Somewhere in your earliest days as a military spouse, you have a subtle-or not-so-subtle-orientation. 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 to help. 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 many said they hide nothing from their spouse. 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 said they worry their service members will hear news from home via e-mail or social media, so they try to break it to 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 spouses, 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.
“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 families at home.”
Instead, she was sick to her stomach and emotionally drained. She relied on her best friend for support. She worried her husband would never forgive her silence.
After 17 doctor 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 am, 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 spouses, 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.”