The Silent Sacrifice of Military Families
Today in America, supporting the troops is considered fashionable. A far cry from the days of Vietnam when our servicemembers were spit on and called murderers, today organizations like Soldiers' Angels are thriving and have thousands upon thousands of volunteers dedicated to helping our troops. And this is as it should be: our men and women in the military deserve our support. They sacrifice so much for us -- time away from their families, having to live in miserable conditions while deployed, risking their lives every day, and all to defend the freedoms that we enjoy and take for granted. Some shed blood for their country, and some give their lives in the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
But what about those you don't see? The families of the deployed, the ones who get left behind, are making sacrifices, too. But people don't think of us, because what we do doesn't draw attention. And there isn't much that anyone can do for us, either. We wait, hoping and praying that our husband or son or father will return safe and in one piece. The life of a military spouse is hard. You carry your phone with you everywhere, even into the shower, just in case they call. And when they do, you make sure never to tell them what's going wrong at home, because you need them 100% focused on their mission. And even if that phone call only lasts thirty seconds, it makes your entire day. You spend weeks planning what you're going to put into this month's care package and how you're going to decorate it. You keep pictures of him everywhere around the house, so that the kids can constantly see their dad's face. You count down the days until they come home, and you plan your outfit and welcome home banner months in advance. You worry about the homecoming, too. Will they be different? Will we be different? Will my son remember his father? And then as soon as they're home, you're gearing up for another deployment again.
This is my life: a Marine Corps wife. And this is our story.
My husband and I met when we were in middle school. We married after almost two years of dating and thirteen years of friendship, and long after he had joined the Marine Corps. He had been on two deployments, and was gearing up for a third. We decided to have a courthouse wedding and then do the big one later because we wanted to make sure we were married before he deployed. A few months later we found out that I was pregnant. He deployed two weeks later.
That deployment was so hard for us. For the first time ever, we had a brush with how terribly wrong things can quickly go: he was in an IED blast. Luckily, he escaped with just a concussion, for which he is supposedly going to be awarded a Purple Heart, but it definitely rattled me.
He missed everything. He never got to hear the baby's heartbeat. He never got to go to a doctor's appointment or see an ultrasound. And he didn't get to feel the baby kick or watch my stomach grow. Oh, I sent pictures and recordings of everything. But it wasn't the same.
On top of him missing everything, I had to do everything on my own. Over the course of a deployment, a spouse typically has to become self-sufficient. She has to pay all the bills, raise the kid as both mom and dad, clean the house, put food on the table, and somehow try to find a way to keep Daddy in the kids' lives. For me, I also had to throw in the medical appointments alone. But, like with every deployment, Murphy's Law struck.
It started with bleeding in the first trimester. There was so much that I had to go to the emergency room. Luckily, the baby was all right, but they couldn't figure out what was causing it. So I was put on pelvic rest and told to stay off my feet as much as possible. Basically, bed rest without having to stay in bed. It took about two weeks for the bleeding to stop completely. Then, in the second trimester, I had a scary bout of preterm contractions while I was grocery shopping. They ended up stopping on their own, but I was terrified at the time. My baby was only about 24 weeks -- barely viable.
But the worst to come was in the third trimester.
It started with a slight rise in my blood pressure. I've been lucky to always have very low blood pressure, and suddenly it started rising. Then there was the weight gain. I lost weight in the first trimester, and had gained a healthy amount in the second. But I started gaining about ten pounds in between my weekly appointments. The first time that happened, my OB got startled and asked me what the heck I'd been eating. They did some testing and -- yep -- I had preeclampsia. My husband still wasn't due home for at least another month. Wonderful.
They wanted to induce me right away. Preeclampsia, if left alone, will develop into eclampsia, which ultimately will kill mother and baby. The only "treatment" is to deliver the baby. I knew it was a risk, but I wanted to try to wait, and it wasn't an extreme case of preeclamspia yet. So I cried, and begged, and pitched a fit, and convinced the doctors to wait a little bit longer, on the condition that I went to the labor and delivery ward every day to be monitored. I happily agreed. I would have done anything to make sure that I had the baby when Matt was home. Then one day, I went to WalMart for something and noticed my vision turning funny. I kept looking at my cell phone and couldn't read the words on the screen. I was looking around at the signs in the store and everything was blurry and fuzzy. Confused, I called my doctor's office. They had an ambulance take me to the emergency room: the preeclampsia was getting worse.
I made a deal with the office to have my induction the next week, on a Monday. That day was chosen because it was the day after my husband was due to return home from Afghanistan. And until then, I was on strict orders to stay on bed rest. I would deliver at 37 weeks, but it didn't matter to me. I had gone full-term and my husband would be there for the birth of his son. I felt like, finally, I could relax.
