Editor's Note: Rebekah Sanderlin is a mother, an Army wife and a freelance journalist. She lives near Fort Bragg, Norh Carolina and writes a blog about military family life called “Operation Marriage” for The Fayetteville Observer newspaper. Her husband is currently on his third deployment to Afghanistan.
If the American military went to war and America went shopping, then seven years later the war wages on but America is home from the shopping spree with her credit cards maxed out and her head aching from buyer’s remorse.
The war didn’t change and the fighting force didn’t change, but the people back home are over it. War, it seems, went out of style in 2003.
In the military community we roll our eyes when we hear that Americans are war weary. Just what, we wonder, are you all weary of? Hearing about the war? Seeing stories in the news? Most Americans don’t even know anyone in the military and won’t have any direct contact with the war besides seeing uniformed soldiers in the airport. You all haven’t been asked to do anything more to support this war than sit back and watch as your tax dollars are spent.
To us, civilian complaints about being war weary sound like the gripes of deadbeat dads: It’s a bummer to hear that things are going badly and you’re sick of being asked to pay for it, but you’re not doing any of the real work yourselves. Many of you believe that fighting this war is optional. You seem to think our nation could make everything okay by just sitting this one out.
And, in a way, that reasoning makes sense. Most of you haven’t been on the front lines or on the homefront. You haven’t looked into the eyes of the enemy and the innocents and you haven’t heard gunshots and mortar rounds in the background during a precious-but-short phone call. You haven’t had villagers beg you to stay or to adopt their children. And you haven’t heard your soulmate grapple with dueling guilt: Guilt that he’s leaving his family for so long and guilt that he isn’t deployed more frequently and for longer so that he could do more. You haven’t seen or heard any of this, so how could you possibly understand?
It’s not your fault. Nobody has asked you to do anything. Our leaders didn’t think you would be willing to make real sacrifices, so they never bothered to ask. They let you all think that shopping yourselves into debt was patriotic, that spending yourselves into bankruptcy and foreclosure was enough to keep our nation safe.
You are war weary because futility breeds weariness. When you feel like something is for no good reason and getting nowhere, it’s understandable that you’d be over it. But maybe you wouldn’t be so war weary if you, personally, had a stake in what was happening “over there.”
In the military community, the price tag for this war is much higher but the commitment level is much greater. Our country has not only asked for our tax dollars (and believe me, we’re paying monetarily for this war, too) but for our blood, our family time, our futures, our children’s happiness and our very lives. We have enlisted and reenlisted – and offered our support to our spouses who sign back up – because, soldier and spouse, we know the commitment level of the people who want to kill us and we know the desperate dependence of the people our nation has vowed to protect. We know that we have to be at least as committed as our enemy or our own children will be fighting this same war.
My husband has spent the bulk of our five-and-a-half-year marriage deployed. He’s missed most of our son’s life and our daughter has never even heard his voice – not even in utero. We won’t know for years what the long-term effects of these deployments will be on him, on us and on our kids. Last year he suffered a serious head injury and he’s lost most of the hearing in his right ear, the ear closest to his gun. We don’t know what the long-term effects of his injuries will be, either. This year, on his third deployment to Afghanistan, he missed my father’s death and funeral, our daughter’s birth, our son learning to ride a bike and catching his first fish, and countless other precious moments that cannot be reclaimed. There is no predicting what events he’ll miss in the future.
And we are the lucky ones.
My husband has lost more than 20 friends in this global war on terror and I have an ever-growing group of Army widow friends. They are young and beautiful and many have young children. They are also stunted. They hang around Army towns years after losing their soldiers because they say they don’t fit in anywhere else. They say they can no longer relate to what they see and hear in the civilian world.
They can’t reintegrate into the your world because there the people they meet don’t know what it’s like to sacrifice everything for something intangible. The widows say they don’t feel like they fit in where people don’t know how hard it is to break away from that last hug before a deployment. In the civilian world the widows, like all soldiers and military spouses these days, are treated as oddities, something to marvel or gawk at from a distance. People either fawn over us or try to ignore us. Our presence inspires either adulation or discomfort.
So we hunker down in our military towns, where regular pilgrimages to D.C. to visit loved ones at Arlington and Walter Reed are common. In military towns, we can laugh about all the dust and sand that comes into our homes after a deployment, carted thousands of miles from where it was picked up. We can complain about long lines at the post office during our weekly visits to send care packages. We can vent about news of another deployment, less than a year after the last one. If anyone in America should be war weary, it’s us.
And make no mistake: We are tired. We are stretched thin. Our marriages and our families are collapsing. Our children are emotionally damaged. They act out at school and cry at home. Everyday we wonder if we have the strength for even another day of this. We’re tired from the work, but we’re not weary of the mission.
This war is far from over, that’s something both candidates for the presidency have acknowledged. Whichever man finds himself in the Oval Office come January will be in a position to decide our fates in the military community in a way more personal and immediate than most Americans will experience. The next president will determine how much my husband and I will see each other for the next four years and whether or not he will have the tools and policies he needs when he is in harm’s way. The next president will determine our odds of continuing to be the lucky ones.
This war is far from over – that is an obvious truth in military communities. But our reality seems so very different from yours. For the last seven years our elected officials haven’t thought enough of you to ask you to pitch in. They haven’t, so I will.
My husband and I know that this is not his last deployment and we know that his odds of returning home get worse with each trip. The only way our family and other military families will get a break is if more Americans sign up to join the fight. News reports these days are full of stories of lay-offs and the high cost of health care. Well, guess what? There are no pink slips in the military and our excellent health care system is free.
So sign up. We want you. Your nation wants you. And we in the military community need you. My family deserves a break.