Most Americans aren’t personally acquainted with any post-9/11 combat veterans. While there are over 2 million service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan post-9/11, they make up a tiny fraction of the overall population. Less than 1%. Many well-intended folks put yellow ribbons on their bumpers and “Support our Troops” signs in their yards back in the early years of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some may have sent care packages to the deployed family member of a neighbor or coworker. Some may have included the names of deployed strangers on the prayer list at church. While these sentiments are heartfelt and appreciated, it isn’t the same as having someone you know and love leave the family and spend a year at war.
When your husband decides, in his early forties, that he’s going back into the Army, you’re supportive. It doesn’t occur to you to argue or tell him the whole idea is crazy. It makes sense to you. You think back to that day in 2001 when you were newly married. It was exactly 6 months since your wedding day and he had flowers delivered to commemorate your 6 month wedding anniversary. Your infant daughter was four months old and you took her to Childwatch at the gym that morning. You were running on the treadmill when the overhead television caught your eye: a skyscraper with the top snapped off and smoke billowing out like a giant chimney. You wonder what movie is playing this time of morning and think it’s strange because you could have sworn the news was just on. You don’t have your headphones plugged into the sound, so you don’t know what they’re saying on TV. All around you, people have stopped lifting weights and halted their treadmills. Everyone is gathered around the TV screens to watch the spectacle unfolding in New York City. It feels as if the world has stopped turning as you glean details about the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center.
In the days that follow, the news plays nonstop and the scene of the broken, burning tower runs in an endless loop. You learn new words, like terrorist, Muslim, and Jihad. Soot-covered firefighters are shown on TV, walking through a desolate, ash-covered wasteland. There are stories of people who were working in the World Trade Center that day. Stories of people who are missing. Images of people jumping out of impossibly high windows to escape being burned or suffocated. There is talk of war and Al-Quaida and weapons of mass destruction. These are words with little meaning to you. Like curse words uttered in a foreign language, they have no emotional impact. They feel distant.
Six years later, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still feel distant. They’re taking place on the other side of the world. Your daughters are both in school now. You’re working full time as a nurse and trying to be a good mother, though you aren’t sure how to do it. You’re estranged from your own-plus, she lives three-thousand miles away. You cook dinner, arrange playdates and plan art projects. You enroll your daughters in Vacation Bible School and volunteer for PTO events. Your husband is intent on going over there to serve. He has a personal mission to redo the years he spent as an enlisted infantry grunt back in his rebellious youth. Your kids are young, but you aren’t really worried about how you’ll manage on your own. You’ve spent your life grinding through each day and scurrying from one task to the next.
You don’t live on an Army base where your friends and neighbors all share military culture. You attend events with fellow family members in your husband’s reserve unit. You listen to your husband speak the language of the military. Gradually, you learn the customs and the acronyms. By the time he leaves for pre-deployment in Fort Lewis, you’ve already gotten used to having him gone for weeks or months of training. You maintain routines at home with the kids and they seem to be doing fine. They have school and gymnastics and horseback riding lessons. You have work, groceries, cooking, and laundry. You send care packages of peanut butter and instant Starbucks coffee. At the post office, you attest that there is no alcohol or pornograpy in the packages you send across the world to Kandahar.
Most people are puzzled by your husband’s decision to serve. You joke that it’s his midlife crisis. It’s certainly more original than a red convertible and an affair with a young secretary. You understand why he needs to do it. You take over paying the bills, mowing the lawn, and shoveling snow. You order a life sized cardboard poster of your husband in his uniform. The kids call him Flat Daddy. He sits at Thanksgiving dinner and goes to your daughter’s First Communion. You adapt to life without your husband and the kids adapt to life without their father because that’s what people do. They adapt.
You know your husband is alive because you hear from him almost daily. This isn’t World War II or Vietnam when people went for months without word from their loved ones. This is a new millennium. Your husband often has access to the internet. The kids talk to him on Skype once a week when the signal is clear enough. None of the other kids at school have a deployed parent. You let their teachers know and ask them to keep an eye out for signs of emotional problems. Your daughters have friends and their grades are good. They seem just like regular kids. Sometimes people from church ask about your husband and how he’s doing. You smile and tell them he’s doing well. You actually believe that for a long time. It isn’t until years later that you realize he isn’t.