Sometimes I think I understand deployment. My Navy husband has deployed eight times. His ship is in one of the most volatile areas of the world as I write this. I understand what I know as a gone-for-eight-months kind of regular deployment. (If you will please let me call that a “regular” deployment).
But every time I talk to the wife of an Army Ranger or the wife of a Navy SEAL or the spouse of servicemember who has been in boots-on-the-ground combat, I realize I don’t understand deployment the way they understand deployment.
So I asked Army wife Sabrina King to help me out with this. She has been married 19 years. Her husband has done five deployments and has 1,753 days in combat operations.
So I passed a list of what a regular deployment means to me and she passed back a list of what the cumulative toll of five combat deployments means to her.
Granted, our list is not necessarily the norm for every single military family, but it is helping me understand how outcomes can be so different. What differences would you add to our list?
A regular deployment means the days are long, the weeks are longer, the months can drag by.
A combat deployment means the minutes are long. It can mean sometimes the seconds are long when you are waiting to hear who the casualty notification email was about.
A regular deployment means it is frustrating when packages take two months to get to your service member and the email goes down.
A combat deployment means there are communications blackouts after casualty incidents. It means listening to your soldier debrief himself on the phone to you while he is trying to keep ahold of his humanity. It means feeling dumbstruck by what is coming out of his mouth…and able to do nothing.
A regular deployment means you hardly ever see senior wives because they busy with their teens and their jobs and they are as old as your mother. You have your own friends.
A combat deployment means senior wives that you see are driven to help because they know you need them. But you might not see some senior wives because they have reached the point they just can’t take it anymore. Once they know something, they can’t unknow it.
A regular deployment means that you may have to give birth to your baby alone and that hurts.
A combat deployment means that you pray to get pregnant on R&R so you have some part of him to keep in case something happens.
A regular deployment means that someday you may attend the funeral of a pilot whose aircraft malfunctions, a spouse who loses the battle with cancer, or even your own parents. These deaths are tragic.
A combat deployment means you might attend the funeral of the guy who sat next to you at the Birthday Ball–and six of his friends. You might attend funerals for 27 people in three weeks. The table at your homecoming ball you set up to hold the pictures of the deceased may not be big enough, so you go back and get a second table. Then go back and get a third. Finally you get a fourth and it isn’t until you see all those 8 x10s at once that you have any idea of the totality of what has happened. These deaths are tragedy extrapolated.
A regular deployment means that you need to find someone to swap babysitting with you so that you can do something exciting…like get your teeth cleaned.
A combat deployment means, you tuck a four-year old boy into bed because his own mother is on Valium and he asks, “Did my Daddy die because I forgot to say my prayers?”
A regular deployment means that you worry just before homecoming that your husband has forgotten how annoying kids can be while he has been gone.
A combat deployment can mean that your children learn to tell the temperature of a room with their own skin. It can mean your kid whispers to their sibling, “Dad’s in a mood. Lets go to our rooms.” It can mean that your husband finally agrees to go to behavioral therapy after your 12 year old lays her hand on his shoulder while he is watching the news and says, “I think sometimes people have PTSD and don’t even know it.”
A regular deployment means that you think a positive attitude is all you need to get though and you work on developing those skills.
A combat deployment can mean you question everything and ache for your own innocence.
A regular deployment leaves you feeling like the military is a pretty good start in life, that it teaches people responsibility and gives them real work experience.
A combat deployment might make you worry every time you see a headline about the military suicides and the leap in the rate of child abuse. It makes you worry that the military is taking our young people and doing nothing but chewing them up, spitting them out and leaving them to fend for themselves.
A regular deployment means that you think deployments only differ by length and how many challenges you worked through at home.
A combat deployment means you have experienced regular deployments and trainings and TDYs And NONE if it, NONE of it prepared you for the reality of a combat deployment.
Sabrina and I both know that there is a complete spectrum of experience when it comes to deployment — and all of those experiences are necessary when deploying a military force. But I think that it is in allowing for a range of experience and a range of resources that we find solutions. So I keep listening and reading and watching for understanding wherever it falls.