Monday, November 23, 2015
"You never know if it will be the last time they go."
This is the chant of every military spouse across the world as their loved ones prepare to deploy. We're all stacked in a giant room somewhere on some base in some state. We're getting the family briefing about what's expected of us as military wives and husbands. "Semper Gumbi" the family liaison tells us. "Always flexible." The soldiers are the ones who go to war, but the families are the ones who are sick with worry, dreading every television, every radio. We put on brave faces for our children and our spouses.
We're all of us crumbling on the inside and it shows in the lines made harsh against the fluorescent lighting overhead. We hold each other's hands as we all pray desperate prayers that everyone in the unit comes home safe and sound. We pray that we don't see soldiers marching to our door with "The Letter." We pray we never hear guns saluting another's husband, another's wife. Our husband, our wife. We're greedy for moments in suspended animation where we get a fleeting glimpse of our loved one's faces on Skype, a breath in a lifetime of the comings and goings of war. Some of us not so secretly decry the government's choice not to provide certain things for their warriors, home and abroad. We go through the minutiae of lining up toiletries and photos in sealed plastic frames for their lockers. We try to sneak in sexy reminders of ourselves to keep them going. A bit of lace, a photograph from behind, a few notes. Something for them to find when they're looking for socks, or hanging out, reloading a magazine of bullets.
Every time our spouses come home with "the look," we know. We know. There's a ritual. Maybe we go out for dinner, maybe we order pizza. There's always wine. Always a desperate night together. There's a physical and emotional need to imprint on one another before...before. They're given R&R pre-deployment, and the soldiers toss their kids in the air, make videos, play horsey with their little princesses just a few more times. There is an urgency that weighs on the whole house. It's the knot of fear and the pall of looming separation.
War is dirty and bloody work that changes a person on a cellular level. The person who leaves is seldom the person who returns. We do the best we can. Most soldiers don't talk about it. The way we learn is deep in the night, when their bodies are wracked with tremors and terrors that make them scream out and sweat. When they murmur the names of the ones left behind when they think no one is listening. When the sight of a little girl crying sends them to a dark, dark place where love and a healing gesture do little to staunch the pain of what they see in their mind's eye.
And then, one day, some of us get "the call." Your spouse has been injured in the line of duty. They're being transported to Ramstein AFB, and your world starts to go very spotty around the edges, and your fingers go numb, and the child at your breast begins to wail because you've sat back, and she's detached. Your limbs feel too heavy for your body and every other minute you're looking out your front window for the soldiers. Will today be the day you see the soldiers? Pressed and present in their dress uniforms. "Casualty Notification Officers" and "Casualty Assistance Officers" gives the job such a pretty title. A job that absolutely no soldier wants to perform. You never put the phone down. You hold it and pray it rings and tells you they're ok. It was a broken ankle or nose or road rash.
He's been shot, they say. There's no more information for hours. Just, "he's been shot." It won't be until zero dark who the hell knows that you learn that it avoided all of the major organs, but hit a nerve that may mean he's never able to walk again without serious pain. That on top of going to war, he's going to come home and be forced to make decisions he wasn't ready to make. What is he if not a warrior? It will be several more hours before you learn that his entire posterior flank is littered with dirty and rusty shrapnel from an exploded IED, and that two men, two good men, won't be returning at all. You feel sick. Sick because you know how much those wives, their mothers, their children are hurting, sick because you're tired of TAPS, sick because you're so ungodly relieved it wasn't your husband. Not this time.
And you get to DC, and he meets you there. His face is completely blank as they wheel him on the tarmac. He's got his earbuds in so he has no idea I'm yelling to him from fifty paces. I'm screaming and crying and the relief in my body is so strong it's all I can do to hold onto my children and stay upright. He's whole. He's whole and he's here, and I can see him. I turn and hand the baby to my sister beside me and take off. I run as fast as I possibly can and skid my knees on the rough surface of the pavement before him and cry from a place in my soul I never knew was there. He smiles so gently and strokes the hair from my face and knots it at the back of my head and I feel it. There's a tremor there that's not been there before. My brave, strong warrior is as relieved as I am. He kisses me with an intensity that can only be described as completely inappropriate for the setting, and laughs when he sees the baby's insane troll-doll hair, and our oldest's bedazzled flag. "Babe, where did you find a sequined flag?" And it's still him. Different, but still him.
And it begins again.