Last night I was speaking with a friend whose husband is currently deployed. I asked her how she was doing, how her baby was doing, how her pregnancy was going and of course, how her husband was doing. We talked for a few minutes about all of the things going on in both of our lives. Some things were good. Some things were bad. She was coping with the deployment just fine, as I expected that she would. Then another topic came up.
This particular young lady was telling me about a friend whose husband was also out of town. He wasn’t deployed, or part of the military, but he was gone for a few days. She said that she asked her friend if there was anything she could do while her husband was out of town. “He’s gone for a week?” was my response. Hers? “I know increments of time are different to everyone in how it makes them feel, especially to non military. So I try to be sensitive.”
I was amazed too. Her compassion for others going through something so less severe than the deployment of a spouse is awesome. Especially since during most times we spend time with our civilian spouse counterparts, there are always those few moments of awkward silence as they try and figure out what to say about our own deployment situations.
Then it happens. It’s inevitable. They just can’t help themselves. In their uncomfortableness, and in their desire to make us feel better they say something that makes us turn our heads and roll our eyes. We know they mean well. We know they don’t mean to say something mean or hurtful, but yet we as military spouses certainly can take it that way. So here I am to help.
Now, let me be clear. If I am offended by something you say, that is my problem not yours. You certainly are entitled to your opinions and I, more than most, encourage you to share them. But in this instance, I don’t think people are looking to blurt out controversial statements. I think they really do want to help. I think they really do sympathize and want to console and encourage. I just don’t think they know how. My friend equated it with not knowing what to say when someone passes away. She’s kind of right!
So for my civilian friends and family members here are the top 10 things you don’t need to say to us when our loved ones are deployed or gone for military service.
10. 9 months isn’t that long. (Ask a pregnant woman if 9 months isn’t that long)
9. At least he’s not in ____________________. (Gone is gone!)
8. The time will go by fast. (No it won’t)
7. You must enjoy the extra pay. (Yep, HAZARD pay and HARDSHIP pay is an AWESOME replacement for my spouse.)
6. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. (quotes suck!)
5. Was he near (whatever bad thing just made the news that week?) (He was a lot closer than we were. That’s his job!)
4. I could never do it. (Yeah, we all thought that too, and then suddenly we became super heroes.)
3. Does he get to come home for (Christmas, anniversary, birthday?) (The answer is always no!)
2. It must suck being a married and single all at the same time. (Nah, I get the whole bed to myself and get to watch whatever I want on TV.)
- Military Spouse – Toughest Job in the Military. (No, I think leaving home and getting shot at is tougher.)
There are plenty of others, but I think you probably get the point. To us, in our minds, these are condescending things that don’t really help our situations whatever they may be. When our spouses are deployed, or out for training or at a range or wherever they may be, there are tons of different things that could happen to them. These are always on our minds. And until they are safely in our arms again, there is nothing that will get them out.
Let me share my personal experience with you. Heather has been deployed twice. Each time there has been a pit in my stomach because of the fear that she might not come home. Thankfully, because of technology we were in daily contact during the second deployment, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was in a dangerous place surrounded by an unstable environment that at any moment could erupt.
The advent of technology has allowed Soldiers and their families to remain close during deployments. Husbands and wives can watch movies together while Skyping. A child’s birthday party can be streamed live around the world so Mommy doesn’t have to miss it. Apps and cell phones can now send texts in real time so that every night there is an “I love you,” and a “good morning” when the sun comes up. We are blessed by this much contact when people even at the beginning of this war had little. But it comes with its downfalls as well.
Everyday I waited for Heather to get on Yahoo Instant Messenger and tell me about her day. She would be there around 2 or 3 pm and we would spend 30 minutes to an hour typing and talking. Then she would go to bed and I would feel ok knowing she was safe. These were the good days. The days when I knew where she was and how she was doing. They didn’t happen all the time.
Why? Because there were days when she didn’t log on at 2 or 3 or 4 or 5. There were days when I would lay down at 11 or 12 to try and sleep even though I hadn’t heard from her. Those days suck, and they are what separate us from the other spouses whose husband and wives go away on business. They get our minds reeling. Rolling with the possibilities of what could have happened.
For me, it was always negative. Something awful had happened and now I am going to have to do all of the things I never want to do. I am going to have to plan not one but three memorial services for her. I am going to have to tell her parents. I am going to have to scatter her….I can’t even bring myself to finish writing this, so hopefully you get the idea.
My brain gets so cluttered with these negative thoughts that I don’t sleep. I won’t sleep until I hear from her. There isn’t even a chance. That bottle of wine I drank. That doesn’t do the trick. Reading…nope. Praying…nope. I am awake and tired and worried.
The next morning would come and thankfully there is an email or a text or a phone call to let me know that the internet was down, or she had some top secret mission she had to go on. (kidding about the last part, settle down.) The point is she was fine and it was just my mind playing tricks on me. This happens more often than you think. And when people say the things listed above, negative thoughts, not happy ones run through our minds.
So, what should you say? I don’t want to be the guy who tells you there is a problem and not offer a solution so here it is. What should I say to a military spouse during a time when his or her spouse is gone? Here is a list for you.
- Can I take you to lunch? (We all gotta eat don’t we?)
- How is everyone doing? (perfectly normal, open ended question)
- Can I (be specific?) (take the kids on a play date, help clean the house. Be specific because we will probably say no to random help.)
- Thank You. (You have no idea how much this means to us and to our Soldiers.)
- Nothing. (Sometimes we don’t mind the awkward silence. Just being around friends is good enough.)
Once again, this list isn’t exhaustive and different spouses will have different reactions, but it is a good rule of thumb based on my experiences and those of other spouses I have talked to over the years. When our spouses are deployed, the only thing we care about is their safety. We are concerned that they are being taken care of, and that everything is being done to bring them home as soon as possible. If you have the power to do that, GREAT! I suspect most of you do not though, so just be there for us.
One final thing…I have great friends and family. For the past 13 years that Heather and I have been on this military journey, they have been amazing support systems for the both of us. They have laughed with us, cried with us, hugged us when we have come home or when we have left. They are constant prayer warriors when Heather is in harm’s way, and will never let either of us go without knowing we are loved. They are amazing.
One thing I think we as military spouses forget to do is say thank you too. We are thanked a lot. Our Soldiers are rightfully thanked even more. But there is a whole population out there that knows very little about that plight of the military family, yet is wholly supportive and caring. They buy us a meal or a small token just because. They bake cookies and send them out to Soldiers they will never meet. They draw pictures in their 2nd grade class to tell us how much they appreciate the sacrifices we make. They are the people our Soldiers fight for, and they understand that more than others.
To my friends and family who have been so supportive over the past 13 years. Thank you. You will never know how much your support and love mean to Heather and I. We have at least 7 years to go, and will need you to be there for us throughout. I know you will be, and I know you will always say the right things.