By Jacqueline Goodrich, Army Spouse
On Christmas Eve 2005, I married my best friend. The honeymoon had barely even started when Michael left for his twelve-month tour of duty in Iraq. For two 19-year-olds, that was a tough pill to swallow.
Like so many spouses left behind during a deployment, I experienced anxiety and depression. Any time I felt my heart start to race or when I started imagining all the worst-case scenarios played out, I retreated into myself. My only thoughts were of our reunion — if I could just make it to January 2007, I knew everything would be right again.
The Army had other plans.
The night he called to tell me he was back in the States he shared news that I just knew would be the start to our lives together. He was offered a position at Fort Dix, New Jersey as an Observer Controller Trainer. Michael was going to train troops before they went to Iraq – and I would have dinner waiting for him at the end of each long day. For the next three weeks we were on Cloud 9.
But then he dropped the bomb on me, the bomb I never expected, never thought the Army would be allowed to do: his new orders were to be unaccompanied.
There’d been a change in command at Fort Dix, and OCT’s were no longer allowed to have their families live wit them. Distraction, they said. Operational security, they said. I was only allowed to stay for a week, and then I was right back where I started: alone.
Can it happen to you?
Statistics on unaccompanied orders are tough to track down, because there’s not a standard protocol in place.
“The decision on whether orders are unaccompanied is up to the headquarters issuing those orders,” says Lieutenant Colonel Michael Moose of Army Personnel and Human Resources. “Unaccompanied or not are specific instructions listed on orders. That could be determined by where those orders are for, how long, and how much funds are available for that mission. It’s unregulated and subjective,” says Lt. Col. Moose.
Shock, Anger and I-95
Never did I dream that the Army was “allowed” to send a soldier fresh off a deployment on unaccompanied orders, but there are no regulations in place to prevent something like that from happening. The shock wore off and for a while I was just angry. I felt like the military betrayed me. I sacrificed my first year of marriage in exchange for literal blood, sweat and tears.
Michael had signed on for two years of those orders. I spent 2007 getting cozy with I-95. Every month I made trips between Virginia and New Jersey. I knew each road sign by heart and exactly which exits had a drive-through Starbucks.
The second year, they moved him into different barracks, which didn’t allow overnight guests. That put an end ot my visits. By the time these orders ended in March 2009 we had celebrated holidays, birthdays and the birth of our daughter Lucy in separate places.
The Army’s Gift
But with time, I came to see the good in our situation. Had Michael been given orders for us to PCS someplace together after his Iraq tour, there is a chance we might have ended up sitting on the couch watching television in silence. Instead, we fell in love all over again on each phone date. Each surprise visit and homecoming gave me first-date butterflies.
And while Michael was at Fort Dix for two years we knew they weren’t able to deploy him anywhere. We had a guarantee that few military families experience. Looking at it that way, the army gave us a gift.
What Spouses Need to Know About Unaccompanied Orders
Any set of orders can be unaccompanied. Ask questions about new orders as soon as they come through – unaccompanied orders may be considered voluntary, which means your spouse might not have to commit to them. Make sure to gather as many facts up front as you can.
And there is support for you – if your spouse is on unaccompanied orders, you can join any FRG in your area. You don’t have to be affiliated with the unit.
3 Tips for Surviving Unaccompanied Orders
1. Over-the-phone date nights
Take turns reading a book out loud to each other. Play a questions game. Learn more about your spouse’s picture of your future. Would he prefer to retire at the beach or to New York City? The world is your oyster and you can experience it all by indulging your imaginations together.
2. Meet in the Middle
It’s not always possible for service members to come home even when they have a weekend pas – there is often a limit on how far they are allowed to travel. Pick a town in that range and bring a little bit of home to your spouse at a hotel. Some weekends you can stay in and order takeout and movies. Other times, plan fun day trips to see the local sites.
3. Don’t be afraid to have “the Talk”
When we were on our second year of orders and I was seven months pregnant, Michael lost his wedding band during a morning run. Of course I trusted him completely, but this incident reminded me that he was a good-looking soldier, away from home, without a ring on his finger. Discuss those thoughts to get them out and take the time to reassure each other. Then be willing to release the bad thoughts.