My husband’s deployment has been a tough one. They’ve only been gone for three months, and the brigade has lost three soldiers. My husband’s unit has lost two more men who were attached to, but not actually “in” his unit. My in-laws tell me that of this deployment to Afghanistan and Nick’s two previous deployments (we weren’t dating or married yet during those 27 total months in Iraq), that this is by far the worst one. They call it “the deployment from hell”.
I can’t imagine how hard it must be for my civilian friends (who have been really fantastic during this deployment, by the way) to understand what this is like for Nick or for me.
Hell, let’s just be honest here: Even I don’t always have a clear idea what this is like for us. I’m feeling the compound effect of a half-dozen different stresses right now, so it’s hard to sort out one stress from the other. And I’ve not been able to talk to him often enough or long enough to really understand how he’s processing all of the things happening with his unit, either.
But back to civilian comparisons: If one of my friends came home at night to learn that their significant other had had two coworkers killed that day, I think there would probably be long conversations, tears, and time spend holding one another. The couple might talk about the impact of the deaths of the families of the deceased, and the impact of the deaths on office morale. There may even be a day or two off of work to cope with things.
In the world Nick and I live in, there’s not even a phone call, because when something like this happens, he’s not allowed to communicate to the outside world for awhile.
The day I learned that two of his coworkers had been killed on their Forward Operating Base (FOB), I wasn’t able to talk to him. At the time I read the news story, they’d not yet announced the names of the deceased, and the unit was still under communications blackout. It was mid-day on a Saturday, and my mom was visiting (thank God). We stopped what we were doing and drove straight home. My hands shook, my stomach churned, and I think I was babbling to my mom through a series of arguments based on faulty logic, that Nick would be okay, or I’d have heard bad news already.
As we pulled into my driveway, my mom and I both silently scanned the area for government vehicles. I can’t see our front door from the garage entrance, so after entering through the garage, I walked quietly to the front door. I opened it up to see that there weren’t any uniformed officers outside.
For the next several hours, I waited. My mom and I ran a few errands and tried to keep my mind busy. I took a few minutes to myself to sit quietly in my car while she shopped in a store I didn’t need anything from. My hands still shook, and I wasn’t confident that my stomach was going to hold its contents. I exchanged emails with my mother-in-law, and I prayed more in those few hours than I’ve probably ever prayed in such a relatively short window of time.
Eventually, my husband was able to email me (2 lines) to tell me that he was okay. Some of his equipment had been damaged, offices had been damaged, men had been killed, but he and the men who report directly to him were alright.
When we were finally able to have a (very short) conversation on Google Chat (or Skype Chat, I forget which, but it was a text-based chat) later, he told me that he and his soldiers had all been scanned for Traumatic Brain Injury.
Hopefully it’s obvious that I’m glad that he’s okay. But what I’m not sure others realize is that the relief that he’s alright doesn’t immediately fix all of the stress that built up while I waited to find out if he was okay. The incident was more than two weeks ago, and I’m still un-packaging the incredibly complex emotions of that one stressful weekend.
Each time there’s an in incident, the unit goes into communications blackout. Last month, it began to feel like I’d talk to him one day, and then he’d been under blackout for 2-3 days.
One of the misperceptions that my civilian friends – and even some of my other military spouse acquaintances – have is that Nick and I can Skype or talk on the phone. The truth is that I haven’t heard his voice in over a month.
Where he’s stationed, the internet connection isn’t strong enough for us to Skype, and the places he can call me from offer no privacy. Our compromise is text-chatting via either Skype chat or Google Chat.
The best Skype interaction we had was weeks ago. I couldn’t see him, but he could see me (sometimes). I could hear birds chirping, and even I heard a helicopter fly over his base. He could see our dog when she climbed into my lap, and he could watch my facial expressions.
