‘Men were coming home on leave to find their wives gone from their houses,” David French writes about the strain of deployment on marriage. “Other men were getting the modern equivalent of the ‘Dear John’ letter via Facebook message or e-mail. Some guys discovered wives or girlfriends were pregnant, and still others were finding that their bank accounts had been looted by the very people they most trusted with their financial affairs. In fact, I would say that the ongoing betrayal of our men and women in uniform by their own family members is perhaps the most underreported scandal and toll of the war. It is an enduring symbol of the depravity of man and the fallen nature of our own culture.”
It’s the stark and gripping honesty that’s characteristic of Home and Away, the new book French co-authored with his wife, Nancy, about his time away and her time at home when he signed himself up for the Army Reserves and was deployed to Iraq. Both Nancy and David talk about the book with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why did you write this book? Did you each have different reasons?
DAVID FRENCH: We have perhaps the greatest wartime civil/military divide in our nation’s history, with less than 0.3 percent of Americans serving “downrange.” As a result, our military is serving an entire generation of Americans that is largely ignorant of the military experience — not just what it’s like in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also what it’s like for those left back home. We wanted to tell this story so that — in our own small way — we could help bridge that knowledge gap and preserve the memory of the men I served with.
LOPEZ: What was it like reading each other’s chapters?
NANCY FRENCH: We were able to e-mail one another during the deployment and had occasional phone calls. However, he wouldn’t tell me the details of his life — because I couldn’t handle it. Memorably, I learned that he was going “outside the wire” by reading an article on NRO. He didn’t tell me when he was going on missions or what his day-to-day life was really like. Instead, he always wanted me to tell him about life back home. So reading his chapters was an amazing insight into his year at war. It also helped me learn a little about the “band of brothers” who will forever be a part of his life — some of whom were murdered by terrorists in Iraq. It helped me realize and understand David’s grief a great deal more.
DAVID: As much as I tried to get Nancy to tell me everything that happened back home, our communications difficulties made that impossible. I’d just get short clips of news via instant message or e-mail. So learning, for example, the phrase “car trouble” meant “the gearshift pulled out of the car in the middle of the interstate” was a bit surprising. It was like reading each others’ diaries.
LOPEZ: Why write so openly about the strains on your marriage?
DAVID: To be honest, when I read that a husband and wife have written a book together, I think it’s likely to be a sentimental, sugar-coated tale of false marital bliss. But this book isn’t sentimental; it’s real. The harsh reality is that war places immense strains on marriages and family relationships, both during and — crucially — after deployments. To write about the war without writing about our own challenges wouldn’t be honest and it simply wouldn’t be credible to the military families reading the book.
LOPEZ: Do we share too much little stuff and not enough truly important things which might help one another in the toughest and even the most routine of circumstances?
DAVID: We do live in a strangely transparent era, don’t we? But at the end of the day we all still choose what we share and what we don’t share. We chose to share the challenges we faced as a family because it’s a part of the story of this war that most people will never hear or experience. We chose to share some of the quirky realities of life downrange because we want people to see soldiers not as caricatures or stereotypes but as the normal folks they are — friends and neighbors who made a critical decision to risk their lives for their country. Finally, we chose to share the story of their heroism and sacrifice because it should never, ever be forgotten.
LOPEZ: Could either of you have done this without faith? What has deployment taught you about faith?
NANCY: When David and I were having the “I want to join the Army” conversation when we lived in Philadelphia, he quoted Stonewall Jackson. He said something like this, “My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.” Of course, Stonewall died while recovering from wounds received in battle. “Duty is ours, consequences are God’s,” he is also known to have said. In other words, we threw ourselves on the mercy and sovereignty of God, and put one foot in front of the other until he came home.
DAVID: It’s easy to quote Calvinist generals from the safety of your own home. It’s another thing entirely to trust God when you’re bumping down a dirt road in a Humvee or saluting at the third memorial in a month for a fallen trooper. My deployment taught me that I am utterly dependent on God for my next breath of life. But in many ways, that thought could be more terrifying than comforting. Men who were better than me in every way were falling to IEDs and ambushes. There is no formula for survival, and God’s ways are mysterious. But we’re not promised understanding, safety, or comfort.
LOPEZ: David, you write about Playboys and Maxims and things. Do men at war have the support they need to be good men, brave in all sorts of ways? Is there any way to help or change that?
DAVID: In the book I describe our armored cavalry squadron as a “rolling, violent fraternity.” In other words, we were a group of guys (guys only; this was a combat arms unit) from all walks of life bonded together by our shared mission and sacrifice. There were devout Christians in the group and guys who couldn’t wait to head to the closest strip club when they landed in America on leave. There were guys who bounced between those extremes. There’s quite a bit of spiritual support available to soldiers, but it’s up to them whether they use it. Mostly, soldiers support each other, and I don’t think that will ever change — nor should it.
