I was married to an Army soldier, but I refused to call myself a Military Wife. He flew Chinooks during his 2003 Iraq deployment, even made a brief phone call over the unpredictable and crackling line from Mosul to tell me he’d been shot at while at a “hot” LZ (landing zone), and I still wouldn’t do it.
My first introduction to Military Wives came when I was attending a DoDDS middle school in Heidelberg, Germany where my father’s government job had moved us in late 1981. The school bus took us bratty little civilian kids, who lived on the economy, through the military housing area. Few mornings passed when we didn’t make fun of the Army wives standing with snarled bed hair outside their stairwells or smoking morning cigarettes on the parking lot sidewalks. They wore dingy pink sweatpants and their husbands’ oversized Army PT sweatshirts. Intimidated by public transportation and European roads, their slovenliness screamed of voluntary isolation. Our bus would bounce by, and we, at our small square windows, would point at them. “Army wives!” we’d squeal.
Predicting someone would grow up to be an Army Wife was not an uncommon insult.
After middle school came high school and a keen awareness of the GIs (as we called them) speckling the fringes of our teenage experience. We girls who had been in country for several years had assimilated. We knew the local restaurant etiquette. We’d learned to be quiet, in keeping with the larger German personality.
The GIs wrestled like dogs in the Fest beer tents and, often younger than 21, would drink more than they were used to in quiet German restaurants. “Ein Bier, bitte!” they would howl, pounding the table. In public, they walked in loose clusters, shouted their words, and leered at—and hit on—American high school girls because we were girls and, more importantly, we spoke English.
I learned at an early age to avoid GIs, but in 2005, after having been away from all things military for a decade or more, I married someone in the Army. We’d met in Germany during our senior year of high school when he, with his cross dangle earring, untied shoelaces, and heavy-metal band T-shirts, was the last person anyone would expect to join the military. Still, he joined a year after graduation, and we kept in touch for eleven years before deciding to be together.
When he deployed to Iraq, and for months after his return, I again found myself judging Military Wives. Their cars sported bumper stickers reading, “Army Wife: Toughest Job in the Army.” Women on the military spouse forums would list, as their occupation, “Military Spouse.” Their names were “Army wifey” or “Sgt. John’s Wife.”
If being a Military Wife meant losing my identity, I wanted no part of it.
I avoided all things FRG (Family Readiness Group, a spouse support group), even when Ian became a Commander and I knew the Commander’s wife typically headed the FRG. Before one of Ian’s promotion ceremonies, I told him I didn’t want him to present me with the yellow roses wives usually receive; instead, I wanted the battalion coin. I didn’t want him to thank me for being his support, or to give me credit for his accomplishments and success. I asked him to refrain from mentioning me at all because he had done it himself – with or without me, he would have been where he was.
After thirteen years in, in 2007, Ian separated from the Army. We wanted to be the ones to decide where we lived, when we could travel, and when we would move. He got work as a freight pilot for one year, and as a salesman the next.
Recently, he told me he wanted to enter the military again, be a member of the National Guard. He wanted that sense of purpose again, he said. He wanted to use his (considerable) leadership skills.
I could not have been more thrilled.
Sometime in the many months I’d spent on the military spouse forums, even after Ian had separated from the military, it became increasingly clear I was on the outside of the military community—and to my surprise, I wanted back in. The spouses had (lo and behold) become individuals as I’d come to know them in online conversations, and I learned we weren’t so different, after all. Or, rather, at all. They had diverse skills, passions, fears, and interests, and they led complex lives. They were not—as I had unfairly perceived them to be—walking yellow ribbon car magnets. And the women I’d seen when I was a little girl, standing outside in their husbands’ PTs and smoking cigarettes?
Well, it turns out that when you’re the one who does it, yourself, you see it a bit differently. The sweats are comfy. Partly because they’re his. And of course hair is messy in the morning. (But there really was a disinclination on the part of the wives to explore the off-post world, and as a kid, I thought it was silly. But, then, I grew up there, so none of it was foreign to me. Now, as a grownup, I suspect that if I went somewhere very foreign I might take some time before venturing into the unknown.)
In short, over the years and through the online conversations, I realized I’d been guilty of stereotyping military spouses in precisely the same way I’d fought against being stereotyped, myself.
But as much as I may have come to enjoy them, I had to accept that I was no longer a part (as if I’d ever been one) of what I’d learned was indeed a unique community of people with a profound shared experience. No one but a military spouse or significant other can know the passionate torture and tumult of sending a lover to war. Few, outside of military families, can claim to have lived in five different states in under ten years, or will have spent considerable time in a foreign country. Military spouses/significant others have the common advantage of knowing the souls behind the uniforms as men and women they love, rather than as political talking points or wars’ game pieces.
When Ian and I move and he enters the National Guard, I can’t say that I’ll participate in an FRG if there is one (or start one if there isn’t). A natural loner, I may not commiserate with other Army wives. And I probably won’t call myself a Military Wife—but, then again, I wouldn’t refer to myself as a salesman’s wife, a pilot’s wife, or any other kind of wife. But I do know I’ll welcome his position in the military family and feel privileged that I, by extension, can call myself a member of that family. A far more appreciative member.
[Jan. 19, 2010 – some military spouses did not respond well to this entry. Read the resulting defense/explanation/clarification here.]