Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Forgotten Sacrifice

Sitting in the pews of the Post Chapel on Easter morning, I was surprised and saddened by the number of people who had no one there to share the day with. Easter Sunday, a day to spend with family and friends, yet so many were spending it alone.

I found myself staring at the young, smiling woman sitting two rows ahead of us, singing the hymnals in a pretty, soft voice. She smiled at everyone, yet her eyes looked very sad. As the Chaplain prayed for our troops, she glanced at her wedding ring. I wondered if her husband was deployed, and assumed that he was.

I looked at the older man sitting on the other side of the sanctuary, tightly grasping his Bible in two wrinkled, and obviously over-worked, hands. He also glanced at his wedding ring, which looked tarnished and well loved. A veteran, I assumed. And likely someone who outlived his wife. I wondered if she sat at home waiting for him while he served in Korea or Vietnam. I wondered if she, too, had sat in Church alone on many a Sunday morning, waiting for her husband to return home. And I thought about how very much he must miss her.

I glanced toward the young mother in the very back of the Church, struggling to quiet the cries of her two young children. I looked for her spouse, partner, family member—any adult who might be there to help her. But, she and her children were also alone. I wondered if she was a single mother—a single soldier—struggling to care for her children alone, wondering when she may have to leave them again. Or was she was a military wife whose husband was away—again—struggling to balance motherhood with constant worry and fatigue? The look of sadness and exhaustion in her eyes made me assume it was the latter.

I thought back to the dinner our family had out at a local restaurant on Veteran’s Day. They advertised a special for a free meal for military members and retirees. There, too, I saw numerous retired veterans and current service members—some in uniform, others wearing distinctive buzz cuts or tattoos—dining alone. I joked with my husband that we should have invited them all over to our house. I still wish we had.

I thought back also to a recent experience in the airport, picking up a family member. Many US troops were returning from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. As they entered through the arrival gates, the USO representative would call, “welcome home, hero!” and most people would applaud. (My daughter shot scowling glances at those who did not). Most of these soldiers were greeted by smiling (and sometimes crying) spouses, parents, siblings, and children. But, many were not. They walked past the embracing families with their heads hung low, probably headed to the barracks or a small apartment—alone. I hoped they knew how much we all appreciated what they had done, and how happy we were that they were home. I clapped even louder for those troops, just to make sure they heard.

One soldier was greeted by his wife and their baby, who was probably about six months old. The tears that immediately started rolling down the soldier’s face indicated that this was likely the first time he had held—and possibly seen—his child. I wiped the tears from my eyes as well. Although my own husband missed the birth of his oldest son—and I know how often it happens—I am still always struck with sadness when I think of a parent missing the birth, and early months, of their child’s life. I just can’t imagine.

With thousands of military members being deployed at any given time, and each of their families at home, waiting, worrying, and wondering, it’s hard not to notice how many people are here—alone. It also seems hard not to notice military couples struggling to maintain their relationships through multiple deployments, combat stresses, and the lingering effects of war, resulting in high divorce rates and crumbling families. Spouses left behind, children without parents, families breaking apart, mothers and fathers never returning home, children being born with fathers in combat—all right in front of us, there for us to see. Yet it seems that so many of these stories—these people—go unnoticed. It breaks my heart.

So, I’m asking each of you that if you do nothing else to honor—to thank—military families, please do simply this: Notice. Offer a smile, a hug, a helping hand. Military members and spouses may be frequently on their own, but they do not have to be alone. Reach out. Notice. Remember. And never stop saying thank you.

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