LOPEZ: Nancy, why do you write as frankly as you do about Mormon-evangelical issues you happened upon while being an evangelical Romney supporter?
NANCY: The Romney campaign was a huge part of our life, because David and I had co-founded Evangelicals for Mitt with some friends back in 2005. As Gomez Addams would kiss Morticia up and down her arm when she spoke, David and I shared a love language of “politics.” It was our hobby, our passion, and a shared interest that lasted throughout his deployment. So, the 2008 presidential effort was an unavoidable part of the story. I moved from grassroots activist to an actual campaign worker briefly when I tried to earn some extra money while David was gone by helping to get Governor Romney’s name on the ballot in Tennessee. Back then, the “How can I vote for a Mormon?” conversation was at its highest. (Though now, after more than two years of Obama, people are less concerned about the LDS church than they are about the economy and their financial futures.)
LOPEZ: Did David being away during a campaign year make it harder? Constantly being reminded of world events and our role in them?
NANCY: In a democracy, everyday people obviously have a say in electing officials who make the important military decisions. But when your husband’s at war, you are less tolerant of people blown and tossed by the uninformed winds of popular opinion. This made me much less enjoyable during political conversations. I was watching in desperation as Senator Obama was drawing closer and closer to becoming president.
LOPEZ: What do you think about the fact that so few of us serve in the military?
DAVID: I’ve got mixed feelings, honestly. The all-volunteer military is pound-for-pound the most effective fighting force our nation has ever put in the field. And yet in a long war, the strains of repeat deployments on the few who serve are simply incredible.
In addition, I’m not sure that such a profound civil/military divide is healthy for our culture, particularly since service members tend to be grouped in certain communities (San Diego, Fort Hood, Norfolk, Fort Campbell, etc.) Politicians, culture-makers, and ordinary citizens increasingly divorce their citizenship from service, perhaps rendering our national outlook more selfish.
LOPEZ: Do you watch Army Wives and Coming Home on Lifetime? Other than that, does popular culture know you exist?
NANCY: I don’t watch shows like that. I tried it once while David was gone, and it was too much for me to take. Plus, my life was different from those ladies’ because I didn’t live on a military base with a bunch of other people going through the exact same thing. I was kind of going it alone with very few friends in the military and no friends who were going through deployment. But you’re right: Servicemen used to be American heroes and celebrities (think Alvin C. York) and now you are hard pressed to realize that a war is going on.
LOPEZ: What ought we never say to one who has been to war?
DAVID: That’s a tough question. I would say that when talking to a vet, and the war comes up, the default should be to listen more than you speak.
LOPEZ: What ought we always say when given the opportunity?
DAVID: For most, a simple “thank you” is more than sufficient.
LOPEZ: Does every day have a different meaning for you now (civic holidays in particular)?
DAVID: I came home for leave on Memorial Day weekend in 2008. I can remember watching a NASCAR race that started with a man on the bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.” I had to leave the room; it was just too much to take. As I keep in the forefront of my mind the men who fell — fulfilling the promise we all made to never forget them — I’m reminded that life is precious, nothing is guaranteed, and the greatest privilege of my life was serving with the 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment.
LOPEZ: Besides helping put your kids through college, why do you hope people read your book?
NANCY: It’s a story of war, service, marriage, family, and love. Someone at church asked me, “Who should I buy this book for? I don’t know anyone who’s in the military.” I hope people — even if you would never join the military and think it’s irresponsible to leave kids at home to join the war effort — read the book and consider some of the points it raises: What does it mean to be a good parent in modern society? What is a patriotic duty? How can marriage survive long absences? And, critically, what is life like for those who serve?
LOPEZ: Nancy, when you heard from David that there are men deployed who don’t get mail and care packages, you did something about it. What can everyone reading this do to fix that problem?
NANCY: I created a little program (called Operation Send-a-Box) that sent a care package to everyone in David’s unit. We were blessed to get $250,000 worth of cool supplies sent — thanks in part to NRO readers! — to demonstrate support for the soldiers risking their lives for our freedom. Although most people won’t have the resources to replicate such an ambitious effort, everyone can show support to service members by baking food (that’s always the southern solution!), fixing household items, and being physically present in military families’ lives. In my case, memorably, I had to ask the deacon of my church to come and pull my kid’s tooth after a couple of hours of angst over a possibly premature extraction. Although I doubt that’s what he had in mind when he told me he was willing to help while David was gone, he served our family in a way that will forever be remembered. Thanks to all the people at Zion Presbyterian Church!
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.