I married a soldier in the afterglow of Operation Desert Storm. During that conflict, the nation rallied around her troops. We waited anxiously to see how the conflict would unfold. As it happened, the conflict ended rather quickly and decisively. If you have to have go to war, I suppose that’s the way you want war to be waged. Brief, and with as few casualties as possible. Our troops came home to yellow ribbons, signs and flags hung on overpasses and in storefronts, and there were lots of parades. The collective pride of our nation was palpable.
Right before my husband asked me to marry him, he sat me down and gave me the whole, “Are you sure you can handle this lifestyle” speech. I should understand that he was at the Army’s mercy. I should understand that at any moment he could be called away and may not return for months, or even a year or more. I should understand that his job will often come before my needs and desires. Our needs and desires.
Military couples should have this conversation but honestly, I didn’t give it too much thought. First of all, when you’re head-over-heels in love, you think you can easily handle anything that may be thrown at you. It’s hard to envision a situation in which your love may be tested to the breaking point. The sizzle and passion of new love convinces you that nothing, and I mean nothing, could stand in the way of “happily ever after.”
Besides that, there was Operation Desert Storm.
In all my naivety, I was pretty sure that if our troops were called to protect or defend, it would look like Desert Storm. We’d open up a can of whoop-ass, the enemy would tuck tail and run and that would be that.
For me, the first several years of military life, aside from the moving and a non-combat deployment, wasn’t all that different from civilian life. My husband went to work and most nights he came home, much like the accountant down the street or the teacher in the next town over. When he didn’t come home, he was in the field training. He prepared for the worst, and I expected the best. I attended some events here and there, but didn’t get too involved in spouse clubs or other spouse activities. We had a phone tree in the case of an emergency but the tree was usually stuffed in a junk drawer and was rarely used.
Then came September 11, 2001.
I was only two miles from the Pentagon when a plane slammed into our military nerve center. Confusion and chaos erupted all around me. Black smoke billowed from the Pentagon. People were running out of buildings. Some were screaming and crying. Others were silent. Stunned.
A terrorist attack was underway.
It would be hours before I was able to get out of the city and get home to my husband. Only he wasn’t just my husband anymore. He wasn’t just a soldier anymore. Although no order had been given, I knew that my husband was a wartime soldier and our troops would soon be fighting an unconventional enemy. At the time, I couldn’t possibly fathom how that would play out, but it would not resemble Desert Storm.
My life was about to change forever. So was his. Countless lives were turned inside out. I knew we had to punch back. I supported that position. Even so, it scared the hell out of me.
In the months and years that followed the 9/11 attacks, I watched spouses come together like never before. Or maybe it was just me becoming more engaged in a life that I had taken for granted for almost a decade. Complacency was replaced with action. No longer were conversations just about funny acronymous, frequent moves and field exercises. Spouse meetings were no longer about upcoming bake sales or unit picnics. Nor were they mere social opportunities. The rooms were now full of military spouses who desired information and comfort from people who may have once been faint acquaintances, but who had suddenly become fast friends.
We needed each other. We were going to take care of each other.
As it happened, I was in Washington again the night that Osama Bin Laden was killed. I had waited for this day for so long. The front cover of a tabloid with Osama’s photo on it and the words “Dead or Alive” hung on my refrigerator for years. I vowed it would stay there until the man who was behind this messy war was eliminated or captured. I imagined what that day would be like many times over. I imagined the relief and satisfaction I would feel when it finally happened. I imagined how I would celebrate.
But it didn’t play out as I had imagined.
That night, I was with a friend who works with wounded warriors. She has held the hands of severely wounded troops for many years. She has comforted them, and their families. She has sat with warriors who were unconscious, some of whom didn’t make it. She has seen the horrors of war in a way that most never will.
When I told her that although I was happy that Osama Bin Laden was dead, I didn’t feel the overwhelming sense of euphoria that I thought I would feel. I was surprised by my reaction. But she wasn’t.
“No,” she said. “We’re different people now.”
And she’s right. We are.