Saying, “I do” to Someone in the Military

I married my best friend Scott who is in the Air Force. After we got engaged he jokingly said, “Hey, with all your volunteer work, you know what you signed up for.” He was both right and wrong. Before, I was one step removed. As it turns out, that’s a pretty big step. So I’m sharing some things I knew and some that took me by surprise.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned him before it’s because he’s a bit on the shy side.

husband-and-wife

This is us.

Redefining togetherness

I met my first adopted soldier and his wife after he returned from Afghanistan. Back then I thought deployments were the only times military couples were separated. Until she said, “We married right after high school and I figured out that between his deployments, training, various schools, and TDYs (temporary duty) we’ve spent 50% of the past 10 years apart.”

There’s also been a great deal of travel for most couples I know. Everyone seems to have a mix of beautiful places they’ve loved along with less thrilling locales. One of which I’m told held the promise of, “three years of bad hair” due to swamp-like humidity.

Most folks I’ve met have moved together, but not all of them and not all the time. Sometimes the spouse and kids stay in one place because of school or they have roots in the area and then the servicemember moves from base to base and comes home to visit. We would be in the latter category. So right now our wild fantasy is living in the same zip code full-time.

You had plans?

Again my thoughts go back to my first adopted soldier. The Army told him he could deploy two weeks after his unit so he could be there for this birth of his first child. Then the Army changed those plans and he wound up meeting baby Kyle on leave a few months later.

Yet somehow it still took me by surprise when Scott informed me that he might have to deploy before the wedding (you know, and miss it.). Then he almost had to go TDY (and miss the wedding). Then he said that he’d been asked, “Does Gina want to get married in Germany?” and my bridal stress rose higher.

HUSBAND: We’re lucky. Not every unit would even ask or try to work around our wedding. They would just send me.

ME: I’m planning this wedding from out-of-state and we’ve got people coming from far away with NON-REFUNDABLE plane tickets so, “lucky” does not describe my primary feeling right now.

HUSBAND: Yes, dear. I love you.

After that he decided not to tell me every time a potential change came up. I decided not to tell our guests unless I knew for sure we’d have to postpone. Finally, all things were set and I knew we’d have two weeks together after the wedding before he deployed. Then that changed to one week.

Can you hear me now?

Scott figured that since we were used to traveling to see each other, I was sort of prepared for being apart during deployment. What surprised me was how separated I still felt. I blame emojis—and texting in general. I never realized until he was gone and not easily reachable how often we reached out to each other.

HUSBAND: You’re lucky. Back in the day, there was no facetime and we could only call home once a week. But you and I get to talk a few minutes each day! And this is a shorter tour, it’s not like it’s a year.

ME: Okay, when I say I’m feeling sad and I miss you, I kinda don’t want to hear how lucky I am. I just want to know that you miss me too.

HUSBAND: Yes, dear. I miss you too.

Kindness

I’ve sent a lot of care packages. What could possibly surprise me here? I have always been grateful for any help folks gave me for, “my” troops. And I’ve often spoken about how much our troops appreciate any little thing—a cup of coffee, a postcard. But now I was even more deeply moved by all of this. Now I understood. Each act of kindness felt like a hug. It meant a great deal to me that people remembered my husband and his unit. It made me feel like I was not in this alone.

Heartbreak – part 1

Ten days before my husband was supposed to come home I got a call about my mother, Lalin. Beautiful and gracious—my first best friend, mentor and hero—Mom had had a catastrophic hemorrhage on the left side of her brain. I rushed to be by her side. And it was instantly clear to me that the tubes keeping her alive did not even remotely resemble the life force that she was.

Soon, doctors declared that there were no signs of brain activity. Lalin had triumphed over adversity many times, but she would not win this battle.

We were asked about organ donation. The thing about mom is that she was the single most giving and selfless person I have ever met. She would always tell me, “Do for others, do for others.” She was so proud and happy any time I followed this mantra. So even though we never discussed it before, I knew she would have wanted this.

It took two days to find a donor match. Those were two hard days. Finally, we escorted Lalin to the operating room. My brother and I held her hand on either side of the gurney surrounded by an entourage of doctors. You know how in old movies when royalty walks down the stairs and someone holds their hand on either side? That’s what it felt like to me. My mom was 4’10” and about 100lbs and so tiny in that big hospital bed, but such a large presence. We said our final goodbyes and the doctors looked at me for the signal to proceed and I announced, “Okay Mom, now you go change some lives just like you changed ours.”

