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One Soldier’s Wife: Stoic stance serves to hide a breaking heart

“Soldiers do change during war, because how they cope tends to be individualist, isolating, not reaching out to others … I think that this war also damages the souls of many soldiers … Real men, soldiers, are evidently supposed to suck it up and kill on demand without a conscience, without feelings … — Polly Coe, Licensed Therapist

While our troops are overseas, scattered across the deserts of Iraq and spread over the mountainous terrain of Aghanistan, soldier’s wives juggle a variety of roles, stepping into and out of them based on deployments. It’s hard to keep all the balls in the air, and sometimes they all come tumbling down, rolling across the floor in every direction. As a representative of Clarksville Online, I spoke with one such wife, Shelly, who is reeling from the impact of life as a military spouse during war. I give you her story, followed by the complete text of Therapist Polly Coe’s comments on the impact of the Iraq War on our troops and their families.

The following is a transcript of my questions (CO) and Shelly’s answers:

CO: How’s the war been to you?

Shelly: When it broke out, we had just arrived in Clarksville (Jan 2003); we bought a house and a month later he was gone. When he’s in Iraq I don’t listen to the news. I can’t. And I keep it away from the kids. Things that happen in the war are too close to home; it upsets the kids. There’s a mechanical problem with aircraft and everyone is asking me if he’s OK. I honestly don’t know and I don’t want to hear or talk about it.

CO: How does the war upset the kids?

Shelly: Dad’s gone all the time. They idealize Dad, especially when he’s not here. A picture gets built up in their heads of the perfect Dad. They miss him and they ask, “why can’t he call, why can’t he come home?” It’s especially hard on birthdays and Christmas. We’ve had the “missed” Christmas, the early and late Christmas; the Christmas where Dad came to our hotel.

CO: What’s his military schedule?

Shelly: He’s had three deployments, each a year long. The first two deployments were back to back, and two were to Iraq. He’s about to be deployed for the fourth time. When he is home for a year he’s also gone to training and field exercises and school, and those last weeks at a time. When he’s in town he never has a consistent schedule. He has weird hours that change constantly.

CO: How do you make it through his Iraq tours?

Shelly: I cry; it usually hits me in the middle of the night.

The Family Readiness Group (FRG) helps as much as they can. Not every spouse utilizes them, and sometimes the husbands forget to tell their wives about them. They are very helpful and supportive and important for the families and spouses who are usually on their own. If you need help with a sick child or anything, they will be there. Networking is so important to everyone, and the information you can get is invaluable.

The subtle message behind FRG is “support your soldier”. And we do. We keep it together and send our support and keep our problems to ourselves and try to keep really busy. Busyness is encouraged by the FRG as well as taking time out for yourself, take a hot bath, get a sitter for the kids, etc. When busyness will not keep the depression away I let myself feel my feelings and work through them. Watching a good movie can bring out the grief that I’m suppressing and sometimes a good cry is what I need. I’ve got to deal with the emotions that come up about being alone. The whole time he’s gone, I feel like someone I love could die at any moment. I am pissed, and then so sad, and then pissed again. It is extremely frustrating.

CO: Do you feel a lot of fear?

Shelly: I have never really felt terror about this, which is a huge can of worms that I don’t want to open. But there is not one day without that fear of his death in the back of my mind. So every day is about pushing away that thought, containing it.

CO: How do you keep it together for the kids?

Shelly: I have to keep it together at all times for the kids but that doesn’t happen. I’ve had days like where the tempers were high and the refrigerator stopped working and I broke down. I didn’t do it in front of them; I went to my bedroom or bathroom. It’s a lot of stress, having everything sitting on my shoulders. I need him to help me deal with the irate kids; I need him to help me solve things.

CO: When he comes home is he the “boss” again?

Shelly: Yes. I’m the boss when he’s gone and then he comes back, he might say that I did well, and then starts doing things his way. Doesn’t ask, doesn’t care about what I’ve set up, especially in the finances. It makes me feel like I’ve done nothing, I’m invisible.

There are huge power struggles when he comes home. There are huge disagreements about how to deal with the kids. And the kids play off of each of us. I say no and they go and ask him. He wants to be the hero, the good guy, so he says to me, “why can’t they do this?” Then we get into it and I have to keep after him saying, No, this is what we planned, this is what resolve we agreed to take. And when do we get to talk about all of that? We don’t, so we have to “get into it” when a situation is happening. There’s no time to step back and discuss how we are going to go about doing something. He was gone so long that he doesn’t know what I’ve already done with the kids, what stages they are going through, and what limits we need to set. When I tell him he’s doing it wrong, I’m the bad guy. With him on the kid’s side, I’m the bad guy to everyone.

We can’t discuss any of this with him when he’s in Iraq. I can’t say things on an email, especially emotional stuff that may be misinterpreted. He can barely phone home, usually only late at night and we can’t get into anything on the 10 minute phone calls because we know that at any minute the call could get cut off, so we say a lot of “I love you’s” and that’s about it. If I bring up an issue with him, he says, “You’ve got it easy. I’m over here in a war.”

When I share my problems with my parents or siblings they say, “You knew when you married him that this was going to happen.”

I say to you sincerely, there is NO WAY I could have ever prepared for this reality. That’s like saying, “I knew my terminally ill family member was going to pass away, so why am I grieving now that he’s gone?” There is no way to prepare emotionally for these deployments. I am alone, raising a family, dealing with everyday issues and I don’t have my partner. I don’t have someone to share things with. And the fear of him never returning looms constantly overhead. How can I prepare for that?

CO: Has the war changed him, is he angrier, short tempered?

