Sunday, December 23, 2012

If I Had Known ...

Recently, I heard a woman on Married to the Army: Alaska say that if she had known what the military life had in store for her, she would have run as fast as she could in the other direction.  This sentiment is understandable.  This life is hard.  Incredibly hard.  The countless separations, unpredictable cross-country (or international) moves, constant fear and worry.  It often seems like too much to endure.  This made me wonder:  If I had known, what would I have done? 

If I had known that my husband and I would be apart for more than half of our marriage, would I still have said yes when he asked me to go on a date with him?  If I had known that my life would eventually revolve around where and when the Army decides to move us, would I still have fallen in love with him?  If I had known that our children would cry themselves to sleep many nights missing their Daddy, would I still have stayed by his side through that first 15-month deployment? If I had known that I would spend much of our marriage in fear for his safety, would I still have said yes when he asked me to marry him?  If I had known that I would spend so many nights with a cell phone clasped in my hand, would I still have held his hand and vowed to love him forever? 

The answer is yes. 

In fact, if I had known how weak in the knees I would get when he kissed me on the forehead after our first date, I would have agreed to go out with him much earlier.  If I had known that he would become my best friend and strongest supporter, I would have given my heart to him much easier. If I had known what an incredible father he would be to our children, I would have married him much sooner.  If I had known how safe I would feel lying next to him, I would have held him much closer.  If I had known how incredibly painful it would be to be away from him, I would have loved him even more. 

If I had known what an incredible man I had found, I would have cherished him from the beginning. If I had known what this life had in store for us, I would have been more grateful for every kiss, every moment of joy and laughter, every second of our lives together.  

And even today, as we're separated yet again, I know that despite all of the heartache and loneliness, and even with everything I know now, I still--and always will--choose him. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

The End of the World

Most people agree that the world will not end today, despite the Mayans’ prediction. Some have even interpreted the Mayan calendar to mean that the world will not end, but rather that today will mark the beginning of a new era.  Some say that December 21, 2012 will be the end of fighting, war, bigotry, and violence; and the beginning of brother/sisterhood, love, and compassion.  Given the events we have seen this year, I certainly hope this is true.

A week ago today, 20 beautiful young children and six adults were murdered in an elementary school in Connecticut.  Every day, women are being murdered by spouses and boyfriends—people who they are supposed to be able to trust.  Every day, soldiers are being ripped away from their families to fight wars, many of whom never return home.  I truly, truly hope this will all end.  It has to. 

I want today to be an end of sorts for me, too.  I want – no, I’m going to make today be an end to self-criticism and blame, depression, anxiety, and fear.  Oh yes, please let it be the end of fear.  So much of the pain in our lives is caused by fear.  Fear of being a failure. Fear of being hurt.  Fear that you’re not good enough, strong enough, kind enough, attractive enough … just, enough.  And I believe much of the tragedy and violence we’ve seen in our world is caused by this fear as well.  Fear that leads to insecurities.  Fear that leads us to turn on ourselves and one another.  Fear that is consuming our lives and our world.  It’s time for this world to end. 

Today, I commit to starting a new life, a new world for me and those around me—a world based on love, not on fear.  I commit to turning all negative or fearful thoughts into loving ones.  Instead of thinking, “ugh, I didn’t make it to the gym” or “I can’t believe I ate that,” I will think, “I love and am grateful for my body.” This love will inevitably encourage me to care for my body much more than any amount of self-criticism or blame ever could.

Instead of being afraid to take chances in my career, I will be grateful and courageous.  Instead of thinking, “I can’t,” I will think, “I am capable of anything, and I will.

 Instead of being afraid of failing as a mother, I will be loving and grateful.  I will follow the motto I am constantly sharing with expectant parents: Just love them, then love them some more. And when you don’t know what else to do, just keep on loving them.  With this much love, there can be no room for fear. 

Instead of being afraid in my marriage, I will be grateful for my amazing husband and partner. Being separated so many times by deployments, unaccompanied tours, and schools makes it difficult not to fear.  But, instead of thinking, “I can’t believe he’s gone again,” I will think, “I know he didn’t want to go, and we will get through this together.” 

Instead of being afraid to reach out to friends for help and support, I will feel grateful for the love in my life, and send out love and gratitude in return.  I will surround myself with love—both by giving and receiving. 

Starting today, I choose not to be afraid. I choose to think, feel, react, and live by love. I don’t have power over whether the world will change today.  But, I have power over whether I do.  And today, I choose to make a new beginning.  Starting today, I choose a new world.  I choose love. 

