Loving a military man is a challenge of its own, one which requires being in a constant state of transition. But what happens when the routine stops, and the uniform is put away for good? I know it’s something we all think about, because once you’ve been in this lifestyle for a few years, it’s hard to remember what it was like before the military came along. I vaguely remember a time when we didn’t have uniforms all over the house, and impossible work schedules. When the Army didn’t come first. It can be scary to imagine a life so far from what we’re used to.
This past week, I spoke to one woman who has been through all of it, from deployments to different duty stations to eventually: retirement. It was really interesting to get her perspective on military life, and how she sees things differently now that she’s distanced herself from this lifestyle. Not only that, but the conversation really helped to ease some of my own worries about the future. I hope it can do the same for all of you!
It was 1953, and I was on a train, headed from Oklahoma to Massachusetts. That was the best way to travel back then (laughs). He asked if he could light my cigarette. It might not sound romantic but believe me, on a long train ride, it was.
Jan and her husband met when they were in their very early 20s, both headed in opposite directions in life. Jan was moving with her family from their “quaint” farm in Oklahoma, to live in another farm in Massachusetts. She had dropped out of high school to help her family run their business, along with taking care of 5 other siblings.
He was wearing his uniform, but he admitted that he was fresh out of Basic Training. He was on his way to train with another unit before heading overseas to Korea. He was headed to war, and I was headed for home. How different could we be? We were on opposite tracks in our lives, but somehow in the same place, at the same time.
Jan didn’t think she would ever see him again. He was going to be an aircraft mechanic, and if he made it through training, she figured he would ship out and that would be it. But sure enough, even when he did deploy, he wrote her every chance he got.
We wrote to each other the entire year. I waited weeks and weeks for the letters to arrive, scared of the day that they would stop. But they didn’t stop. You know, it’s strange getting to know someone through letters. Even in the messy cursive and scibbled out mistakes, you can see who they really are. I’ve always told him, “You know, most people go on dates!” But we didn’t have our first date until 18 months later.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, organizations like the FRG began to form across the nation, but they were ill prepared for what was happening. They weren’t prepared for the effects that war would have on soldiers and families. They didn’t know how to properly advertise these services, and PTSD wasnt studied yet because it didn’t exist in the medical realm.
Soldier’s suffering from PTSD didn’t know how to identify what they were feeling, so many suffered in silence. The only form of “therapy” that soldiers had were in the conversations they had with each other. In many ways, society failed them.
I had only known him briefly, so maybe I didn’t see as much of a change in him as I would have. But I could tell he was different than the young man on the train that afternoon. He was… weathered in some way. Like he aged much quicker than I had in those 18 months. He was serious, and stoic. But every now and then I would see glimpses of the young man again. He was still in there, somehow.
Flash forward to 1968, when the War in Vietnam was well underway. Nearly 550 U.S. troops died that year, and over 2,500 went home wounded, unable to work again. Not to mention the hundreds of troops that were never found among the jungle, and remain MIA to this day.
Although America joined together in many ways, we also saw some of our darkest times. Wives and daughters stepped up to take on roles in the factory and warehouses, awaiting notice of their loved one’s return. War propaganda was on the rise, and every household spoke of Vietnam. But those who were lucky enough to return had seen things that their families could never understand.
1968 was a hard year for us. We had a daughter and a son, 8 and 4, and another on the way. I think it was hard for my husband to imagine a life without them. They brought the light back into his life, and he was moving on from his deployment days. But something about Vietnam scared him. Don’t get me wrong dear, it scared everyone. But he saw past the propaganda and the glory of the war that many believed in. He saw the emptiness in the eyes of those who survived. He saw regret and anguish and anger. It was hard for him, because he understood.
As one year turned into the next, and the War in Vietnam ended, we entered a new era. PTSD and other psychological effects of war became better known as we dealt with the after-shock. Now, decades later, we have programs and resources in place with the soul purpose of identifying and treating these issues.
Our world is both diverse and closed minded at times, and it’s not always easy for a Veteran. Imagine going overseas to a place so different from your home, and being forced to learn a new way of life. Being forced to cope with casualties, fire-fights, and constant noise.
Then one day, you go home. And everything you remembered is different, and everyone you missed has continued their lives. You feel like there’s a ripple in time where you just didn’t exist. But you did. All of those goodbyes really happened. All of those phone calls, letters, and tears were real. So we have to wonder, what is that like?
He still thinks about it all the time, but he doesn’t talk about it often. It’s a time in his life that he’s proud of, and I know that he’s glad that it happened. Sometimes it feels like the man that served this country, and my husband, are two different people. But the incredible husband and father that he is today owes a lot to that young man that fought. He is who he is because he stood for this country. The military will always be part of him, and us, and our children. And I think that’s enough for him.