READER’S GUIDE FOR “WHILE THEY’RE AT WAR”
A CONVERSATION WITH KRISTIN HENDERSON
What made you decide to write While They’re at War?
The seed was planted during the initial invasion of Iraq. My husband’s a Navy chaplain, and when a neighbor found out my husband was over there with the Marines headed for Baghdad, she said, “Wow, what’s that like? Having him in harm’s way?” I was the only person she knew who had someone in the fight. And it hit me: Most Americans no longer personally know what it’s like to send someone they love to war. Some time later I complained to an Army officer that civilians just don’t understand what we military spouses go through, and he said, “Maybe that’s because we don’t tell them.” And that’s true, we don’t. It’s partly out of pride. We don’t want to admit how much of a struggle it is sometimes. And partly because we feel vulnerable — when you’re emotionally on edge, it can be hard to open up.
But in a democracy like ours, civilians are the ones who send us to war. So their lack of experience with war’s consequences seemed a dangerous development to me. I wanted to write a book that would help civilians walk a mile in the shoes of the men and women whose loved ones are fighting and dying for the rest of us. I was also hoping a book like this would help other military spouses know they’re not in this alone, because isolation can be a real problem for some of us.
Aren’t the consequences of war greatest for the people who actually do the fighting? Why focus on the families?
The real story of war doesn’t end at the battlefield’s edge. The people fighting our wars will tell you that they depend on their families for the support they need to prepare for war, get through it, and then recover from it. Our nation’s military readiness depends on three things: training our military service members, equipping them, and making sure their families are in a position to support them. Families are just as important as training and equipment, because soldiers are human beings, not machines. If a soldier knows his family is struggling while he’s gone, that can distract him from his wartime mission. And in a war zone, distractions can be fatal.
Were you able to just sit down and start writing from your own experience? Did you learn anything you didn’t already know?
Before I started, I figured I knew everything I needed to know to write a book like this, because in the space of a year and a half my husband had deployed first to Afghanistan, then Iraq. But life has a way of curing us know-it-alls. For instance, I learned from the chaplains on Fort Bragg that when your spouse is in a combat zone, many of us have the same emotional reaction as someone whose loved one is dying from a terminal illness. It’s called anticipatory grief, and the physical symptoms include everything from shortness of breath, like an anxiety attack, to restlessness and agitation and difficulty concentrating. Emotionally, you’re prone to crying jags. You find yourself imagining the funeral. You’re essentially grieving as if the person you love is already dead. When I heard that my mouth dropped open, because while my husband was in Afghanistan and Iraq I had had those exact symptoms. Not only had I not known all that craziness had a name — anticipatory grief — I had no idea other spouses were going through the same thing.
Was that the biggest surprise to you as you wrote While They’re at War?
It was one of many. I was really surprised at how willing the spouses were to talk to me. They opened up their lives. Although in hindsight, it makes sense. I was one of them — they knew I’d been through the same thing. I knew what questions to ask. Maybe it was also because they knew my husband is a chaplain. People confess things to chaplains that they wouldn’t to anyone else, and that can extend to the wife, too. They trusted me, and I felt a responsibility not to betray that trust. So I tried to tell each person’s story the way she saw it, and not impose my own judgment on it.
That was especially important in the stories about infidelity. I spent time with one homefront spouse whose soldier cheated on him while she was in Iraq, and another homefront spouse who had a long-running affair during her soldier’s tours in Vietnam. Deployments, especially wartime deployments, can really test a marriage. The testing strengthens some marriages, but it undermines others.
Was there any one part of the homefront experience that was harder for you to write about than the rest?
There was one part I did not want to write about at all. And that was the one thing we’re all afraid of — that knock at the door. At first I told myself that since this was a book about typical deployments and the vast majority of us don’t wind up as widows, I didn’t have to include it. But then I learned about anticipatory grief and eventually I had to admit there was no way I could write about the homefront experience without writing about what it’s like when your worst fears come true.
It took me weeks to work up the nerve to call the first widow. Every day I’d put it on my list of things to do — “call widow” — and every day I’d find fifty other things I absolutely had to do first. In the end, these women taught me so much. I’d sit down with a widow, and there I’d be — I’d have my funeral face on, tiptoeing around the conversation as if she were a fragile doll instead of just an ordinary human being with a hole in her life. And she’d be so matter-of-fact about it, laughing sometimes, crying sometimes, sometimes both at the same time, that I had to tell myself to just get over it and follow her lead and be normal. Spending time with each of them enriched not just the book, but my life.