Happy December 21, 2012. Let’s make it a great one. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dear Military Spouse

On this Military Spouse Appreciate Day, I just wanted to say …

Thank you for keeping your households, your families, going through deployments, separations, repeated cross country moves, and countless uncertainties.

Thank you for knowing how to make your house a home, no matter where it may be.

Thank you for building friendships quickly and cherishing them eternally.

Thank you for the tears you shed every time a hero is lost—not only because you know what could have been, but also because you feel the pain of those left behind.

Thank you for clenching the phone and whispering sweet nothings to your spouse who’s away, even when static and poor connections cut the conversation short, and even with the frightening sound of bombs exploding in the background. And thank you loving him or her enough to keep picking up the phone, each and every time.

Thank you for enduring dates over a phone line or webcam, anniversaries spent on different continents, and birthdays celebrated alone—again.

Thank you for working, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, soothing, chauffeuring, and tutoring, all with a phone held tightly by your side and an instant messenger constantly on and waiting.

Thank you for being by my side while my husband was deployed—again—even if yours was as well.

Thank you for understanding that when I said “everything’s ok,” I really meant, “I need a hug.”

And thank you for knowing that “I’m a little sleepy” meant “I’m worried sick and haven’t slept in weeks.”

Thank you for cherishing every moment with your spouse, and understanding that we truly never know how many moments we may get.

Thank you for the boxes of cookies, inspirational cards, books, and care packages you have sent to the Middle East—even while your spouse was at home next to you.

Thank you for being the first to ask, “What can I do to help?” and the last to leave after everyone else has gone home.

Thank you for knowing that Welcome Home is just the beginning of the journey.

Thank you for nurturing, caring for, hugging, kissing, and comforting your children—often alone—even when you feel like giving up.

Thank you for always remembering that we are still at war, even after the news, and the world, seems to have forgotten.

Thank you for welcoming me into your home, your life, your family, even when I felt like I did not belong.

Thank you for being some of the strongest, most dedicated, most devoted people I have ever known, and for letting me learn from you each day.

And thank you for loving someone so deeply, so completely that you sacrifice more than anyone else could ever understand.

On this day, our day, I just want to say …

Thank YOU.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maybe It's Not All the Military, After All

Lying in bed one night, staring at his side of the bed--which was, once again, empty--sobbing uncontrollably, I started to wonder what was truly causing all of my grief, all of this anxiety. Is this really all happening because of this life? Am I really this distraught over him being gone--again--or is there something more, something deeper? My husband has been to Iraq three times, Afghanistan once, and countless other remote areas prior to these wars. While we weren't together for all of these deployments, we have spent the majority of our relationship at war. No, actually, we've spent our entire relationship in a war--either with him deployed, or with us dealing with the ramifications while he's home. And now, he was gone just for a school--a short, six week stint that is as normal as Sunday brunch (perhaps more so) to any military family. So, why am I now having an uncontrollable meltdown?

I realized that my fears are connected to much more than this military life. Yes, there is the persistent frustration and exhaustion associated with having to deal with everything on my own--again. Yes, there is the anxiety and sadness associated with your life partner and best friend being away--always. And yes, there is the constant worry about what may happen, even when he's just a few hours, and a gloriously non-interrupted domestic, phone call away. But, there's more ...

We've been so wrapped up in dealing with my husband's trauma and the effects this war, these wars, have had on us. The mood shifts, the nightmares, the depression. The memories that are too strong and too unimaginable for him to ever erase. Those memories that he is now starting to share with me. A development in our relationship that I am grateful for, although these images now haunt my thoughts and dreams, as well. But, there's also this nagging feeling that I don't feel safe--again. That I may never truly feel safe. As I lie in our bed crying, trembling, I feel completely and utterly vulnerable. Afraid. And I know that, although being at war has caused the fire of fear to spread throughout our relationship, it didn't light the match.

As women, most of us are dealing with trauma and fear that stem from far before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, possibly far before we ever met our spouses. About half of women have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lives--including attempted and completed rapes. Half. And about one out of every five has been in an abusive relationship. Some are facing these issues right now. As women, we deal with sexual harassment, discrimination, and countless other struggles, each and every day. We are cautioned by loved ones and our own internal voices to park in well-lit areas, stay near friends, don't go out too late alone, keep our children close. We are constantly bombarded by reminders that we are not safe. That our children are not safe. At least, not completely. And, for many of us, facing the reality of war, and of our partners never returning the same as they left, adds to these already existing layers of fear. I know it did for me.