Three hours later, the transplant coordinator called to tell me that Lalin had just saved the life a 56yr old woman.

momme

One of my favorite pictures of my mom and me.

Heartbreak – part 2

This is when I needed and wanted my husband most—and he was not here. It took me all day to even get him the news. I was hysterical by the time he reached me. We prayed for a miracle as I made arrangements for my daughter Sofia’s care and got myself a plane ticket to get to Mom.

Nine days before Scott was coming home we knew there would be no miracle. His commander asked him if he wanted Emergency Leave. You would think we’d jump at that, but there are things we paused to consider.

Lalin had made it clear many times that she did not want us to, “sit around being sad.” She wanted to be cremated and did not want a funeral. So even as we waited for the organ match, I knew we’d be doing memorial events for mom, which would not happen immediately.

I also knew that with one unit leaving and one coming in, this was an important time for Scott to be there. Could his unit do without him? Yes. But it was not ideal. Could we wait nine days so he could take care of his people there? My husband was torn. He wanted to be home for me and he loved my mom. But he also wanted to be there for his guys. He said he would do whatever I wanted. Then I heard Lalin’s mantra in my head, “do for others.”

We decided to wait and let him finish his tour. I admit that I underestimated just how long those days and nights would be. There were calls where I couldn’t even manage words. I just sobbed as he said reassuring and loving things. It was hard on him too because he felt helpless. And when he got off the plane and I ran into his arms, I felt like I had found home after being lost.

cominghome

Homecoming.

Strength

It’s easy to be impressed by the military spouses I’ve become friends with. I’ve seen one drive to the new state they’re moving to, do all the house hunting, then buy, and start to paint and repair the home, all while her husband was deployed. I’ve seen them support children through special moments, tough times, and the everydayness that is most of life, without their, “other half.” I’ve seen them start, delay, and restart education and careers because the reality is— they too serve and sacrifice. I’ve seen friendships withstand the rigors of time and distance because they are more than friends. With their shared experiences, they are more like family.

Gratitude

The Chaplain who married us called to check on me as I waited my husband’s return. Others in his unit and well as our civilian family and friends have been supportive in countless ways. And even though I haven’t been a military spouse for long, my experience thus far has made me even more deeply appreciative to everyone before me and after me who has chosen this path as they walk down the aisle.

wedding

Saying, “I do.”

© Gina left the mall, 2017

Watching Him Walk Away—Deployment Day

“For 10 deployments, I never stayed until the very last moment. I thought it would be too hard…you know, watching him walk away. But this time I did and I realized my instincts had been right all along. For me, I’d rather be the one walking away than the one that gets walked away from. For me, it was just too hard.”  This is what Ashley* told me after her husband Brendon* deployed to somewhere in the Middle East a few weeks ago.

U.S. troops deploying

Brendon leaving (photo credit: his wife, Ashley)

The other reason this deployment is different is because it will be Brendon’s last. He will retire soon after he returns. Like many troops, Brendon has also been gone from home many times for various training exercises and classes. This makes Ashley anything but a newbie in the Good-Bye Department. Like many spouses, she tries to help support those who are facing their first separation. And, as Ashley begins her last time going through this, she shared some observations with me hoping it may help others.

They need to know you’ll be okay

Every relationship is different. But at Brendon’s deployment, I saw two ladies on their knees sobbing. And I’m not judging, but it’s hard for me to see how totally breaking down is helping the person who is deploying. I think your spouse needs to know that you’ll be okay. Again, everyone is different so, maybe that’s what works for them.

But I know for sure what doesn’t work—getting mad at the person deploying for not spending enough time with you before they leave. Things get very busy before they go. It’s not easy for Brendon to see and do everything he wants. Feelings can be hurt. But calling someone deploying as they board a bus to yell at them? Trust me. Not helpful.

I have a friend who found out on very short notice that her husband was leaving. They’re high school sweethearts and this would be their first real separation. She asked me if she should take a few days off from work. I said ‘no’ because you being home alone is going to be worse than you being at work.”

