El Brown, 2012 Army Spouse of the Year
Being a military spouse has been a wild roller coaster ride for me. When I got married, I didn’t understand the demands of military life. I was a DODDS teacher trained to work with and support military families, but I knew so little about life on the other side of the ID card.
Through my journey, resiliency has been the single most important attribute to help me gain my bearings over and over again. Resiliency is the ability to overcome challenges of all kinds-trauma, tragedy, personal crises, plain ole life problems-and bounce back stronger, wiser, and more personally powerful. For military spouses, it’s a really valuable thing.
WHO WE REALLY ARE
I like to describe military spouses as phoenixes. The phoenix is a beautiful, mythological bird who, at the end of its lifecycle, ignites into f lame and is reborn more beautiful and more powerful than it was before. It starts over, like we so often do. We regenerate after each PCS, career transition, deployment, spouse promotion. We leave an old life and start a new one, and we can enter our next life cycle stronger, wiser, and more personally powerful.
The first step of building stronger resiliency is choosing to see yourself as just as powerful and amazing as that phoenix. Even on the days when it’s toughest. Wish I’d known how to do that when I started my journey as a spouse almost a decade ago. When I met my gorgeous soldier and he decided to put a ring on it, I thought, “Checkmate… game over. ”
But days into my engagement glow, we found out he was going to be deployed to Iraq. All I could think was, “Is there someone I can talk to and explain that we just got engaged and I’m about to start planning a wedding … and I kinda need my groom?”
Nothing was going to change that deployment, so my fiance decided he wanted to get married before he deployed. So after a 12-day engagement we flew to Hawaii for a quickie wedding on the beach.
Suddenly, I’m Mrs. Brown in a whirlwind of DEERS, Tricare, living wills, paperwork, briefings, and farewells. Eight weeks married, then he’s gone. In less than a year, I’d met the man of my dreams, had a glorious courtship, got engaged, got married and sent him off to a year in Iraq. He would be gone longer than I had known him.
GETTING MY BEARINGS, THE FIRST TIME
My head’s spinning: Am I really married? Is he coming back? Without children, if something happens to him I’d have no evidence of this great love affair. So I found comfort in planning the details of our future: I’d teach one more year in Korea, then he’d get orders to Germany, and I’d transfer my job to an elementary school on or near his post. Perfect, right? Wrong!
We get the news: His brigade won’t return to South Korea. The entire brigade will be redeployed to Fort Carson. COLORADO!? My job is in South Korea. It hits me that I have no say in where my husband would live after Iraq. So I resign from my dream job and go to make a home on Fort Carson in preparation for his return.
It’s hard to feel resilient when you’re not making your own decisions. But I promise you, it’s possible.
So, he gets home. Reunited and it feels so good, right? Wrong, again. We’d been married over a year, but we’d never really lived together. We’re now completely different from those two giddy newlyweds we were on the beach. We’re trying to get to know each other. I’m an unemployed teacher living in a new place, and he’s a soldier just returned from combat.
I decided to put my best foot forward-got involved on the base, got my Colorado teaching certificate, got a job offer. Even broke ground on my dream home. We’d start living our life just as soon as we return from the mandatory six months we just found out we had to spend in Lawton, Okla., for a course he needs to take.
I bet you know what comes next: A call informing us that we WILL NOT be returning to Colorado because his unit is slated to go back to Iraq and would be in NTC when he graduates from that course in Oklahoma. My house, my cherrywood cabinets!
But I am determined to make this work. I get a job substitute teaching for $46 a day (yeah, um … that’s not a typo). And because there’s really nothing to do in Lawton, Okla., … I get pregnant. We’re thrilled, but soon we find my pregnancy riddled with complications, bed rest and the loss of a twin. I completely lost faith in my body. Spent my days bargaining with God, hoping to welcome one healthy baby. At six months, I’m cleared from bed rest. Our baby’s healthy and developing well, and now we’re headed to Monterey, where I give birth to our son.