I was sexually abused by my step-grandfather my entire childhood. I disclosed the abuse to my grandmother (who raised me) when I was 15. She threw me out of the house. I dealt with the effects of this abuse for years. And, by dealt with, I mean ignored, ran from, jumped into unhealthy relationships to avoid, and lived in denial of--until I finally started to face it. After a lot of hard work, and incredible support from friends, I started to truly believe that it was not my fault, and that he could no longer hurt me. I even dedicated my career to helping other abuse survivors.  I finally, truly, felt safe.

And then ... we were at war.

My husband is the only man I have ever truly felt safe with. I can lie with him, completely vulnerable, and know that he would never hurt me. Never. I finally got to the point that I could trust him, wholeheartedly, without reservation. But yet, he leaves me. And when he is leaving to fight for us, for all of us, my own guilt won't let me be truly angry with him, or face how very scared I am to be vulnerable again. But, with him safely just a few hours away, my true feelings begin to emerge. I am angry at him for leaving me again. I am angry because I feel vulnerable. I am angry because he was supposed to protect me (as much as that statement makes my feminist skin crawl). And most of all, I'm scared. Even as I type that, my stomach hurts, because it's not something I like to admit. I'm scared because I love this man so very much. And I know that I can't protect him. I can't protect him from going back to war. And I can't protect him from the horrific things he's had to endure. And if I can't protect him, maybe that also means I can't protect myself, and neither can he. After all, isn't he now just as vulnerable as I am?

I have always been fiercely independent, and the thought of relying on anyone--especially a man--even if only for love and support, is frightening. The thought of relying on someone who is also now broken in some way--well, that's almost unbearable.

I have learned through my work with victims of sexual and domestic violence that trauma is like an onion. It's layered and complex, with repeated trauma building upon our prior histories. As we add on years of war and deployments and fear, the onion gets bigger and bigger. And for me, this onion has now, once again, brought me to tears. Uncontrollable, relentless tears. If I only look at the outer layer of this onion, it looks to be born completely of war and the turmoil of this military life. But, if I do that, I am missing the true culprit, the core, of my anxiety and distress. For me, and I believe for many women, the core is fear.  Fear caused not only by this war, or any war, but by a lifetime of experiences, often including abuse and assaults.

I felt overwhelmed by this realization--that I now had to revisit and re-address my own trauma. But, I knew that I would have to before I could truly help my husband, and myself. Now, I use my own experiences to relate to what he's experiencing. We compare things that trigger memories for us--the cologne worn by my grandfather for me, the smell of anything burning for him; the feeling of vulnerability for me; the feeling of rejection for him. We compare nightmares, and offer each other comfort. And we reassure each other that to be hurt does not mean that we're broken, it means we're human. Bonding through trauma may seem odd for some, but for us, it's life changing. It's necessary.

Before we can ever truly feel safe with our soldiers, we have to feel safe with ourselves. And if we haven't yet been able to face the past trauma we've experienced, or if it's just time to revisit it, there's no better time than the present. While the thought of facing your own trauma while also experiencing his may be daunting, the alternative is impossible.

I am comforted by the thought that all military spouses stand with me, as I stand with them--as spouses, as mothers, as women. And together, we can free ourselves of fear, and finally feel--truly--safe.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Military Child

Our youngest son, Q, absolutely adores his Daddy. They look alike, talk alike, act alike, and share the same ornery smile. People often say that Q is my husband’s clone, which is a pretty accurate description. When they’re together, they both light up, and you can easily see that there’s nowhere else they’d rather be. But, unfortunately, in Q’s six short years, Daddy has spent more time in Iraq than in the U.S.. Daddy has missed most of Q’s birthdays and many important holidays. And, now that we’ve PCSed 18 hours away, Daddy and Q only get to be together on holidays and during the summer. (Q and his brother are my step sons--although we don't use that term--and live most of the year with their Mom).

Because he doesn’t get to see his Dad often, Q loves to see anyone who is dressed like Daddy. And, since the boys live with their Mom, they aren’t around a lot of military folks. So, when Q does see someone in uniform, he always yells, “a soldier, a soldier!” If my husband is with us, Q will ask, “Daddy, do you know them?” To which my husband will quip, “Yeah, they look familiar.” And Q will sit back content, proud of himself for once again reuniting Daddy with a long lost friend. Q likes playing with his Army men (GI Joes, of course) and loves anything in camo. Basically, he just loves anything that reminds him of Daddy, especially when he’s far away.

