Both times that my husband was deployed, I was living in Charlotte, NC: 100 miles or more from the closest military base. I am from Charlotte, and my family still lives there, along with many friends I have known for years. My parents were there to help me as much as possible, and I had several friends who were invaluable to me; a coworker who put baby gates up and fixed my broken computer, my babysitter who came over many times just so I could have a peaceful shower, a neighbor who would stop by often after his nightly run to make sure I was ok and who helped get the water out from under my house when it flooded, another neighbor who brought me supper several times and who kept me company on what would have been another boring night alone, watching TV. They were my support group, and they were wonderful.
The thing I didn’t have was a military community. We spend our lives trying to stand out from the crowd, but when you are going through a deployment, you do not want to be unique. My house was the only one with a yellow ribbon tied to the mailbox. My husband was the only member of our church who was deployed. My daughters were the only ones I knew whose father missed both of their first birthdays. I wasn’t alone, but I was lonely, resentful, even, about the “normal” life I thought I’d missed out on.
At the end of 2009, a few months after my husband’s second deployment ended, he took a contract job at Camp Lejeune, and we moved 250 miles from my family, my friends, the only place I had ever lived. We moved from a big city to a small beach town where the closest Target and Starbucks were 45 minutes away! But what wasn’t far away? Other military families. For the last three years, I have had the privilege of belonging to a military community. I have made friends with some amazing women who are from all over the country and world who have nothing in common and yet everything in common: they are all military wives, they have all been through deployments. Three of them are going through one right now. And those of us who are not currently dealing with deployment still have absentee husbands. A lot. So, we meet for dinner on Friday nights. We watch each others children. We go to the beach together. We talk about the difficulties of our husbands being gone; we talk about the difficulties when our husbands come home. We offer support at the birthday parties of each others children. Because it’s not unusual here when Daddy isn’t there.
When I go to the grocery store, my car is not the only one with a Purple Heart license plate. It’s not the only one with a DoD decal on the bottom left of the windshield in the school pick up line. At church, I’m not the only one struggling up to the door alone, a child hanging from every limb. There is a substantial list of deployed church members whom we pray for each week. There are two little boys sitting through the Children’s Sermon hugging their “Daddy dolls” every Sunday. Last week, at my oldest daughter’s softball game, I listened to a woman behind me discussing growing trouble with her preteen son, her daughter’s unrelenting desire for her father to walk her to class just once this school year, and her fear that he won’t return from Afghanistan in time to make that wish come true.
It’s not that I take comfort in knowing I’m surrounded by women going through long separations from their husbands; I hurt for them, whether I know them or not. But I also gain strength from them. When my husband’s been gone for days and I’m sitting in the waiting room of the pediatric clinic for the second time that week with a whiny, wiggly toddler on my lap, the woman who’s balancing a baby carrier on her hip and handing her military ID to the receptionist mentions that she just PCSed here. And I remember what it feels like to be in a new place, how blessed I am to have many friends, civilian and military, close by.
Or, after a long day, when I am driving as fast as I legally can toward home, with no idea what I’m going to feed my children for supper, the girls fighting over a crayon in the back and the baby screaming his head off because he’s tired, and I come up on an SUV with the popular “His boots, her flops: The perfect pair!” decal on the rear window. As I pass by, I look at the driver: young, pretty, strong. I wonder if she is heading toward an empty house, like I am, or if her husband is home, for now. I wonder if she has little ones in the back, or if the particular struggles of motherhood and military life still lie ahead for her. I ease up on the gas; stay parallel to her instead of leaving her behind. Because somehow, just knowing she’s there, sharing this road with me, this little intersection of life, is giving me the courage to keep going.