Did you work with the military in doing your research?
I didn’t plan to. I found most of my wives and husbands through informal channels — through my personal life, my friends in the military family advocacy community. I didn’t want a military minder looking over my shoulder during these interviews. I wanted to tell the homefront story honestly, both the upside and the downside, and I assumed the military would censor the downside. But eventually I decided I wanted to include the perspective of the officials whose job it is to support military families. So I went ahead and approached public affairs. I was amazed by how cooperative they were. I was also amazed to discover how many services were already in place to help military families. I had no idea those services were out there, even though my husband is a chaplain. He knows about them, it’s his job to know. But I didn’t. It occurred to me that if I didn’t know, most other spouses probably didn’t know either. As I spoke with one military official after another I learned there’s not a lack of services so much as a lack of communication between the military and the spouses. That’s an area that could use improvement.
What sort of reaction do you get from readers?
From military spouses, I hear thank you a lot — for making them aware of the available services for instance, but mostly for telling their story on their terms, without twisting it to fit a political agenda. For just saying: Here are the sacrifices; for better or worse, this is what it’s like.
Probably the most interesting reaction I get, though, is from civilians who are opposed to the Iraq War. The war seems unjust to them, and they know there are always some people in the military who feel the same way. And so these civilians ask, “Why don’t soldiers just refuse to fight?” As if it’s up to our military service members to prevent or end a war. But in a democracy, that’s not their job. To those civilians I say, “That’s your job.” The Founding Fathers put civilians in charge of the military. The civilian leaders we elect are the ones who give the military its marching orders. And it’s every civilian citizen’s job to hold those leaders accountable, to decide which wars are worth fighting and which ones aren’t. The people who volunteer to serve in our Armed Forces, their job is to go out and possibly die for us. And now on top of that you want them to do your job, too? There are two things wrong with that. First, it’s an awful lot to ask. And second, that’s an invitation to turn our democracy into a military dictatorship, where the generals call the shots instead of the president and Congress. I don’t think any of us want that.
You’re a Quaker. What’s that like, to be a pacifist moving through the world of the military?
I’m an outsider on the inside, and it’s given me a unique perspective. I used to think the military had nothing to do with me, that we’d all be better off without a military. But after my husband joined the Navy, I was forced to confront my own prejudices. Gradually I began to realize that my own attitude was the result of a growing gap between the military and civilian society. Since we no longer rely on the draft to fight our wars, there’s a whole generation of Americans like me, both liberal and conservative, with no firsthand exposure to the military. That’s ominous for two reasons. If you look back at our history as a nation, whenever there have been fewer veterans among our elected leaders, that’s when our country has most often resorted to war to solve problems. And looking ahead, if civilians disengage from the members of our armed forces, the two groups run the risk of becoming increasingly alienated from each other. I don’t want to see the day the military no longer feels it has a stake in civilian society, because they’re the ones with the biggest guns. Understanding and embracing our military families is one way to help bridge that gap.
Do you know anyone who has deployed to a war zone?
If you don’t know anyone, what does that say about who’s serving in the modern military and your relationship to that military?
If you do know someone who has deployed but you don’t live with them, how aware were you of what their family was going through, prior to reading While They’re at War?
If someone you live with has deployed, do you think it’s harder to be the spouse, parent, or child who’s left behind? Or does it depend more on each individual’s personality and resources?
Imagine your spouse or significant other goes to war. Maybe you don’t have to imagine, maybe he or she already has.
Who would you be in this book? Would you handle it more like Beth? Or like Marissa? Or like someone else in the book, such as Annie who turned to alcohol, or Starla who weathered it matter-of-factly?
Was there a spouse you particularly admired? What was it you admired about him or her?
People who haven’t been through a deployment often assume that for those with children, life on the homefront is essentially like being a single parent for awhile. They’re amazed to discover that there are many hidden emotional, physical, and practical challenges. What was the biggest surprise to you?
Deployments are tough, yet many military spouses, including the author, embrace the military lifestyle. Some say the privileges and benefits are the reason, others the satisfaction that comes from being a part of something bigger than yourself.
What upsides can you see in a life that revolves around military service?
In particular, do you think there are any upsides for children? Do you agree with the head of the Military Child Education Coalition that it can “encourage the courage of children”?