The first 3 weeks are the hardest

The “firsts” are tough. Like first time walking in the door—with the silence. Going to bed and nobody’s there. It’s hard to sleep for the first few weeks. I don’t hear him breathing, I don’t hear him snoring. It’s funny to miss the snoring. Ashley laughs when she tells me that every time he leaves she wishes she would’ve recorded the snoring.

I asked Ashley what she found most helpful in this situation. “I think it’s finding a new routine that works for you. I need to add something new. If I just keep doing the same things we always did, I miss him even more.”

I asked her if this explained the new puppies she just got. She laughed again and said, “Exactly!”

Go to the support programs

Ashley attends the monthly get-togethers for spouses and kids who have a parent away on deployment or extended TDY (temporary duty.) She strongly recommends that every spouse find out what programs are available to them and to take part. “It breaks the normal routine and everyone around you is going through the same exact thing you’re going through. Makes people feel that they’re not in it alone.”

I asked Ashley if I could have Brendon’s address so I could send him warm wishes or a care package. She said that would be great. I’m hoping it will also be one more thing that helps them not feel alone.

*names changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2014

What About The Kids?

My mailbox is jammed with back-to-school catalogs and it got me thinking about one of my Army families. Dad is deploying soon after the school year starts. Last time his son was an infant. Now the boy is starting preschool and they also have a two-year-old girl. Along with backpacks and crayons, I wondered what was on their to-do list as they prepped the kids for the year ahead?

I found many sites with long articles and early childhood development-type strategies that sounded smart. But I kinda just wanted to know, mom-to-mom, what the deal was. So I called the wife and asked. Elle* was kind enough answer a few questions and share a few tips (*all names changed for privacy.)

Questions

ME: Last time, you were a new mom, your son was a newborn and your husband John missed the first year. Is it harder this time or easier?

ELLE: It’s harder now. Last time, Jake was a baby. John missed milestones. Now he’ll be missing Jake expressing his imagination and the person he’s becoming.

ME: What’s the most important thing you want to do right now?

ELLE: I want to make sure both kids have the best relationship possible and make great memories with John. The impression John leaves now is what they’ll have left to hold onto and that I’ll reinforce. So I’ve been doing a lot more of the disciplining. Being more of the “bad guy” and letting John be the “good guy.” 

ME: What’s one of the harder parts?

ELLE: You don’t want to scare the kids but, other kids talk. They hear the news. You can’t control what your kids will hear. And bedtime. That’s when they miss John most. During the day, they’re busy and he’s usually at work so, they don’t expect to see him then. 

ME: What’s a wish-for? What one thing could a civilian do to be supportive at this time?

ELLE: I think it would be nice to be invited to things without the invitation being all about John’s absence. So it feels normal and not overly dramatic. So we just feel included. It is a big deal for us that he’s gone, but I want to give my kids as much normal as possible. Dad’s just at work. Dad will be back.

Tips

A big thing is maintaining a routine (good for all kids!) You also want them to feel connected to the deployed parent and help them visualize the passage of time. Below are some tips from Elle. I also spoke to an Air Force wife, Christina, who has a teenaged daughter. Of course, these tips work whether it’s daddy or mommy that’s deployed.

Take one of Daddy’s shirts, sew the arms and bottom closed, then stuff it with batting and sew the neck closed so kids can snuggle with it. They also make plush daddy dolls that have a picture of the soldier.

Help them keep a journal each night of the exciting things they did that day so they can remember and tell Daddy.

Start a deployment chain where you either make the paper chain and take one link off each day as a count down. Or add a link for each day they’re gone. Or put a penny in a jar for each day, then use that money to buy Daddy something or go shopping with Daddy. Or you add jelly beans to a jar for each day.

Jelly Bean Countdown

For most deployments, you’d need more jelly beans than I have here. But as the jar fills up, it’s easy to see that means Dad or Mom is closer to coming home.

~Make a Daddy Map. We put up a world map and then added tacks for where we were and where Daddy was. Then we used yarn to attach each point. Every stop he made along the way to Afghanistan, we added another tack and more yarn. So we were always connected. We only took off yarn with each stop on his way home. 

Record Daddy reading bedtimes stories. Skype whenever you can.

Let my daughter “take care”of something that belonged to Daddy. Always just something small, but she was in charge of it and got to give it back to him.

