Freelance journalist Alison Buckholtz grew up in a non-military family.
She never imagined she would fall in love with a member of the armed
forces. But she did, and since she married an active-duty U.S. Navy
pilot in 2001, their life together has often been a life apart - marked
by long separations, unforeseen challenges and unexpected rewards, as
Buckholtz had no idea who military wives were and what their lives were like until she became one of them.
She shares that experience in Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War. In her memoir, she writes of one ritual that all military families share: seeing their loved ones off on a deployment.
"Of course, that's a terrible time," she says. "It's sad for everybody. You go home to an empty house. You know, it takes a while to shake off that kind of depression and the weight of that experience. Lots of parents have to deal with questions from their kids about, 'When is Mommy coming home? When is Daddy coming home? Why did they have to leave us again?'"
Spouses hold families together
Deployments, Buckholtz says, are especially hard on young children. Her 6-year-old son, Ethan, and 4-year-old daughter, Esther, began having a lot of emotional ups and downs after their father left for a tour in the Persian Gulf.
"I had never heard about the problems that the children of the deployed service members face," she says. "It was all new to me. So I started reading up quite a bit on deployment-related distress in children and what you can do for the children of service members. I grew to have great sympathy and empathy for these kids, who, to me, are really the ultimate draftees."
Buckholtz discovered that some of the military moms on the naval base where her family was living invented creative ways to help their children deal with waiting for their dad's homecoming.
"For example, they build a paper chain at the beginning of the deployment," she says. "They do this with their kids. It's a way of introducing their kids to the idea about the length of deployment and the amount of time that Dad is going to be gone. As each day goes by, the children remove a link in the chain, so they can visually see that Daddy is coming home sooner and sooner and sooner. And, of course, as the chain gets shorter, the child can get more excited."
Some families, she adds, do the same thing with Hershey Kisses [chocolate candies] in a giant jar.
"They count up the number of days that the husband is going to be gone. They put that number of Hershey Kisses in there. Each morning, the child wakes up. They take a Kiss from Daddy out of the jar, and then they can see the number of Hershey Kisses going down. So, there are a lot of different strategies. No one strategy has worked for us so far, really, other than just looking at family pictures, reliving old memories with Daddy and them."
For children and spouses, homecoming is a wonderful moment.
"That bond is strengthened upon the parents' return," she says. "You can see the child running into the parent's arms. Of course, I spent a lot of time worrying, 'What were things going to be like when my husband returned? Was he going to be able to reintegrate into the family?' So that moment of reunion between the kids and their father was when all the worries melted away, because I saw the bond the kids had with their father was certainly strengthened by the absence, and there was no long-term damage to the relationship."
Learning to succeed in long-distance marriages
But sometimes, there is damage to the relationship. A deployment can severely test a marriage. Buckholtz says that's what she learned through a class she and her husband took with other military couples.
"One of the things that the facilitator of that class told us was that if you are a strong couple, it will strengthen what you already have," she says. "And if there are problems in the relationship, you would be destroyed by them. At that moment, everybody was quiet, and I think everybody in the room that day was thinking about their own relationship and which side they were going to end up on."
In Standing By, Buckholtz tells the stories of other military wives and how they feel about military life. For example, she talks about two of her friends. She calls them Martina and Millie.
"My friend Martina, who grew up in a fairly urban community in northern California, came to resent it quite a bit, especially because her husband had been deployed for a year, and she discovered that her husband had actually volunteered for his assignment," she says. "And Millie comes across as an incredibly positive, enthusiastic person. She has been married to her husband for 17 years. This is the only adult life she knows."
But her friends helped her find her own path as a military wife.
"You know, in Martina's case, being brutally honest about her situation was the only thing that got her through, because it kept her in touch with her feelings," she says. "And in the case of my friend Millie, being really positive and always looking on the bright side and always really truly believing that her husband was doing something positive, both for her family and country, was her way of getting through. So, I took both of those examples to heart and did my best to structure something for myself that would allow me to walk a middle ground in between those two perspectives."
Buckholtz says although many military wives can relate to such experiences, each has her own story. Through sharing their experiences, they can learn from one another. And, Buckholtz says, they can also educate civilians who - like her, before she became a military wife - have little understanding of what it takes to stand by America's armed forces.