The Meaning of Sacrifice


My grandmother is 93 years old. She's a remarkable lady - when I describe her as a pistol there is no exaggeration in the phrase whatsoever. Recently my mother had to shoo my grandmother down off the roof where she was sweeping off leaves and detritus that Grandma had deemed a fire hazard. And mentally? My grandmother makes it a regular practice to be the terror of the local bridge club - regularly beating members thirty years younger than she.

And I don't think my grandmother - although blessed with uncommon health - is an outlier for her generation. She lived through The Great Depression and she lived through World War II. She sent two sons off to fight in Vietnam, and she has seen her grandson and her grandson-in-law repeatedly deploy in the GWoT. She has traveled to nearly every country represented in the United Nations, she still enjoys a cold beer several times a week, and she has had an ongoing mental love affair with John F. Kennedy since 1958. I hope that someday I will be half the person and live half the life my grandmother has.

My grandmother traveled to see us last year, when we knew Air Force Guy would be deploying again, and while she was here she made the most amazing statement to me. This woman who didn't see her husband for nearly three years while he was at war; who took over running their family farm, caring for elderly parents, and suffered through a very real lack of communication with her husband that I can't even begin to imagine. This woman who saw those around her lose husbands and sons at an alarming rate and who once confessed to me that she used to do laundry several times a week because she felt that when she was hanging it on the line to dry she could "feel" her two sons in Vietnam, feel that they were still alive and still in one piece - she told me that she couldn't imagine how hard it must be to be a military wife today.

I did not know how to respond to my grandmother's statement, and really I still don't.

Certainly I think that the military life is not the easiest choice a family can make. The stress of being a single parent while forcing down that all-consuming worry for your spouse while they are deployed is enough to turn your hair gray before that thirtieth birthday rolls around. The nature of the job means that nothing is ever really stable, nothing is ever a sure thing. To be a military family today is to be immersed in indecision not of your own making - where that next assignment will be, when it will be, and whether the family will be together is never certain, and long range plans are just not in the cards.

No, it's not an easy life. But for my grandmother to compare it with what she went through and say she preferred hers? I didn't get that. I still don't, but she did try to explain it to me.

"In World War II," she said, "everyone was in the same boat. We were all going through the same thing. No matter where you lived, everyone around you was dealing with the same things you were and it was like the United States was one big Army/Navy/Marine base. Now, most of the people you run into when you aren't on base have no idea what it is to send your loved ones off to war, to wait for those notices. They don't understand the sisterhood and brotherhood. They don't truly know what war costs. And sometimes I think that they really don't want to know."

While I still don't agree with my grandma that our military life is more difficult now than what she experienced, I definitely understand her second statement. And it seems that sometimes that lack of understanding isn't limited to those in the civilian world.

A recent article in the Fayetteville Observer, written by the wife of a retired soldier, decried the whininess of today's military families and asked the question, "What sacrifice?"

Well, it was sure to start a comment ruckus - with some even agreeing with the author. Far more of the comments excoriated her statements with varying levels of politeness, but no lack of frustration with the picture Mrs. Sisk painted.

Said one commenter:

We just finished our 4th deployment. Number 5 is on the horizon. My kids have lived half of their lives without daddy. They have surrendered, given up, or lost more than I'd like to admit. That's not to say they/we haven't gained in other ways, but to say they/we haven't sacrificed is delusional. If we're not giving up something then there is no larger "something else" in return for us or anyone else.
And another:
Mrs. Sisk assets that "we, as a nation, have become so weak that we now must support military families." She recounts how her family spent 20 years of military service traveling the world, including a single tour in Vietnam. There was no "Fayetteville Cares" toy drives in their day. From time to time... she even took a part time job or purchased food from local merchants. While I would never seek to denigrate her husband's service, it is impossible to compare his experience to the current operational tempo. Mrs. Sisk cites the stoicism of her husband (deployed for 5% of his 20 year career) and her grandfather (10% of 30 years) as evidence that "people in previous wars [were] more rugged than today's soldiers and families." I would challenge Mrs. Sisk to look the wife of a current Paratrooper, deployed for more than 50% of his career, in the eyes and tell her that she is a "whiner."
But I thought this comment really hit the nail on the head:
I think we could debate how to best support families but to use the word "whiners" and to insist there is no sacrifice is breathtakingly insultive [sic].
Our family has received some huge benefits from being a military family. We've lived all over the United States and made the most of each duty station with day trips and immersion in the local cultures. We found out we prefer Texas pit barbecue above all others, and that fresh Maine lobster really is as good as the movies say. My kids watch movies like Night at the Museum and go on the ride Soarin' at Disney's Epcot and squeal when they see places they recognize. And I have made friends so close that we're family in all but name.

Those are benefits. But just because there are benefits to something does not mean that there is no sacrifice. My husband has been either deployed, TDY, or training for more time than he has actually been home. Yes, we volunteered for this. And no, we don't regret it on the whole. But that doesn't make it any easier on those days when I'm going through extensive medical testing for a possibly severe condition and my husband isn't home to hold my hand and tell me I'm going to be okay. It doesn't make it any easier to get through the possibility that the baby you waited and planned and then had to work so hard to conceive might be born without Dad there. Or how about one of those "you can't stay in this house" curveballs that necessitates moving and all that entails while your spouse is deployed? I don't think discussing these situations is whining.

I'm not trying to start a Woe is Me Chorus here. I have met very, very few military spouses that want to be seen as victims or martyrs. The awareness that we chose this life is always there - as is a strong sense of pride in what we are able to do. And I think it is a pride that is well-earned. I think that is exactly what makes Mrs. Sisk's article such a disservice and, in fact, an active maligning of military families today. What she characterizes as "a nation of whiners", my grandmother sees as a society at large that has no idea what it means to be a military family in a prolonged time of war. While Mrs. Sisk decries the stories about (quotes are hers) the "sacrifices" of military families on TV, my grandmother admitted to me that she watches every one she hears about and makes it a point to read the short biography of every fallen service-member that appears in her local paper. My grandmother, you see, does not want to forget what it is to be a military family serving in a time of war. And somehow every time I need to talk about the emotional toll the military and the war take on our family, my grandmother has known exactly what to say.

As far as the advantages of being a military family go, the ability to rely on each other and on those that have come before us to help us navigate this lifestyle is the primary benefit we will use however long our military lifestyle lasts. My grandmother still understands this. Apparently, not everyone does.


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