Our marital communications were segregated into a completely unnatural divide of the senses: He could see me, but he couldn’t hear me. I could hear him, but couldn’t see him. We could both type messages to one another. If we tried to speak to one another, the audio delay was several seconds, and only some of he words came through.
Each night, I sit at my computer from about 9:15 until around 11 p.m., hoping for less than this “best Skype chat” scenario. If I can text-chat with him for 20 minutes every other evening, I consider myself really lucky.
There aren’t audible alerts when he comes online, so when I say that I “sit at my computer”, I mean that literally. I try not to leave the computer even to use the bathroom during that window of time each night.
If Nick uses Skype to text-chat with me, I can at least be in another screen, and the Skype icon will alert me visually that he’s online. If he uses Google Chat though, I have to actually be in the Gmail window to see his texts.
I become obsessive, clicking between browser tabs every 2-3 minutes to make sure haven’t missed him in Google Chat. When he’s able to talk, it’s usually for less than 20 minutes, so every minute or two that he’s online but I don’t see him (because I’m in the wrong window) is a significant ratio of our possible time to chat, wasted.
Keep in mind that I work full-time, so I spent anywhere from 7-10 hours of the average workday at my computer. Being online for another two hours or so each night is draining. I’ve been struggling with headaches, which I’m sure are related to spending so much time looking at this little screen.
Then there’s the insomnia…
If he doesn’t come online at night, I begin to worry. Maybe he’s been sent on an unanticipated mission (in which case he could be in harm’s way). Or maybe there’s been another incident that’s required a communications blackout. On the nights he doesn’t come online in our agreed-on window of time, I have a really hard time shutting down my computer because I feel like I’m abandoning him. Those are the nights when I’ll stay online until 11 .m, midnight or 1 a.m. scanning the news and hoping (though I know how silly my hopes are) that I’ll hear anything from him – just to know that he’s alive.
The days after nights like this one are the two-trips-to-Starbucks days when I honestly just don’t care how much a latte costs. I’m exhausted, and I have work to do. I can’t afford not to be productive at work, so I do whatever it takes.
On the nights when Nick is able to chat online, it’s usually after 10 p.m. If we chat for 15 or 20 minutes, that’s usually enough time to open subjects up that we have to then put on hold until the next time we chat to finish. I’ll get offline at 10:30 or 10:45 (sometimes later), let the dog outside one last time for the night, and try to wind down. I usually have half-finished conversations in my head. I’ll think of things I forgot to tell him about or ask him about.
I’ll usually try to relay information to family before I go to bed if there are any updates worth sharing. Before I know it, it’s midnight, and I’m only just beginning to wind down. The next morning, I’ll be in the office between 8:30 and 9, and will work 8, 9, 10 or 11 hours.
This is what this deployment is like on a day-to-day basis. I work, I try to take care of myself physically and emotionally, I try to keep up with our friends and family, and I manage our household. I still write him a paper letter or card daily, and I try to keep up my private deployment journal every day.
I believe that deployments have a sort of secondary stress effect on the loved ones of the soldier. Our schedules and routines change, we live with an almost-constant fear in the back of our minds, our sleep patterns suffer, etc., etc., etc.
As more and more parents, kids and significant others of service members are facing 2nd, 3rd – and for one woman I saw on an online group discussion yesterday – 5th deployments, there isn’t a reprieve from the stress these repeated deployments (not to mention the field exercises and trainings leading up to deployment) cause to our military families.
I don’t have any answers for other spouses. I’m barely keeping my own head above water right now. My physical health is suffering, and my husband and I are trying – in what little bit of time we have “together” while he’s gone – to address our stresses and eliminate new ones where we can. I agree with my in-laws that so far, this has been the deployment from hell.
Until he comes home this is what his deployment is really like. It’s not a complaint, really, and I don’t expect pity from friends. I just hope that maybe by writing honestly about what this deployment has been like so far, maybe another young wife will feel comforted or Nick and my friends and family will understand a little bit better what the practicalities are of his work.