if”) the longest of wars is slowly ending and our troops are actually pulling out of Afghanistan, as the agreement with the Taliban claims, the struggle to support the staggering numbers of service members and their families wounded (in the broadest sense imaginable) by that war, no less our other still-unending conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa, has yet to come close to peaking. It won’t do so until those veterans (and their families) age perhaps another 30 years.
As a country, the real future war for us may be keeping their struggles alive in our consciousness so that more than just their aging spouses, wounded in their own ways, remain on deck to care for them.