When news spreads of birds falling out of the sky and superheroes never returning home after routine training, social media shows a genuine outpouring of love for those who receive the worst news of their lives. But usually after a few days, it’s business as usual and most of the world carries on as if nothing happens. Yet for those who hold the title military wife, every broadcast of tragedy striking our armed forces family, something different happens.
You see the life we lead as those who said I do to a man in a uniform comes with challenges. Many of which those who chose a banker or a lawyer or a football coach as a spouse could take a guess at. The goodbyes. The uncertainty. The single parenting. The moves. Most people can find empathy for those living this lifestyle.
But underneath is another layer of hard that many don’t truly understand until you’ve lived it and how with every newsflash of loss plastered across our Facebook pages, something happens in the soul of a military wife. I’ve done this for over 12 years now and I can honestly say, it never gets easier. When the words crash and casualties are uttered, my hearts stops beating. Because every one of us has been holding our breaths ever since our man said the other most important vow he has ever made. We all stopped breathing when he promised to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Most people think that if he is home, a girl can breathe a little easier. But those of us in this life know that preparing for war is no safer than the actual battle. Accidents happen in training. Or perhaps, some think, once he drops to reserve status, then we can finally exhale. But planes crash flown by reservists as well as active duty pilots. And so we walk through this world feeling kind of faint every time the door slams shuts when he leaves for work and we secretly wonder if he will ever walk back in. We feel so deeply the loss of those in our community, perhaps even more so than those outside, because we know at any moment, it could be our turn.
Most of us, I suppose, see this as the greatest curse of this life. The fact that we never know what tomorrow holds and we never know when our goodbye is forever. But, after walking alongside Rick in his twenty years in the Marine Corps, I can honestly say this has been the biggest blessing. Our civilian friends can sometimes pretend that they have control over their lives and they can believe it until tragedy awakes them from a slumber and they find out it isn’t true. But as death has encroached on our inner circle throughout the years, we get the stark reminder that every moment is a gift and every goodbye should be given as if it were the last. When you face up to the fact that your husband has chosen a career in which statistically there is a chance of him never coming home, you get real cognizant of the fact that time is precious. And every moment matters. You learn what it truly means to number your days. Slowly, but surely you see the unimportant, the trivial, and the minutia stripped away in how you spend your time together, what words you choose and even what you fight about. Sometimes you forget of course, but then lightning strikes and you get reminded once again. Are these the words I want to be our last? It’s a sobering question and perhaps a bit morbid, but it is the one we must ask ourselves daily.
I struggled the first several years of our marriage with a debilitating fear of losing Rick. I would look at the clock, estimate when his helicopter should be touching the ground, and call incessantly until I heard his voice. There have been countless nights when I didn’t get a call and I would convince myself in the darkness of the night that this was it, this was what I was afraid of. Only to feel like a complete fool when I finally heard the sound of his voice and an explanation that his phone had died or he had extra paperwork that night. The hardest part for my kind is that we see ourselves and our loves in every heartbreaking loss. We know that it can feel like we are just playing a game of Russian roulette and there is not much but perhaps luck or an act of God that separates us from knocks at the door by two uniformed CACO officers.
People want to know what to do in these moments to help those impacted by such pain, but perhaps more importantly, is what we do to help in the moments in between. There is nothing more dangerous than being alone and a mind full of fears in the dailyness of military living. It wears and tears so deeply on a soul. So, how do you help the military wife next door?
1. Recognize that she doesn’t feel any safer when her husband is “just away at training” compared to a deployment. She can be struggling with the same fears because military training is always meant to imitate the real thing. Don’t show support only during a deployment. She needs it at all times.
2. Know what to do when you see a news story about something happening to a military member. DO NOT call and ask her if her husband is ok. Be careful what you post on social media that connects names. Too many women have found out that something is wrong by a well-intentioned phone call from a friend or even someone far more removed from her inner circle, like a realtor. If you’re not ready to be the bearer of bad news, don’t pick up the phone or share the article on Facebook. Pray until you hear from those potentially affected by a mishap.
3. An anxious mind coupled with loneliness can breed all sorts of frightening scenarios. The night seems to only exacerbate it. Offer to come over with a favorite movie and some cookie dough. Silence can be stifling. You don’t have to make it sound like a pity party, but let her know that you can understand that nights can be lonely and you’d love to provide her with some adult conversation (especially if she is a mama) and caloric distractions.
4. Teach her what it means to place her husband in God’s hands. Model it. I distinctly remember at the height of my anxiety at the thought of losing Rick, God said, Ok, if it happens, then what? I was taken aback by His line of questioning and I replied, well, I’d be completely broken and I probably wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. To which he responded, then what? I thought about it for a few days and thought, well, eventually I guess I’d get out of bed and try to care for my kids. We continued this back and forth until I came to see His point. I’d be utterly devastated. My world would never be the same. But, like so many of my friends who have had their lives turned upside down by grief, life would continue on. Never in the same way. But, God would carry me through each step. It’s an overwhelming reality to confront the fragility of this life, but it is one we all, military or not, will at some point encounter in our journey. We cannot cling to those in our lives as if they’re ours to begin with and that we fully understand the master plan. I am thoroughly convinced that it’s only through a deep relationship with God, knowing Him and starting to unravel His love for us that we can learn to accept and even embrace the pain of this life. I know so many military wives who struggle with this. They need older women, women more mature in their faith, couples who can be like parents or grandparents away from home, pouring into their lives on a daily basis to teach them this kind of trust that places its most prized possessions into the hands of a good and loving Father.
Military wife can really feel more like tightrope walker. It can feel like you’re just trying to keep it all together, balancing perfectly, so as not to completely fall. The fears, the uncertainty, and the reminder that with each kiss that sends our guy off there is a sister next to us who will never say hello again can keep us feeling like we are walking on a wire while holding our breath. It means at times we can be flakey friends, whose schedules seem to revolve around the United States Marine Corps’ plan for our man. Know that doesn’t mean we love you any less, but just that we have to take advantage of every single moment we have together. Because every few months, another story will rock our world and leave us dangling off the edge of that tightrope. And because birds fall out of the sky and superheroes never return home sometimes.