The phone rang six times while I anxiously struggled to unlock the front door. I’d made it home just in time for my new husband to wish me a happy first anniversary. But by the time I barged in and grabbed the phone, there was only a loud buzz, a line full of static and then nothing until my loud guttural scream pierced the air. On my way down, I flung the phone at the couch. I was used to the bad connections and dropped calls when he called from the desert, but this time it happened before we even said a word.
There was no email, social media or cellphones. Incoming calls on the house phone were rare and unpredictable; when I missed them, there was no way to call him back. Handwritten letters took weeks to arrive. I was miserable trying to cope with being a newlywed whose husband was 7,000 miles away. I was sick of the constant reminders of the danger he was in. I hated not knowing when he’d call again, if he’d return home alive, or if he was even alive at that moment. I needed to hear his voice.
I cried until all my energy was spent, and when I stopped, I heard the TV in the background. The reporter droned on about the number of deaths, how many replacements were going to the “sandpit” and how hard this must be for military families. “Shut the hell up!” I was angry, uncertain and afraid. But still, with the tiniest bit of hope, I put the phone on the hook, just in case he called back.
In the wee hours of the morning, I awoke curled up on the floor. My eyes ached, my head pounded and my face had the familiar imprint of the metal bracelet I wore like a wedding band, signifying I was married to the military. It was engraved with Doug’s name and “Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.” Remembering my meltdown earlier, I checked to make sure the phone was still on the hook.
I rolled over, faced the TV and got lost in the 24-hour news coverage. I remember hearing estimates that there could be 20,000 American casualties. The military family counselors repeatedly warned us: “Don’t spend too much time consuming the media coverage.” “Don’t read into anything you hear on TV.” “It’s healthier to live by the motto ‘No news is good news.’” But “no news” didn’t make me feel any better. Even when I vowed only to watch for a few minutes, I couldn’t turn off the noise for fear I might miss something important. Thank God for the commercials. They gave me time to run to the bathroom, grab a snack from the kitchen and get back to my spot on the couch before it cooled off. I longed to hear the war had ended and my soldier was on his way home. Unfortunately, it was a week before I heard his voice again.
More than 30 years later, I still relive over and over the agony of his missed call. My fear is gone, but the heavy heart lingers on, triggered by reminders that come during this time of year when my husband was deployed. Whether in a song, in a movie or on the news, the words “military families,” “war” and “deployment” stir up conflicting emotions — emotions of being deeply in love with a service member and the harsh reality of the pain that brings.
They also remind me of the times I put up a good front to hide my pain and show the strength expected of me as an Army wife. I empathized with other military spouses, especially those with kids to care for without their deployed mates. I showed up at work and was strong for the high schoolers I counseled, some of whom were teen parents while their own parents were deployed. But I was also exhausted. And my soul ached even more every time I told the lie that I was doing fine.
I constantly prayed I could be strong for myself, Doug and our future military family. Our unconditional, fully reciprocated and wholehearted love gave me the strength and courage to weather the first of many meltdowns all military spouses have during deployments. It gave me the hope that our military family would thrive despite the challenges of military life. And it gave me the wisdom to remain thankful instead of bitter.
Doug served almost 32 years of active duty and has been retired for two, yet the pain and the pride still show up together, like us, old lovers, hand in hand. And when they do, I say a prayer for the love, strength and courage of all military families. And then I say another one for me and mine.