HAVING A CHILD, LOSING MYSELF
So excited about being a mother, I didn’t anticipate the exhaustion. Now my husband was a full-time student at the Naval PostGraduate School. Him trying to complete a 24-month program in the 18 months the Army was giving us in Monterey was a recipe for personal crisis. I never saw the man. My days were filled with caring for our little one and trying to squeeze in a shower. By the time my son was 7 months old, I didn’t recognized the woman I saw in the mirror. I didn’t know how to get back the woman I used to be. So I just vanished into my husband, attempting to hide the inadequacies I felt while secretly envying the way he appeared to be in the stride of his career.
Months later, we got pregnant again. I was relieved-I needed this chance to prove to myself that my body can safely carry a child to term. Then I lost the child just shy of our second trimester, and my husband learned that immediately following his graduation, he’d leave for Kansas for two months of training for his next year long deployment. I went numb. My spirit shut down. I sat on the couch, blinds closed. Didn’t leave my house for 30 days. My husband took over all household duties. I just cried, mourning our child and the fact that we would not be able to try again for 14 months due to deployment. Given my state, my husband decided it was best for me and our son to accompany him to Kansas. While we were there, we got pregnant again…. because there’s really absolutely nothing to do in Junction City, Kan.
Back in Monterey, excited and hopeful, I had my husband build a white picket fence around our back yard. I was going to need it to keep my two little ones safely corralled, while we played in the back yard. I said goodbye to my husband and prepared myself for the year long separation with my toddler and my one in the oven. Six weeks after my husband left and just shy of the second trimester, I had yet another miscarriage. And I’m now noticing developmental delays in our then-19-month-old son. This can’t be happening to my only baby, the absolute love of my life.
And so I broke. I hit my rock bottom.
Only I couldn’t shut the blinds for 30 days again. I was the only adult in the house and my boy needed me. You know the beautiful thing about rock bottom? You have nowhere to go but UP. It hit me: Not on my watch! My son will be ok. I am all he has and he needs my strength.
HERE’S WHAT I DID.
And what you can do if you need to find the resiliency that I know lives inside you.
I REACHED OUT.
I spoke to the neighbors I’d passed on my way to the mailbox and only offered a polite “hi” to before. I shared my pain with them. These spouses who I’d taken for granted rose to the occasion and became my rocks. They listened, understood, nurtured. They stood with me, inspired me, recharging my battery.
I LOOKED AROUND AND PAID ATTENTION.
I was working closely with my son, seeing things his doctor wasn’t able to see in our 15-minute “well baby” visits. I made up my mind to develop a curriculum that would allow me to assess and assist his development, recording my own data about his developmental progress. I called my curriculum “Ricky II’s Time.”
I PUT IN THE EFFORT AND I SAW PROGRESS.
For 45 minutes each day, I spent time on the floor with him, actively engaged, connecting with my son and figuring out the method of instruction that would best teach him. Music, movement-he loved it, and it was working! I thought I was doing something for my son, but actually he was saving me. What I poured into his love bucket during our 45-minute special time, his laughter and the light in his eyes poured right back into mine.
WHEN YOU REACH INSIDE FOR THAT RESILIENCY, GOOD THINGS HAPPEN. I’D FOUND SOMETHING I WAS GOOD AT DOING AND IT FILLED MY SOUL.
One day a neighbor came over and saw me working with Ricky II and said, “You should teach a class.” That’s exactly what I did. I went to CYSS and submitted a proposal to teach Ricky II’s Time in the post’s community center. I named the class KinderJam. I could work and bring my toddler with me, building community for myself and others. I could give parents the opportunity to really engage with their little ones for 45 minutes.
And you know what happened? It inspired others. Spouses began to come up to me and ask me how did I get involved with KinderJam. I explained, and they’d respond by saying if I packaged it up, they would teach it at their next duty station. Within months KinderJam had its first two instructors, one in Pigeon, Mich., and the other at Misawa AFB, Japan.
I began to look around my life and so much had changed for me in just a matter of months. My healing started when I began to share with other spouses. My military spouse family SAVED MY LIFE. When I started trusting and sharing with my military spouse friends, they encouraged and inspired me because they knew exactly what I was going through.