Now that you’re aware of the complexities of homecoming — from the “terrible relief” of being safe in one another’s arms to the struggle to adapt to the inevitable changes in the other person — what will go through your mind the next time you see a military homecoming on the TV news? Do you think your own relationship would be strengthened or undermined by a wartime deployment?
The director of the Medical Family Assistance Center at Walter Reed Army Hospital said, “When a soldier gets wounded, the family gets wounded. Their community gets wounded. The nation gets wounded.” Do you think this is true, and if so, what kind of wounds are inflicted at the community and national level? How do we heal these wounds?
How would you sum up your opinions about the military and the current war? Now that you know more about homefront life, has that knowledge changed your opinions or reinforced what you already believed?
Historically, democracies have tended to fight their wars with citizen soldiers while empires have relied on professional warriors. If democracies are at one end of a scale and empires at the other, where do you think America falls on such a scale?
Kristin didn’t know much about the military and didn’t like it much, either, until her husband joined the Navy. Then she got to know the military firsthand and had a change of heart. That experience opened her eyes to a growing gap between the military and civilians. Do you agree with her that this gap is bad for our democracy?
If you don’t agree, why do you think it doesn’t matter?
If you do agree, why do you think it’s bad for democracy? Is there anything you can do personally to reach out and build bridges between civilians and the military? For instance, is there anything you can do to help returning soldiers reintegrate back into your community?
Check out this list of ways you can support the troops by supporting their families, even if you don’t know them personally. Try brainstorming what you can you do as an individual or as a group to help a military family. What might you do for families whose service member has been wounded or killed?
10 FACTS ABOUT MILITARY FAMILIES THAT CIVILIANS MAY NOT KNOW
More than half of all military service members have family responsibilities, either spouses or children or both. (Military Family Research Council study, 2002)
The income gap
Women married to military men earn nearly a third less on average than women with similar backgrounds married to civilians. (RAND study, 2000) The more education the military wife has, the bigger the income gap; for those with post-graduate degrees, incomes drop by nearly half. A 2004 RAND study reveals why.
During deployments, many homefront spouses have to cut back on work hours or quit altogether to handle increased responsibilities at home, reducing family income. Plus, for more than half of married National Guard members and reservists who are activated, the switch to military pay means a pay cut for them, too. (DoD study, 2005)
Just leave, you bastard
Couples often pick fights just prior to deployment — subconsciously, it makes it easier to say goodbye. (“The Emotional Cycle of Deployment,” Kathleen Vestal Logan, Proceedings, Feb. 1987)
Constant fear of death
After deployment begins, homefront spouses commonly experience the same symptoms as people with a terminally ill loved one: shortness of breath, crying jags, secretly planning their service member’s funeral. Most spouses have no idea that they’re not the only one this happens to, that this is normal and has a name: anticipatory grief. (Fort Bragg chaplains)
No news is good news
Worried homefront spouses can become addicted to the 24-hour news cycle, leading to helplessness, anxiety, and depression. Senior spouses advise first-timers to turn off the TV. Many choose to go through entire deployments in a news-free bubble. (Military 101 classes for spouses)
Children go through the same emotional cycle as adults. They just don’t hide it as well. Three-quarters of active-duty military school children, 600,000, attend public schools. Most of the half-million school children of National Guard members and reservists also attend public schools. That’s a lot of stressed-out kids sitting in the classrooms of civilian teachers who may know little or nothing about the military or how to help a child who’s struggling to cope with a parent in a war zone. (Military Child Education Coalition)
Till war do us part
The first marriages of combat veterans are 62% more likely to fail than the first marriages of civilians. (William Ruger, Liberty Fund fellow and Cato Institute research fellow) Between 2003 and 2004, combat stress, long separations, and difficulty readjusting to family life caused divorce rates to rise 78% among Army officers and 28% among enlisted soldiers. (US Army)
Life after death
When a service member is killed, widows and children are better able to cope if they feel supported by the unit. A unit that fails to close ranks around the survivors — for instance, refusing to allow them to visit the unit after its return home — increases the survivors’ sense of dislocation, making it especially hard for children to find closure and begin healing. (Military and civilian psychiatrists)
A failure to communicate
The Pentagon funds a variety of services to help military families through deployment. But many are underutilized because spouses don’t know they exist. Two-thirds of active-duty families and nearly all Guard and Reserve families do not live on military installations and can be difficult to reach. Some don’t want to be reached. (National Military Family Association)
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
A book may come to an end, but real life goes on. Here are updates on the lives of some of the people you got to know in While They’re at War, during the first few years that followed.
