Somewhere in your earliest days as a military spouse, you have a subtle-or not-so-subtle-orientation. I call it the Welcome to the Sisterhood of the Big Girl Panties. Someone gives you the code of the military spouse and a big part of this is the Code of Silence.
It goes something like this: No matter how great the tragedies at home may be, deal with them. On your own. Don’t bother your deployed service member. They can’t do a thing about it and they won’t be coming home. All you will do is distract them, and that could get someone killed.
The code dates back to a time when the wall between home and deployment was not breached by the Internet. We’re living in a different world now. Service members and their families share more than ever before. But what if that service member is under intense pressure or daily attack, where the slightest break in concentration could kill many? What if news from home is so devastating it would cripple even the coolest character?
Suddenly that burden lands squarely on a heavy military spouse heart. You have to decide what to tell and what to keep to yourself until your service member arrives home.
How Do Spouses Handle It?
We asked our Facebook followers how they respond to this code, and more than 50 military spouses, all women, quickly replied with widely varied answers. Many said they hide nothing from their husbands. They said it would be like lying and would violate trust, potentially harming the marriage.
Others said they share information only after a problem is resolved, or when they know more facts, and then they choose their words carefully.
Many Facebook commenters said they worry their service members will hear news from home via e-mail or social media, so they try to break it them first. Bad news from the battlefield may be blacked out for the families, but there are no blackouts on bad news from back home for service members.
Breaking the Code
Amanda Parkhill, a Navy wife of 13 years, chose full disclosure when she faced a crisis. She’s married to a fire control officer serving on surface ships. She had to share bad news when her father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, and also during a complication-filled pregnancy that landed her in the hospital four times.
“I would rather have him hear it from me than get a Red Cross message,” she says. “We have always talked about everything, good, bad or indifferent. They say it will upset them… but Jason (my husband) isn’t like that. He would have been so hurt and so upset had I not told him.”
Parkhill says hiding things ruins military marriages because it undermines trust and communication. But for other wives, the choice wasn’t as clear.
Choosing the Burden of Silence
Six years ago, Tara Peifer’s son began having coordination problems and strange tics during her husband’s lengthy deployment to Iraq. Repeatedly, the doctors at Fort Wainwright told her it was just deployment-related stress. Tara wouldn’t believe it, but she didn’t tell her husband specifics. A Navy brat herself, she was well aware of the code. Her husband was on the front lines, being shot at daily as he patrolled Mosul with his Stryker brigade.
“He was in danger 24/7,” she explains. “He can’t have his mind on his son if he is taking care of a platoon who also have wives and children.”
Instead, she was sick to her stomach and emotionally drained. She relied on her best friend for support with “the monkey on her back.” She worried her husband would never forgive her silence.
After 17 doctor’s appointments, Tara finally got her son an appointment with a visiting doctor from Seattle. That doctor said the boy might have a brain tumor and needed an MRI right away. “I thought, ‘How do I tell my husband that his son might have a tumor in his brain when he is patrolling the streets every day? I am going to keep this to myself until I know what is going on.”
The next morning at 7 a.m., her son had an MRI. A mass was discovered on his brain stem, and the family was medevac-ed to Seattle by late afternoon.
It was time to tell her husband. “The Red Cross message was horrible,” she recalls. “It read, ‘Sponsor’s child, 6-years-old, diagnosed with malignant brain tumor. Life expectancy unknown. Return home immediately.” >>
Tara finally spoke to her husband on the phone as they were about to taxi down the runway to Seattle. It would be a week before he could join them at a Seattle hospital.
“Right before my son’s surgery, my husband looked at me and said, ‘Thank you for not telling me.’ He said he would not have been able to protect his soldiers and do it effectively if he had known. He told me,
‘I would have lost my mind.'”
Looking back, Tara says these events strengthened her relationship, rather than undermining it. “I think as military wives, we always feel angry that we have to give so much of ourselves for a cause greater than our being,” she says. “There is no resentment now. I was a little angry because I had to go through it alone. (But now) we have a great family dynamic and everything that has happened to my son grounded me quite a bit.”
Distance + Time = Different Reactions
There is no social media access under the ocean. So submarine wives are often the sole gatekeepers for information from home. When Erin Grayson learned her son might need surgery for a brain tumor, she desperately wanted to contact her husband who was deployed at sea on a lengthy underway.
“I just needed him to know that our baby was in danger. I needed him to share the burden, almost as if by telling him, I could split the burden in half since the whole seemed unbearable alone.”
But she also chose to wait, on advice from her captain’s wife, until she had firm answers from a neurosurgeon. Once she had more definitive information, the message was sent. Her husband learned the news from his captain, but the couple was not able to talk for a long time.
“When we were able to talk, he’d already processed the information in his own way. He’s a scientist. I’m an artist. He’s a man. I’m a woman. He was confined to a submarine. I was not. Our first conversation was not the comforting, consoling, encouraging one I’d hoped we would have. Instead, it felt very sterile, more about the facts without emotion. I felt cold and bitter. As a result, I felt like I’d been left to shoulder the burden alone. The fact was he couldn’t come home unless we were faced with the worst case scenario, which at that point seemed unlikely, thank God.”
Erin’s son never needed surgery. And she understood why her husband couldn’t return to help her. She said the experience eventually helped her marriage to grow, but she still struggles not to put up emotional walls.
Messages Long Delayed
Sometimes even if you choose to share the bad news, the service member won’t receive it right away.
Two years into her marriage, Janelle Becker faced the possible death of her newborn daughter. Weeks before, her husband deployed on a ballistic missile submarine with a healthy prognosis for both Becker and her soon-to-be-born daughter. But when Becker delivered the baby, there were complications. There was fluid in the baby’s lungs and the newborn’s life was at risk. Doctors told Becker to contact her deployed husband so he would have a chance to see his daughter before she died.
“My husband left for sea expecting to come home to his wife and new baby daughter. I hated having to send a message informing him of the difficulties my baby was having, and the possibility that she might not be there when he came home,” Janelle says. “I was very worried how he would react… (but) if there was any chance that he could be home to see her, then we had to try.”
A message was sent via Red Cross, but the submarine was on alert and didn’t receive it until weeks later when the submarine pulled into port.
“He was overcome with emotion when we first spoke, but was much better after he heard my voice and heard his baby daughter crying,” Becker said. She said the experience, and many others along the way, made her husband trust her to handle life at home. She never resented that he wasn’t there for the tough stuff.
“Even as a young wife, I understood that this was the nature of his job. I knew that if it was at all possible, that he’d have been right there with us through it all. It hurt him just as much to find out what she and I had gone through without him, as it did for me to go through such a scary time without him there.”
How Will You Handle It?
For every military spouse, the choice to share or not share news from home is a unique one. We can gather advice from others, run scenarios in our heads and debate possible outcomes. But in the end it’s a decision based as much on faith, instinct and knowing your partner as on any practical information. We’re with you in spirit, as are thousands of military spouses who have made these tough decisions just like you.