On the Home Front

Beverly Smaby

As we honor people who serve our nation in the military in time of war, let’s not forget the family members who stay behind and make it possible for our military men and women to serve. If they are spouses, they must parent their children, maintain their houses, tend their yards, do the shopping, and pay the bills on their own – often while holding down a job. Family members of all kinds have to deal with the anguish of absence and fear about the safety of their loved ones serving in dangerous places. Will their spouse or child or sibling survive? If they come back injured in body or mind, will the reunited family members be able to live with and support each other’s changed beings? And it is not just the ones who experience the trauma of war directly who suffer from post-traumatic stress. Family members at home do, too.

I am the wife of a Vietnam War veteran, and I experienced what it is like to say goodbye and stay behind to do what I could to keep our young family intact. My story is a relatively easy one in the context of that conflict. My husband came back alive and uninjured. He did not suffer post-traumatic stress. But the experience for me and for our young son was extremely hard, nevertheless. I cannot begin to imagine the pain of people who have to suffer more than their spouse’s long, but temporary absence. For these reasons, news stories about soldiers and their families saying good bye to each other still fill me with sympathetic anguish.

Here is some background. I grew up with pacifist influences – knowing that my father had applied for conscientious objector status in World War II and that my best friend in high school was a Quaker. My husband had a totally different upbringing, and his family urged him to join ROTC in college, which he did. After our marriage, in spite of his upbringing and in spite of the fact that he was now a commissioned Army officer, we became active in the anti-war movement.

But when it came time to do his active service, he decided he had to go to Vietnam, and given the different pressures on him, I supported his decision. (See his earlier contribution to this forum on national service for more details.)  I feared the reaction of other Army people about our criticisms of the war, but we needn’t have worried. We found that the division and range of opinions about the war inside the Army pretty much matched what we had experienced outside (partly because Americans had the draft back then).

When my husband left, our son was just two-and-a-half years old and I was six-months pregnant with our daughter. I knew the long separation was going to weigh heavily on our little son, because his best buddy in the whole world was his Daddy. I tried to prepare him. We played games with a toy airplane and a little doll representing Daddy, who would get on the plane, while a Mommy doll and a little boy doll would say goodbye, and then we would describe how sad we would be. His young-child self couldn’t bear that ending, so he began to add, “And then he’ll come home, and we’ll be happy!”

But the reality was so much harder on him than either he or I could imagine, once Daddy had actually left. We made audio tapes and home movies for Daddy, who did the same for us from Vietnam. But, in spite of our preparations ahead of time and our attempts to connect him with his Daddy and let him know that Daddy still thought about him and loved him, he was deeply stressed.  He began biting his little friend. He refused to talk about his Daddy with anyone else besides me. In spite of our preparations, he felt abandoned. After I gave birth to his little sister, I called him from the hospital, and all he could say was, “Mommy, I don’t miss you, I don’t miss you, I don’t miss you!” He thought I had abandoned him, too. From what I know now, I realize that he suffered post-traumatic stress.

Dealing with our daughter’s birth while my husband was gone was also hard on me. My husband and I had been a good team for our son’s birth. I knew I had to have family help, so I enlisted my younger sister to be my labor coach and my parents to care for our son while I was at the hospital. I also audio-taped the birth itself to try to share it with my husband. I knew it wouldn’t be the same without him there, but I did the best I could to prepare myself psychologically ahead of time. That worked pretty well for the labor itself, but what I was totally unprepared for was meeting our little daughter for the first time without him. Communications being what they were, he wouldn’t even know for 24 hours that she had been born. I found that incredibly painful.

Communications in general were slow. In our interneted world, it is hard to imagine a past world in which most communication was by snail-mail carrying hand-written letters, audio-tapes, and 8 millimeter silent home movies (which we sometimes accompanied with audio tapes that we tried to synchronize with the movie). Each letter or parcel took six days from sender to receiver, which meant a gap of nearly two weeks between a question and an answer. Each time I received a letter, I knew that my husband had been alive six days earlier when he sent it, but I didn’t know if he was still alive while I was reading what he had written. Phones existed, of course, but his access to phones was very limited. For the nine months he was in Vietnam, we talked by phone just twice.

My reaction to all this was to wall up my emotions – to be tough. That’s what military spouses were supposed to do, right? So, I didn’t talk much about what I was feeling with anyone. Not with my son, who was too young to bear my loneliness and fears along with his own, but not with my sister or parents either. I just didn’t know how to talk about what I was feeling in a way that I thought they could fully understand. I didn’t have friends to talk with either, because I had moved in order to live near my parents and siblings. My best mutual support was with my sister-in-law, whose husband was also in Vietnam and who also gave birth while her husband was away. We both knew we could call and say, “I’m having a bad day” and know that we were understood. But even she and I didn’t spell out our anxieties and feelings of loss. We didn’t have to. Those phone calls were the equivalent of silent, knowing hugs.

Looking back, I realize it would have been better for everyone in my family if I had tried to express myself more – better for the period when my husband was away, as well as for when he returned. After nine months of not sharing my ongoing stress with anyone and not even really admitting it to myself, I couldn’t just suddenly open up. I had to relearn how to connect emotionally with the people I knew I loved, which was especially necessary to meet the challenge of putting our much-changed family back together, once my husband returned.

As I said at the outset, my stresses were small in comparison with what other home-front parents, spouses, and children have had to face. But when even I fall apart at seeing photos of military families saying goodbye before or hello after a long deployment, I know none of us on the home front ever really ”gets over it” completely – just like our military spouses never do. We have all sacrificed for national service in the armed forces, even if we haven’t worn a uniform.