A quick check of the Caller ID told me that the other woman in my husband's life was on the phone. I know she's concerned and desperate for information about my husband. Sometimes I forget just how hard deployments are on her, too. I picked up the phone and said "Hi Annie" to my mother-in-law.
The moms of married soldiers are often overlooked. While most military family programs are aimed at the spouses and children of service members, moms of single soldiers are usually acknowledged and included in Family Readiness Group activities. Even the media loves to focus on the wives and kids on the home front, forgetting to tell the stories of the thousands of mothers concerned about their deployed children.
My mother-in-law is no stranger to military life. She was an Army wife for 26 years, moving her four children from Army post to Army post. The family spent a significant number of those years overseas. But times were different. While my mother-in-law faced many challenges as a military wife, she only dealt with deployment once. It came early in her marriage when her husband was sent to Vietnam. In those days, there were no formal support groups for military spouses, so she went to live near her mother-in-law. For the remainder of his career, my father-in-law fought the Cold War. While he was often away for training or temporary duty, he never deployed to combat again.
While I love to hear Annie's stories about her time as an Army wife -- some things never change -- I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never really asked her how my husband's deployments are affecting her. What is it like to send your child off to war? Annie has seen two of her children deploy. My sister-in-law deployed during Desert Storm and my husband has gone to Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
I look at my own children and try to imagine how it would feel. I get nervous at the thought of them starting middle school. Will I ever look at my child's face and not see my baby smiling back at me? Would I even be able to function if my son or daughter were in Afghanistan or Iraq?
Unfortunately for Annie, she knows all too well that sometimes sons and daughters don't return home from a deployment. She has been an Arlington Lady for as long as I've known her. Once a month, she attends funerals at Arlington National Cemetery as a representative of the Army family. She goes to funerals in the heat of summer, in the driving rain, and in the bitter cold. Not even chemotherapy has kept her from her duties.
Founded during the Vietnam War, the Arlington Ladies ensure that no soldier or veteran is buried alone. When Annie started volunteering, most of her funerals were for veterans of World War II or Korea. In recent years though, she's witnessed the burials of many soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a military wife and a mother, I know why she does it. I just don't know how she does it. How does she stand there month after month, year after year, as another grieving mother buries a child? How does she look into the eyes of a young widow and offer her condolences? How does she watch the children of the fallen pay their final respects to their daddy? Does she ever for a second think to herself, "There but for the grace of God go I"?
I do know that Annie is perhaps the one person that understands what I'm going through. When we spoke the other morning, she asked how it was going. I sighed and replied, "It's going." I could hear her exhale. "It just stinks," she said. I could hear the resignation in her voice. I think that's where we both are right now. Resigned to the entire situation. We're tired and wish it were over, but what can we do?
Instead of dwelling on the deployment, we quickly switched topics. We talked instead of our summer plans. She wanted to know when the kids are and I going to come up to the Shore. I asked if she had finalized the trip to France. She told me about a movie she wants to see. I told her how well the kids' tennis lessons are going. She told me about the class she's teaching at the university this summer. I told her I finally got the consult for the kids to see the orthodontist. We chatted like any other mother and daughter-in-law.
After I hung up the phone, I wondered if I'd ever be brave enough to let one of my kids join the military. I didn't have to ponder the question for very long. While I might not exactly encourage it, I know I'll support them if they do decide to follow in their father's and their grandfather's and their great-grandfathers' footsteps. It might be a tough life, but it can also be a good one.