Let your child make a life-sized drawing of themselves and then mail it to their deployed parent.

Take lots of fun picture of them together, laminate them and let the kids play with them.

-There are some awesome ideas on Pinterest too.

Every child is different

Even if you make awesome routines, follow tips and do everything, “right,” every child is different. I knew one boy that was having a hard time so I called in the FDNY to give me a hand. I’m hoping Elle and John’s kids do well. But I will keep them in mind and from time to time I’ll consult my Child Expert; my 8-year-old daughter Sofia. She’s full of great ideas on how to make someone smile in any situation.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Don’t Forget Snowballs For Memorial Day

Burgers, beer, sunscreen…on Memorial Day Weekend there’s shopping to do, beaches to umbrella and pools to cannonball. Even so, I’d like to suggest one more thing to the list: snowballs. Specifically, Snowball Express, a charity that serves the children of men and women who died serving our country. Since Memorial Day is meant to honor these men and women, doing something for their loved ones seems like a fine idea.

A Snowball’s chance

Snowball Express, “creates hope and new memories” for children of the fallen by organizing special events for them. It’s a chance for these kids to have fun and be with other kids in the same situation. Also, the families get to see that they are not forgotten or alone. Past events include baseball games, magic shows, and concerts.

Now you know

The number of people in active duty is small, about 1% of the population. So not everyone in the other 99% knows someone in the military. Sometimes, the meaning of Memorial Day can feel far away, like a history lesson instead of both our collective past and present. If that’s the case, I’d like you to know someone this day is for, Pfc Jesse Givens. I found his last letter to his family on the Snowball Express site. It inspired them even further in their work. It brought me to tears. (Reader note- if you have a loved one who is deployed right now, I’d skip to the next section.)

22-April-03

My family:

I never thought I would be writing a letter like this, I really don’t know where to start. I’ve been getting bad feelings though and well if you are reading this….

I am forever in debt to you, Dakota, and the bean. I searched all my life for a dream and I found it in you. I would like to think that I made a positive difference in your lives. I will never be able to make up for the bad. I am so sorry. The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when you quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy’s laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn. You will never know how complete you have made me. Each and every one of you. You saved me from lonliness and taught me how to think beyond myself. You taught me how to live and to love. You opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed existed. I am proud of you. Stay on the path you chose. Never lose sight of what is important, you and our babies.

Dakota you are more son then I could ever ask for. I can only hope I was half the dad. I use to be your “danny” but no matter what it makes me proud that you chose me. You taught me how to care until it hurts, you taught me how to smile again. You taught me that life isn’t so serious and sometimes you have to play. You have a big beautiful heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it. Never be afraid to be yourself. I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can still play. I hope someday you will have a son like mine. Make them smile and shine just like you. I love you Toad I hope someday you will understand why I didn’t come home. Please be proud of me. Please don’t stop loving life. Take in every breath like it’s your first. I love you toad I will always be there with you. I’ll be in the sun, shadows, dreams, and joys of your life.

Bean, I never got to see you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I know you will be strong and big hearted just like your mom and brother. I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your moms belly, and the joy I felt when we found out you were on your way. I dream of you every night, I always will. Don’t ever think that since I wasn’t around that I didn’t love you. You were conceived of love and I came to this terrible place for love. I love you as I do your mom and brother with all my heart and soul. Please understand that I had to be gone so that I could take care of my family. I love you Bean.

I have never been so blessed as the day I met Melissa. You are my angel, soulmate, wife, lover, and best friend. I am sorry. I did not want to have to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share. A lifetime’s worth. I married you for a million lifetimes. That’s how long I will be with you. Please keep our babies safe. Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone. Take care of yourself, believe in yourself, you are a strong, big hearted woman. Teach our babies to live life to its fullest tell yourself to do the same. Don’t forget to take Toad to Disney World. I will be there with you. Melissa I will always want you need you and love you in my heart, mind, and soul. Do me a favor, after you tuck Toad and Bean in, give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside look at the stars and count them. Don’t forget to smile.

Love Always
Your husband
Jess

A Memorable Weekend

Here’s to making wonderful new memories this weekend and honoring some old ones. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll be having a Snowball with my burger.

Blue Sky

photo courtesy of Tinyspitcracker

© Gina left the mall, 2013