This past week, I was granted access to the lives of some of the most extraordinary women I’ve ever met. The words “Resiliency” and “Grace” do not begin to describe their hearts and strength.
This was a group of women who all serve in the military through their husbands or sons. They are the family that gets left behind when a soldier deploys and in very real ways, they are living in situations as difficult as their men. Granted, no one is trying to blow them up while they drive down the road; it is not their body in harm’s way, only their heart.
In generations past, in wars now past, because of the draft every town and neighborhood had soldiers overseas. That fact really hasn’t changed, but the awareness of it seems to have. Back then, when young men whether they were sons, husbands or fathers were sent to war, they often didn’t have a choice. Too often, now that our military is all-volunteer, because it is a decision freely taken it is assumed that the families knew what they were getting into and therefore are somehow less worthy of support. This is an attitude these women face again and again, and it doesn’t get any easier, isn’t any less hurtful with repetition.
It is one of those things they never get used to, but know they will have to deal with as if having the better part of your heart in harm’s way isn’t enough to face on a daily basis. Add to it the pressures of being a default single mother, and saying they have a lot on their plates is an understatement of epic proportions. All the daily minutia of life must still be handled, but for a young mother whose only crime was to fall in love with a soldier, her sentence is to be married but alone, mother to children whose father is not there, all while being a supportive wife to a man who may never come home.
The garbage still has to go out every week, a chore many of these women joked they had never before done. The lawn still needs to be mowed, and I admit it would take me a while to figure out how to start the mower and properly care for it so it started again the next time. Add in simultaneously watching a couple preschool age kids and it is no wonder she is contemplating the merits of starting a tall grass prairie in her front yard. One had us rolling on the floor with laughter as she described the impossibility of taking four boys under the age of six to the store with only two hands; if you put all of them in the cart, there’s no room for the groceries. If one gets to walk, at least one of the others will protest. She is currently working on a device that allows you to ‘tow’ one cart filled with groceries behind one filled with kids. With harnesses to keep them strapped in.
The mothers of soldiers say their isolation is even more intense. Just because he is old enough to enlist, doesn’t make him any less her baby. Because we expect our children to move out, start their own lives and become self-sufficient adults doesn’t mean they sleep any easier just because it is normal for them to not be living at home at this age. When the home they’ve moved to is a plywood box in the mountains half-way around the world and their daily commute to work involves seventy-plus pounds of protective body armor, moms worry just as intensely, are just as protective as they were when their son needed them to change their diapers. Talking about reminding these now battle hardened veterans that they were the recipients of the tongue to thumb to cheek washings of yesteryear had tears of laughter rolling down faces worn with worry.
In writing this, I’m very aware of the danger of making these women sound too strong. Without a doubt they are, but they still need help. What these women have in equal measure to their strength is the pride they wear like a second skin but is really nothing more than a veneer to protect themselves from the casual, unintentional cruelties inflicted on them. Often, it is this pride that keeps them from reaching out when they most need help. At the moment when they are pacing the floor because they haven’t heard from their soldier, trying to get dinner on the table, checking the homework and figuring out how to pay the plumber to come fix the plugged bath tub that has resisted all the efforts of the plunger, they are not thinking “Oh yeah, Mrs. Smith down the block told me to call her if I ever needed anything”.
I asked them what they wanted their civilian friends and family, neighbors and colleagues to know, what they wanted to hear or never hear again. Not surprisingly, the responses I got were more often than not what in previous generations would be filed under common sense and common decency.
Don’t ask a mother whose son is currently deployed if he signed up just to get a free ride to college. If he chooses to take advantage of the GI Bill after his service, it was paid for in blood, sweat and tears by both the soldier and his mother.
Don’t tell a young mother who is trying to be strong, trying to provide a sense of normalcy and consistency to her children that she should have known what she was getting into when she married a soldier. Knowing it and living it are two very different things; it’s like saying you know exactly how it will feel to be a mom before your first is born.
These women aren’t complaining, not really. At worst, the strongest it could be termed was frustrated that people could be so clueless, so insensitive. They feel every bit as much as their soldiers do that the life they chose is one of honor. They believe in this country, the ideals for which their men are daily risking their very lives. All they ask for is awareness and maybe a small measure of the grace they display in return.
I am richer for having met these women. More, I am hopeful for the future. These are the women who love our soldiers, raised them and are raising their children. I don’t want any more in harm’s way than there already are, but I wouldn’t object to more soldiers’ mothers and wives in this world.