May 9 is Military Spouse Appreciation Day, a commemorative day first declared by Ronald Reagan in 1984. President Reagan asked the country to recognize “the profound importance of spouse commitment to the readiness and well-being of service members on active duty and in the National Guard and Reserve, and to the security of our Nation.” He noted that in fulfilling this role “they preserve the cornerstone of our Nation’s strength — the American family.”
“Spouse” was a challenging MOS during the Cold War, but is even more so in our current conflict, with its frequent and sometimes unexpected deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, or other inhospitable locales. Our family is reaching the end of a deployment – that of my wife Beth — that began a few days shy of a year ago. Everyone we know has been asking us the same question: How much longer? The hard-to-fathom date of return approaches, just a couple of weeks away. Reflecting on the past year, sometimes it feels like the tour has flown by. Other times, it seems like Beth’s absence has been the norm rather than the exception.
Was there a time when I wasn’t frazzled? A standing joke with my students over the years has been that I didn’t get a Ph.D. to have to work hard. Keeping it together at home, at school, supporting Beth from this end has been the toughest job I ever had. Discretionary time has been a chimera; there are just lists of tasks never fully completed.
Of all the tasks that have been shortchanged, writing has suffered the most. It’s hard to find the energy and mental space to get words down. The time-honored “work until 3 a.m.” approach is possible (if I can stay awake) but when oh-seven-thirty rolls around and the lilting “Daddy! Daaa-ddyyyy!” floats down the hall from our two-year-old daughter’s room, the snooze button ceases to be an option.
But I never lose track of the fact that many military families face much greater day-to-day hardships. For example, we can afford an au pair to tend to our youngest during the work week. Her value was brought into sharp relief recently when she went back to visit her home country. During the ten-day span of her absence, it was nearly impossible to get any kind of work done, except during nap time. Doing the work of my day job would be a folly if this were the norm.
We also have enjoyed regular phone and e-mail contact with Beth. And, our kids had the special opportunity to hear Mommy on NPR, as well as read the Veteran’s Day piece she wrote for our local paper. Moreover, we enjoy the comfort of knowing that her job is not as dangerous as some; she isn’t kicking down doors or going on long daily patrols. The chances of her returning home unharmed have always been good.
Life in a war zone is, nonetheless, not exactly safe. On April 6, Beth’s friend and colleague Major Stuart A. Wolfer, 36, was killed by an Iranian-made rocket fired indiscriminately into the International Zone. He was a father of three, a pillar of his community in Emmett, Idaho, a man of deep faith who lived life joyously. He was killed while working out with Colonel Stephen K. Scott, 54, who had enlisted in the Army as a private in 1973, a decorated officer on his second tour in Iraq who became the ninth service member of his rank to die in the war.
Anyone could have been in the workout room that day, including Beth; those are the scenarios one tries not to think about. During the recent spate of shelling in the IZ our phone conversations were frequently interrupted by alerts. After a sharp siren sounded a recorded voice would blare “Take cover! Take cover!” at which point Beth would say something like, “Hey, we’re under attack, I have to go,” her voice betraying no more concern than if she were talking about a meeting she had to attend. How can you not love that?
I have no doubt that our family is going to emerge from the experience stronger and better than before. My relationship with our kids has benefitted from the sense of shared hardship. Our 12-year-old son has had to assume greater responsibilities and has risen to the challenge. We’ve kept the enterprise going, made our contribution; we’ve never felt sorry for ourselves, never complained. It has not been a sacrifice but an opportunity to serve, to give back, and to test ourselves in the process. Holding down the home front has been challenging, but rewarding. And we are all extremely thankful that, at least for this round, the deployment is almost over.
– NRO contributor James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington, senior fellow for national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point.