14 days before deployment:
The past few months have been El Paso rough. Our first year in El Paso remains the high water mark for difficulties in our marriage. We had just come off a deployment and had moved from Germany to Texas. My husband was in over his head in a new job. I was in over my head with an infant and a toddler at home. But, we struggled through and acquired invaluable marriage survival skills in the process.
Dwell time is the military's hip term for the time between deployments. Three years ago, in the middle of a one-year deployment to Iraq, my husband was offered his dream job. He loves it! But it comes with a steep price. He spends a significant amount of time overseas. As a result, his dwell time is measured in months, not years. Optimally, a soldier needs two years between deployments. This job was a risk we were willing to take as a family, but we can't know the long-term impact.
This dwell time got off to a shaky start last December when my husband returned home. Driving back from the airport, I casually mentioned I had reserved a suite for Saturday night. Before my husband could get that look in his eye, I let the other shoe drop. "The MRI suite. They're checking for a brain tumor." I had been suffering from severe vertigo and a hearing loss for weeks.
Here's the thing -- my husband had known I wasn't feeling well, but he had no idea how bad things really were. Although I desperately wanted to talk to him about how scared I was, I had kept the doomsday preliminary diagnosis to myself. The message is drummed into military spouses early and often: Don't distract your deployed soldier from the mission. Keep bad news to yourself.
We've always ignored that piece of advice. How is my husband supposed to know what's going on at home if I'm only supposed to report the good news? Besides, he knows me better than that. He'd know something was up if I blew sunshine at him 24/7. But in this case, I held a little bit back. I selectively fed him the information I thought he could handle. It was the first time in all of the deployments I had played the role of politically correct Army wife.
Fortunately, the doctor soon called to inform me, in his best Arnold impression, that it was not a "too-mah". Unfortunately, the hearing loss and severe tinnitus in my right ear are permanent. My dear friend, a sister military spouse, helped me find the humor in my new condition when she asked, "What ear do we use if we want to talk to you and what ear do we use if we want to talk about you?"
Besides the ear drama, the biggest stressor of all has been the grueling operations tempo. War never takes a vacation. It never calls in sick on a beautiful day. When soldiers are "home", they are busy training and planning for the next trip forward. As a result, my husband has been crazy busy at work.
I'm not sure how to compare it to the civilian world. Imagine the quarterly reports are due every day. Imagine there are mass casualties headed to your hospital's ER every day. If you work retail, imagine Black Friday every single day. Including weekends.
It's easy to explain to the children why Daddy can't make it to the awards assembly or the dance recital or the fencing tournament when he is deployed. It's not so easy to explain his absence when he's supposed to be home. The situation is frustrating to all of us, especially my husband. He wants to spend more time with the family, but it's just not possible right now.
A few weeks ago, I asked the Army wife equivalent of "Do these jeans make my butt look fat?" I needed to know, but I wasn't sure I wanted to hear the answer. I looked him in the eye and asked if it would be easier on everyone if he spent all of his time deployed. Are the few months at home worth the added pressure and stress? He sighed and said in a very quiet voice, "But then I'd never see the kids. Or you."
We know we have at least one more year of comings, goings and insanely long workdays. We can continue to get frustrated and build up resentment at the Army or worse, at each other. Or we can tap into the knowledge we gained in El Paso and accept that this is just the way it is right now. It won't be this way forever.
I've done the math. Even if he stays in the Army for 30 years -- if he stays until they say, "Really, Sir, don't come back on Monday" -- he'll only be 52. I figure with his good health, we're looking at about 25 to 35 of good Army-free years. On the most difficult of days, it pays to keep our eyes on that prize.
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