The Cowboy in the Room...


The conversation usually starts with “Thank you for your service.” Sometimes the conversation weaves through black and white memories of the person’s own time in the military or someone recounts their own military family legacy to my husband. But often my husband will ask the question: but how did you know I was in the service? And the reply always is “You can just tell.”

While sometimes circumstances make someone’s military status obvious, it is often the subtle things that make our service members recognizable to those that know the clues. A yes, sir to the elderly door greeter or the physical way they carry themselves all mark a service member, especially to someone who has been there or seen that before. But while these things are often a source of pride and comradery, there are often darker aspects of dealing with the person that the military has made our loved ones. Particularly when our service members are gearing up to head to war or when they first return, the characteristics that are so recognizably military are the ones that we, as the loved ones, often struggle with handling. This truth is important to realize:

What characteristics keep our service member’s safe in battle can sometimes make them unpleasant at home.

Even more than how a service member behaves to fit into the image or idealogy of their military branch (and certainly less than the effects of PTSD or other psychological trauma,) the behaviors and mindsets required to stay safe while deployed  can often be difficult to deal with at the dinner table. Suspicion, authoritarianism, or emotional distance may all be skills required to survive the realities of deployment. Our service member may put on a shield of machismo or bravado in order to protect themselves from feared (and very real) emotions.

I used to be in law enforcement and we referred to this phenomenon as “John Wayne Syndrome.” As in, you come out of the academy (or, in our spouse’s case, boot camp) walking with a cowboy swagger that comes out of both the pride of earning the uniform you just put on but in order to prove that you have the cajones to ride in the proverbial saddle of the legends that came before you. Our military loved ones, like a cowboy, have to have certain characteristics to make them effective at their job and to be able to stay physically and mentally healthy.  I want my husband to have a healthy dose of suspicion when dealing with people during his job. I want him to exude authority when he’s confronting dangerous situations and people. But I don’t want him to bring that suspicion home or act like an authoritarian to me. But the key to understanding his behavior when it seems out of the ordinary is recognizing these behaviors for what they are: emotional armor. It may be my least favorite part of the military uniform, but I recognize that it is an incredibly important part.

Does your military loved one put on a slightly different personality when they put on the uniform? Were they different after boot camp or deployment? How do you deal with the transition from citizen/family member to armed service member?

(Note: I am not talking about seriously clinical concerns such as PTSD in this article. If you feel like your spouse is showing signs of PTSD or depression, please talk to someone to seek assistance.)

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