On Saturday, the day before he was due to return home, I was at the hospital being monitored as usual. I got a phone call from my husband. His flight had been cancelled, and he didn't know when he would be returning home. This time, the doctors stood firm. I would be induced on Monday. We couldn't wait any longer.
Miracle of miracles, though, he returned that Monday morning. I welcomed him home and we met when the buses came in. We spent a few hours together at home and then went to the hospital to have the baby that evening. Sixteen hours, a baby with a too-big head, and a C-section later, we were the proud parents of a beautiful little boy we named Benjamin, born the day after his father returned home on March 29th.
Ben is almost seven months old now, and we're gearing up for deployment number four. We've been nervous about how Ben will handle the separation, whether or not he'll remember Matt. We got him a Daddy Doll with a voice recorder, we've got pictures of him all over the house, and we're going to record a video of Matt reading a book to him to add in to his nightly bedtime routine. But it turns out, Ben's not the only one we've got to worry about. Yep, we're pregnant with number two!
This time, it's a whole new ballgame. There's not even a chance that Matt will be home for this one, so I'll be having this baby alone. And he'll get to be here for some of the "joys" of the first trimester, but by and large he'll be missing the entire pregnancy again. As far as the birth goes, it's not all bad. When I go into labor, I send a Red Cross message. They'll get my husband and, with luck, we'll be able to Skype through the birth, so he can, in a way, be "there."
But honestly, the birth is the least of my concerns. I can't help thinking about the fact that I am going to have to juggle a newborn and a toddler. Alone. Oh, I am going to need lots of prayers!
It also magnifies the regular deployment stresses, though. When he's gone, every car door slamming is ominous. Every knock at the door makes my heart stop. I'm always terrified that something could happen to him, a fact made all too clear when he was in that IED blast last deployment. We got lucky that no one was seriously injured that time, but the dangers are real. We lost five Marines and one corpsman last deployment. I worry about him, I worry about me, but I especially worry that our children will have to grow up without their father.
Even without the risk of death or injury, the separation does a number on them. When Matt left Ben for the first time, it threw his entire schedule out of whack. He didn't want to sleep regularly anymore, he was fussier than usual -- even at less than a year old, he knew something was wrong. And he missed his dad. He loves his dad, he loves playing with him, and it's sad that Ben will be deprived of his father. When Matt comes home, Ben will have said his first word and walked his first steps. He will be walking and talking, no longer a little baby that is completely 100% dependent on us. And as for the other baby -- Matt's going to come home to a child he's never even met. I don't know how I'm going to handle that. How do you get a newborn to "know" a father who isn't there?
Do you know what the funny thing is though? That people would be shocked to hear? I love our life. I really do. I don't love the separations and the danger, of course, but I wouldn't change anything for the world. I love my husband and am so, so proud of what he does as a Marine. I love the community and the built-in support system you get on base and in your unit, the wives who become, in a way, bonded to you, simply because they understand what no one else can. I love the adventure of our life, I love the Marine Corps, and I wouldn't have my husband do anything else.
Over the last deployment, there were times occasionally when Matt would become demotivated. Maybe we had lost another Marine. Whatever the case was, he just felt like he couldn't do it anymore. And this is where I had to remind him, and myself, of why we live this life, why we sacrifice so much. One of the days that he called feeling like he couldn't keep going was October 23, 2010. It was the anniversary of the Beirut barracks bombings, in which 220 Marines lost their lives. It was a sad reminder that Islamic terrorism is something that has been going on for far longer than just the ten years since 9-11. These jihadists have been trying to kill us for almost forty years, and they aren't going to stop unless we make them.
By making the sacrifices we're making now, hopefully our children will never know a day like 9-11. Maybe our grandchildren won't know what it's like to be at war. The sacrifices we make are for our family, and even if I have to lose my husband at least I have had this much time with him and can tell his children that their father gave his life building a better world for them.
What we do is worth all of the hardships, stress, and fear. We love our husbands, but there's more than just that. There's the pride in the job they're doing and the sacrifice we collectively make. We have faith: in ourselves, in our husbands, and in the military. I chose this life when I married Matt, and we're in this for the long run. It won't be four years and done for us.
Next time you say a prayer for the troops, pray for the families left behind. Pray for the wife who is scared she'll never see her husband again, and the children who don't understand why they can't have their daddy. When you thank the soldier or Marine for his service, thank the family, too. They need us to be able to have the strength to fight this war; they need someone to fight for. That's the role we play.