During my husband’s last deployment, my daughter and I would make the drive to visit the boys as often as we could. They missed us and would always ask us to visit. But, to be honest, I selfishly just needed to be with them—to have as much of our family together as we possibly could. We would rent a family room at the nearby Air Force Base, which was right outside the playground. (Our children coined this the “park hotel.”) The playground is complete with all the staples: slides, swings, merry-go-round, jungle gym. But, it also has a large globe, where children can play and learn about the world. During our last visit, Q went to the globe and asked, “Where is Daddy?” I sat beside him and pointed to Iraq. And then, I held his hand and traced the path from Iraq to our home. “That doesn’t look so far,” Q said. “But, it takes a long time to get there, huh?” “Yes,” I said. “But, hugs and kisses get there really fast.”

After staring at the globe for a while, and tracing the path from Iraq to home back and forth several times, Q looked up to see an older boy looming around. “My Daddy’s in Iraq,” Q said, pointing at the spot on the globe. “Yeah,” the boy responded, “mine’s been there, too. But, he’s home now.” Q’s eyes lit up. “Your Dad’s been there, too?!” “Yeah,” the kid said, as if everyone he knows has been there, so why would it be a big deal? “He’s right over there,” the boy said, pointing at a tall man pushing a baby girl on the swings. Q immediately sprung to his feet and ran to meet this man who had also been to Iraq. Somewhat unsure of what he was about to do (and thinking that it could be anything from introducing himself to asking for a ride to pick up Daddy), I of course ran after him.

Q tugged on the man’s leg and excitedly asked, “Did you see my Dad in Iraq?” The Airman at first looked confused, but then just smiled. He had a tender look in his eyes—the look of a Dad who has had to leave his babies far too many times. “Wait, what’s your name?” he asked. Q responded. “Oh, yes! I did meet your Dad! He’s very strong, right?” “Yep,” Q said, proudly. “Yes, he’s a good guy. And he misses you very, very much. He can’t wait to get home.” Q’s face lit up with a huge smile. Then, somewhat hesitantly, Q asked, “Is he ok?” The Airman dropped down to look Q in the eyes. “Yes, he’s ok. He’s safe. He said he has lots of love from his family to protect him.” “Yeah,” Q said, “we sent him lots of that.” “Well,” assured the Airman, “keep doing it. It’s working. And I’m sure he’ll be home soon.”

As Q skipped off to tell his big brother and sister the good news, I stood there with tears rolling down my face, and whispered “thank you” to the kind man. He just nodded and smiled, with that look that says I understand.

After the kids were done playing, we went inside and talked to Daddy on Skype. Q gleefully retold the story of meeting Daddy’s friend at the park. My husband looked confused for a moment, until I leaned over Q’s shoulder and winked, indicating that he should just play along. “Ooooh yeah, I’m glad he found you. Did he tell you that I miss you a lot?” “Yep,” Q said. “Well, I do, you know. And I can’t wait to give you a big squeeze.” “Me too, Daddy.” Q then trotted off to play (or torment) his older siblings, happy and content.

We would have many conversations after that about where Daddy was, when he was coming home, whether he was safe, and why he needed to be there. But, the reassurance he received from that kind Airman would keep him going for the rest of that tour. And if one of our other children asked why Daddy always had to be gone, Q would respond, “because he’s a good soldier, and they need him there.” Although Q was often the saddest without Daddy home, he is also the most proud. He loves to tell people that his Daddy is a soldier and that he sometimes has to go far, far away to protect people.

Q still doesn’t completely understand what a deployment means. Anytime I tell him that Daddy’s at work, Q assumes he’s in Iraq again, and will sigh with understanding. When I tell him that Daddy’s just at his office, which is just a few minutes away, he always seems confused, but happy. And when he does get to finally be with Daddy, he relishes every moment, and every hug and kiss that he finally gets to have in person.

This is a military child. A child who has said way too many goodbyes. A child who sees his Dad more on webcam than in person. But, a child who understands the true meaning of gratitude—gratitude for our soldier, gratitude for the kindness of a stranger, and gratitude for every moment we do have together. A child, just like so many other military children, whose heart is big enough to span the ocean. And a child whom we all could learn so much from, if we just take the time to listen.

April is the Month of the Military Child. Take the time to listen to a child, and give a few extra hugs, today.