I like being a Military Spouse. It suits me. I am good at it. I’ve used it as an anchor to make my job purposeful. I’m so good at it that I did not realize the impact it was having on my life and the real cost of service my family was going to face.
Don’t get me wrong, the months my husband spent in Iraq were the most terrifying and debilitating months of my life. And as many of us know, the suffering did not end for him immediately when he got home -- neither did my stress and worry for him. But as time passed and he calmed, we settled into a post deployment life of children, school and every day family events.
My husband is an Active Duty Marine assigned as part of an Inspector/Instructor (I&I) staff for a Reserve Unit which means he is both full time and has the requirements of a Reservist – one weekend a month for Drill, two weeks a year for Annual Training. The I&I unit also engages with the community at events, color guards, funerals and manages the Toys for Tots program for our region. Both of these combine to mean he has a lot of time commitments outside of the standard work week.
Although there are extra burdens of housework and parenting hours, these weeks and weekends without my husband have always been a part of our family dynamic and were never seen as a challenge. In fact, I am willing to admit here we kind of look forward to them. My daughters and I have had more than the average amount of “girl-time” and have been able to devote ourselves freely and deeply to their sport of choice -– horseback riding –- without having to sacrifice our time at home with Dad.
Being so independent made Duty Station changes easy because we had each other. We moved several times, from my home state of California to Kentucky and then to Ohio.
And then the awaking happened. In May, 2015 my Dad was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer. It had been five years since I had seen him. He had never met my youngest daughter. Actually, I had only seen my Dad one time since our first out of state PCS. I hadn’t seen anyone in my Dad’s family since we moved to Kentucky, seven years ago. At first we kept in touch by phone and planned for upcoming holidays. Then Facebook kept me up to date on my family and extended family. Then even the Facebook connection seemed to wind down. I mean, it’s hard to be interested when you have never met your Cousin’s daughter’s boyfriend who has purchased a new car, right?
In my dad’s case, Stage Four probably meant just months to live. And we were nearly strangers. My Dad and I put creating a relationship with my daughters into overdrive. In the 10 months before he passed I saw him four times. My girls saw him twice. He was even able to come to our house and visit the Air Force Museum on Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and see the plane he had worked on and flown in during his years in the service -- the top of his bucket list. None of this was bad, but it was contrived, forced. It wasn’t enough to fill a five-year gap.
And then it was over.
Two months later, my Grandpa, my Dad’s dad, died. And two weeks after that his sister, my aunt, died. They were complete strangers to me, and so were their grieving children and grandchildren.
The Military had created the distance, and I had allowed the distance to sever the relationships. Part of my act of being a really good military spouse was holding my family in a fully portable self-contained unit. I circled the wagons so tight, in such a small circle that I had blocked out the need for lifelines beyond our unit. I was closer with the new families at the duty stations we moved to than my own real family on the other side of the country.
This is the actual cost of my commitment as a military spouse. Time and distance has created detachment. My daughters won’t have had raucous family gatherings to fuel their memories or shape their vision of what family means to them and their future. I have taught my girls a very narrow scope of “connected."
With 18 months remaining until my husband’s retirement, for the first time as a couple we will get to choose which city we want to live in. Every person related to me lives in California. We have come to love the Midwest and all it offers to our children. I certainly know what is best for my daughters. I long for my Mom and the family I hardly know. I long for an idea of family that I haven’t really had in a decade.
I know that I will again pick up my portable unit and move to a location 2,000 miles from anyone with my DNA. I will beg my California born beach-loving Mom to move East, which she will protest. We will be enough for each other for now. And I will hope my daughters marry into large local families. I’ll finish up my time as a military spouse and adjust my personal filter to being just a wife, a mom.
I know what I lost, but I see clearly my sacrifice gave my girls a stable, peaceful, and happy life while we supported their Dad’s all-consuming career. We love being a military family. It has made us stronger and we will carry that strength into our future.
We are good at it, and despite the cost, it suits us.
Karin Childress-Wiley is National Director of Veteran Recruitment for Military.com. Karin’s mission is to educate and inspire the Monster Team and our Clients by telling the Military.com story in an impactful and meaning way. In her role she bridges the gap between Employers and Veterans through company outreach, training and strategy. Veteran Hiring is more than a professional focus. Married to Gunnery Sergeant Justin Wiley, with 19-plus years of service to the Marine Corps Karin is personally committed to raising the career expectations and employment of Veterans and their spouses. a military spouse, Veteran Resource Volunteer, Key Spouse, Veteran Employment Blogger.