Friday, November 14, 2014

The Silent Rank: Life as a Military Spouse

This past week, we marked Remembrance Day. Around the world, ceremonies were held, moments of silence observed, and thoughts dedicated to the soldiers that have experienced great personal sacrifice in order to allow us to enjoy the freedoms that we do today.

Even the most devoted pacifist must admit that although we do not always agree with the causes behind the conflicts that our countries may engage in, we must respect the bravery and strength of those who are willing to lay down their own lives for the freedom of so many that they do not even know. I have huge respect for our Canadian armed forces, and always have done.

Recently, I was speaking with an old elementary school friend of mine- we will call her "Diana"- whose husband is a Sergeant with the First Combat Engineer Regiment. We were having a casual conversation about the ups and downs of our lives: antics of our toddlers, who are only 6 weeks apart in age, arguments with fellow mothers... pretty standard stuff. In the course of our discussion, my friend mentioned that her husband was on an exercise, and that she was having a hard time getting everything she'd like accomplished.

The offhand remark got me to really thinking about the life that one must lead as a military spouse. Soldiers are generally lauded and revered, and rightly so, but one rarely hears much appreciation expressed for their support systems. Luckily for me, Diana was interested in answering my questions and giving me a little bit of insight into what it's like to be married to, and raising a family with, an active service member with the Canadian military.

When I sent Diana a list of questions, she was instantly stuck on my first (admittedly ridiculous) one:

What do you enjoy most about being a military wife?

Her answer? When it comes right down to it... not a lot. This is not a life for the faint of heart, or the weak of character. It's an extremely difficult line to toe, and not all can manage it. Military wives, husbands, and children are responsible for so much support and morale for their soldier family members that they even carry an unofficial title: "The silent rank." According to a 2008 study conducted by Princeton University, divorce rates are higher amongst military women and their spouses than their civilian counterparts.  Rates are even higher amongst couples where one partner is former military.

The hardest part? The unending lengthy separations. Diana met her husband "Clark" while she was studying in university. Throughout the first two years of their relationship, they spent an approximate combined total of four months actually enjoying each other's company. During that time, Clark was actively deployed in Afghanistan for two seven month periods, and spent much of the remaining time on training exercises.

While today's military wives often have access to platforms such as Skype and Facetime, in the early days of Diana and Clark's relationship, the only way to connect was through email. While deployed, Clark has fifteen minutes of computer access per day. This usually means that a choice has to be made as to where his fifteen minutes are spent: a brief email to his parents here, a bill paid there- cat videos don't exactly factor in here.

And of course, there's the constant danger. Sometimes, in the back of my mind, I'll worry about my husband getting hit by a car on his way to work in the rain. For the better part of two years, my friend's husband was working as a tank mechanic in Kandahar, his life in frequent, if not constant peril. Clark has survived hours of enemy fire, and was even awarded the Medal of Military Valour- Canada's third highest military award- for his service. He has had friends who were not as lucky as he has been, and who perished in battle. Though Diana burns with pride for her war hero husband, it's hard to imagine knowing that any second of any day, she could be on the receiving end of the phone call telling her that he won't be returning home.

In addition to the big, obvious stresses of being a military spouse, there's all sorts of minutae that the average civilian might not consider. Now retired from teaching elementary school classes, Diana runs her own successful business out of her home. She works a variety of hours, and when her husband is on exercise, child care can be difficult to obtain in a pinch. Resources exist for emergency child care situations, but Diana can't just say, leave her kids with the hubby and go to Target just to escape for a few hours (as I am wont to do). Neither Diana nor Clark have family available to watch their two children nearby.

And then there's the relationship with the children itself. I know that many stay at home parents such as myself can relate to the fact that it can be a pain in the ass when, after working hard all day handling issues from tantrums to fights, working Daddy or Mummy comes home and gets to be the "fun" parent.

This phenomenon is only exacerbated when Daddy/Mummy is away for weeks, or sometimes months at a time. It's understandable that the working spouse would want to maximize their rare time with the children- but unfortunately this often comes at the expense of the parent who is home managing discipline and doling out chores day after day. Luckily, Diana tells me that Clark shares equal authority over the unpleasantries of parenting when he is home, though she assures me this is more the exception than the rule.

There's also a pretty archaic attitude still firmly, if not officially, in place within military families: the military spouse is expected not to "trouble" their active duty partner with minor details about their day to day difficulties. In a hand-out for military spouses Diana was once given, she was advised to simply "bake cookies" whenever she was feeling stressed or unhappy. I actually laughed out loud in shock at that one. She tells me that during Clark's first deployment, she was sending him cookies constantly because she baked "so god damned many of them."

It is absolutely evident why a soldier in a war zone would need to be 110% focused on the job at hand, and need to not be distracted by stresses from back home. If I lose focus at my "job," my baby might eat cat food. If Clark loses focus at his, lives can be lost.

Still, a huge burden is placed on the non military spouse, having to give so much support and frequently not expect it in return. So how does Diana make her marriage work? She chalks it up to her fierce independence, and the fact that she knew what she was getting into from the beginning. When they first met, Clark was already an active serviceman, and had previously finished a tour of Bosnia

 Diana fell in love with Clark, job and all, and was prepared to take it. Their wedding took place between Clark's two tours of Afghanistan. He almost wasn't able to make his own wedding, stuck on a training exercise.

My friend is a highly admirable, take charge person. She has started and grown her business. She claims she's not a great housekeeper or cook (you and me both, sister), but the crafts and snacks she makes for her kids always look pretty Pinterest perfect to me. She fills her shoes as mother and wife fabulously, and even does a bit of Dad's job while he's off on exercise- and somehow she doesn't fall apart. I honestly don't know how she does it.

Our military families need our support. They need visibility, they need appreciation, and they need to be recognized for the huge sacrifices they make in loving a soldier. When so many young men and women return from conflict with PTSD, it is their families who are there to nurture them and help them overcome their pain. They are vital to the happiness and success of our military personnel, and yet they remain so frequently in the shadows, ever the "silent rank," ever supporting, ever anonymous.

So Remembrance Day, since it's 11pm and I'm only just wrapping this now...but next time you lend a well deserved thought to the brave men and women who have served and died for our country, try and spare one extra thought for the brave men and women who love them. It's not an easy job, but someone's got to do it.

As always, the opinions and conclusions herein are my own, reached after a primarily casual chat with a friend. No compensation of any kind was provided for this post. Names have been changed at the request of the involved parties. I chose Diana because she's tall like an Amazon, so her husband naturally had to be Clark.

1 comment:

  1. That's beautiful Dayna. Sorry it took so long for me to wander back and see this.