"I didn't know there were people like you."
That's what one civilian audience member told me after I spoke as a panelist for the "Theater of War" program at the Guggenheim Museum.
During the program, actors performed several scenes from "Philoctetes" by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, and I was asked to connect what I saw in the play to my own military life experiences.
On the panel, I spoke about thriving on the home front during back-to-back deployments. I spoke about the friendships I made during my husband's aircraft carrier tour. These women, mostly married to senior personnel, were not only friends, but mentors.
Six months after the carrier deployment, my husband checked off the boat and into an Army training command to prepare for his Individual Augmentee (IA) tour to Afghanistan. These women who had been strangers a year ago now became my lifeline during a deployment my husband and I didn't see coming.
It was during this ground deployment that my friendships forged during the carrier deployment really won the war for me. During that second deployment, I was scared 99% of the time. I was the mother of a toddler and a baby. I was living with my parents, who are wonderful people, and also don't have any idea what living a military life is like. I was both afraid to go out and afraid to come home.
My military friends bolstered me with their worst deployment stories and also normalized the constant fear I felt. We laughed. We shared. We won the war against the constant fear, loneliness and unshakeable anxiety that comes from a loved one's absence.
"I didn't know there were people like you," the young woman told me after the panel.
Outwardly, I smiled and nodded. But inside my head, a thousand questions were coming to a rolling boil. What does that even mean? You didn't realize that service members are married? You didn't know that, when someone goes off to war, they often leave a spouse and family behind? I was dumbfounded and more than a little irritated.
Years later, my biggest regret of that evening is that I didn't ask her what she meant. I was so shocked by her ignorance that no words came out of my mouth.
But maybe I was the one who was ignorant.
That evening was just over five years into my life as a military spouse. And up until I moved to that duty station in Manhattan, I lived in an area full of military personnel and their families. I was surrounded by people just like me.
But the truth is, people just like me make up 0.2% of the population of the United States. Yes, one-twentieth of one percent.
It's interesting now, being back in a fleet concentration area. Everywhere you look, there's a sailor. For people living in San Diego, the idea that people don't know military spouses is absurd. We are part of the fabric of the many cities and towns that make up San Diego county. We go to church, shop at the grocery store and inhabit the same neighborhoods that civilians do. We are seemingly everywhere.
Except this is just one city in one state. And there are thousands of cities across 50 states. We aren't everywhere.
Maybe I shouldn't have been so shocked by that woman's question. Instead, I wish I had seen it as a chance to reach out and make a connection. I would've asked her, "Would you like to hear more stories about people like me?"
I might have told her that somebody like me has had a baby or babies while her husband is deployed half-way across the world.
I might have told her that somebody like me bought a house, scheduled a move and packed all her belongings alone, while her husband finished a work-up cycle or training in some other state.
I might have told her that somebody like me wonders every day of deployment whether the black vehicle with government plates is going to pull up in her driveway to deliver devastating news.
I might have told her that somebody like me cried when she signed her child up for kindergarten because he was the only military child in his class, and she worried about him being different.
I might have told her that somebody like me gave up a job she loved to support somebody she loves even more, because moving every two to three years makes it nearly impossible to keep a career intact.
And I might have told her that somebody like me never imagined she would fall in love with someone in the military, but she did. And it changed her life.
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