Shelly: No. I haven’t seen that. He always was reclusive, but now even more so. He doesn’t talk about anything, especially emotions. I can’t do that. I can’t be a look-good-on-the-outside person only. And we do look good as a couple. We don’t fight, we look happy. But we’re not a couple anymore. He hasn’t told me a thing about himself. And he’s not interested in me either. He’s a good man, a great man, but he’s not a partner.

He’s used to doing things for himself over there. He comes home and makes himself food and doesn’t think that he has a family who may be hungry also. He washes his clothes, nobody else’s; he doesn’t integrate back into this life. It’s not like our marriage is worse or better than anyone else’s. But we don’t have the time to calm down and sort these things out, discuss them.

When he comes home we go through four stages:

  • The honeymoon period. It’s a homecoming. Hooray, you’re back. We love you, we love you. You’re our hero. We have you now and are so glad you’re home. We have a life again and things like sex again. This stage lasts about 3 – 6 months.
  • ‘Where is the remote?’ stage. He’s running things again, and the world that I set up is being changed, destroyed. Without excellent communication, he’s negating all the things that I’ve done while he was gone. I’m getting upset and we need to talk. We need to get down and work through these dark periods of our agreements, communications. We haven’t discussed the little things that blow up into big things. Every marriage has these problems but in the military these problems are aggravated and multiplied. He doesn’t want to hear and I’m the bitch if I talk about it. I’m not allowed my feelings, and I have to make it safe for the kids to have their feelings. This really invalidates to me to the core. Even though he’s here, I realize that I am still totally alone; he can’t fill the emotional emptiness I feel and he’s making things more difficult. This stage lasts about three months.
  • Get ready to go again period. There’s no time to talk about the problems and dig into our emotions because we know he’s going to leave. How can I bring up serious issues when I know he’s leaving? How dare I say, “I don’t feel like I know you anymore” when I’m sending him off to war? Swallow my communication. This is another three month period usually.
  • He’s gone. Reset my life to being in charge. I do everything. I think of everything, chores, fun time, being the reasonable adult, being the together adult, setting limits for the kids, solving all problems and being alone. I make it through six months okay and then have the 7th month breakdown. I need him in so many ways and he’s not there. Where is the man I pledged my life too? Where is my partner in this life?

We don’t hear from him for long periods of time. All I know is that nobody in uniform has come to knock on my door and so I hold it together for the kids. We don’t watch the news.

Comments by Therapist Polly Cole

Clarksville Therapist Polly Coe, who has worked extensively with soldiers and their families between and during deployments, discussed the interview after reading its transcript.

This is a sadly typical story. Soldiers do change during war, because how they cope tends to be individualist, isolating, not reaching out to others. So they lose or forget the skills they may have developed in the marriage to support each other. He returns ‘an island’ not needing anyone and resentful of anyone needing him. The wife and kids feel more and more distant from him until the marriage ends. Many soldiers return angry and are unable to let the anger go when they see wife and family. Others return totally unemotional, having cut off all feeling to survive the war. So the wife sees an automoton, not a human being. Marriages are falling apart left and right.

After the second deployment to Iraq, marriages of 15-20 years were failing. I hate to think what will happen after this third deployment. I think that this war also damages the souls of many soldiers, but we have no information on that. The Army is admitting to considerable more PTSD than in the past, and, finally, TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury – essentially like Shaken Baby Syndrome), which they are just beginning to treat somewhat experimentally.

The Army says that going to war is ‘just a job’ and that is how soldiers see killing the enemy. However, I see soldiers for whom that is not the case, soldiers who are changed forever by the killing of other human beings or by the hatred required to shoot their guns at the ‘hajis.’ The families and friends see the changes in them, but the Army denies this as damage. Real men, soldiers, are evidently supposed to suck it up and kill on demand without a conscience, without feelings. Are we making morally dead sociopaths out of young men? Long range, this damage may be as destructive to our American society as the financial burden of treating the injured.

Additional Information

Author’s Note: Shelly has, but her husband refuses, to seek marriage counseling. He filed for divorce this summer. Shelly says that if he hadn’t filed for divorce, she would have, eventually. They still look good on the outside as a couple, with no fighting and arguing in public.

Shelly’s Note: I cannot stress how important the Family Readiness Group is to many, many spouses and families and as a whole the system is invaluable. As an asset for military spouses, the women volunteers offer networking and a social outlet and they organize functions. They help direct spouses to ANY kind of assistance they may need during a deployment from helping with financial difficulties, counseling, child care, to finding a good mechanic or repair man. The FRG has the resources available to help direct spouses to answers. The FRG is also your key source of information for what is going on with your spouse’s unit.

Fort Campbell also has a Family Readiness Center inside Gate 1 that spouses can utilize should they feel they aren’t getting the help/support they need through their Unit FRG. This is a fairly new facility on Fort Campbell (within a few years). Before the FRG became organized as it is today, military life was extremely difficult for spouses who needed assistance when their soldiers were deployed.

Debbie Boen
Debbie Boen
Debbie and her family moved to Clarksville slightly after the tornado of 1999. Debbie founded the group, Clarksville Freethinkers for Peace and Civil Liberties, in 2004. She participated in Gathering to Save Our Democracy, a group dedicated to obtaining free and verifiable elections in Tennessee. She has supported groups including the NAACP, Nashville Peace Coalition, PFLAG, Friends of Dunbar Cave and the Mountain Top Removal Series of Films and speakers. She participated as an artist in the ARTZ gallery group in Clarksville and won Best of Show, First and 2 Second Place awards for four of her sculptures. She won a voter's choice award for a performance at the Roxy Regional Theatre. She is a wife, mother and cancer survivor. She is always amazed at the capabilities of the human spirit, and the wisdom to find humor when there is none.

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