MARISSA and Charlie Bootes’ marriage came apart after the honeymoon period. They are now divorced. Marissa left Fayetteville, but the Army is still part of her life — she continues to help their daughter cope with Charlie’s ongoing deployments.
BETH and Luigi Pratt left Army life behind. They now have two children and live in Florida, where Beth finally landed a job in forensics. A year after returning from Iraq, Luigi began to experience symptoms of combat trauma — roaming the house at night to make sure it was secure and worrying about bullets penetrating the walls. He found help at a VA clinic.
CAMILLA Maki, Beth’s key caller, is back to working toward a college degree. Camilla’s marriage did not survive her husband’s second deployment. She and her ex-husband remain friends. She has since remarried, to another soldier.
JENN Marner, co-leader of the Hooah Wives, relocated to Fort Carson with her husband and three children. They’ve now been through several deployments to Iraq.
ANGELA, co-leader of the Hooah Wives, welcomed Reggie home from another Southwest Asian deployment, this one lasting just shy of one year. The baby she was pregnant with after his previous deployment was a toddler by then, and along with the two older children has rebonded with Reggie.
CHRISTINE Perry, the half-Irish-half-Korean Hooah Wife, moved with her husband and son to Fort Campbell. From there, her husband deployed for the first time. She did cry, but only twice, and she gave herself fifteen minutes each time to get over it. She’s active in her FRG as her husband continues to deploy frequently.
TIFFANY and Andre had a better homecoming the second time he came back from Afghanistan, but it was still challenging. Again he turned to counseling. Then they left for an isolated new duty station far from North Carolina and the Hooah Wives. Tiffany withdrew into a depression, but she recovered with help from her doctor, exercise, and the friends she found when she joined a volleyball team for homemakers.
ANNIE Cory, Hooah Wife, and her husband Will moved on to Fort Lewis and then Germany. Will continued to deploy as they started a family. Annie stayed sober, relied on her FRG for the support she needed during deployment, and began working toward a college degree in criminal justice.
LYNN Sinclair’s National Guard husband returned from Iraq with a bronze star and health problems that developed while he was over there. He tells Lynn he doesn’t want to be seen as a hero; he just did his part because he wanted to and doesn’t want pity. With Lynn’s support he reenlisted in the Guard, which likely means more deployments. Their children have made connections with other military children through the National Guard’s “Kids on Guard” support program.
ROBERT and Donna Fanning soon began Donna’s second deployment to Iraq. This time around, Robert didn’t have the FRG to keep him busy — some new members were uncomfortable with having a man involved in an otherwise all-female group, and he was asked to resign his leadership positions. Chieryssa graduated from high school, so Robert also had to face an empty nest. It was a tough deployment.
JENNIFER Gaines married her fiance Rick and followed him to his next duty station in Germany. They started a family as Rick continued to deploy. During that time, Jennifer battled post-partum depression and morning sickness on her own. She came to rely on her FRG, and with her support, Rick reenlisted.
TERESA and Daniel Metzdorf both continued with their careers — Teresa as a graphic artist and Daniel as a soldier, one of a small but growing number of amputees who opt to stay in the military. Daniel also kept up a busy schedule as a motivational speaker and competed in the Miami Marathon.
MICHELLE Hellermann received a call from the Army more than a year after her husband’s death in Iraq. She was informed that the investigation into whether friendly fire played a part in his death was now complete, but the outcome was inconclusive. Michelle had not known an investigation was underway; the news disrupted any progress her family had been making. Her daughter improved slightly, but her son’s condition worsened. The commander of her husband’s unit finally reached out to her in a phone call, but she angrily told him it was too little too late.
MELINDA Ferrin continued to have days that were hard to get through, but she took up photography and found happiness in her children. Zack excelled in school and fell in love with a new dog, Petey — Melinda promised him a dog a week after his father was killed in Iraq. Maddie started school, too, and still sometimes talked about her father as if he were around. Melinda keeps his memory alive for the children by looking through scrapbooks with them, and by giving them each their own CD player — Zach and Maddie have CDs of his voice, tapes he made for them before his deployments, and they listen while falling asleep at night.
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