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What about the soldiers' families?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, March 20, 2006

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Chapel Hill, NC - The spouses and children of our servicemen and women are making huge sacrifices these days.

Surely, nobody disagrees with this statement.

But most of us do not understand the magnitude of these sacrifices. Nor do we spend much time finding out the specific strains on military families.

Sure, our hearts go out to the parents, spouses, and young children of the service men and women who lose their lives each day in Iraq. And when we get a glimpse of the badly injured, we wonder and worry about their families too.

But what about the others? How are these other families adapting, adjusting, and coping with the long absences of a husband or wife in Iraq or Afghanistan? What is the impact on family life of multiple deployments?

These are not academic questions in North Carolina. We are sending more than our share—from our military bases and from our Reserve and National Guard units.

A new book centered on families at Fort Bragg makes it disturbingly clear how much the rest of us owe them.

Kristin Henderson, the author of “While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront,” knows firsthand about getting along alone while her military spouse is gone for long periods of time. Her husband, a Navy chaplain, has been deployed several times during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Henderson shares some of her experiences, but she focuses on those of others whom she got to know after the Iraq war began. Henderson’s readers get to know several Fort Bragg army spouses very well. One of them, Marissa Bootes, is newly married to her high school sweetheart and the father of their young daughter. Marissa’s father was a Vietnamese refugee and her mother a “first generation flower child of British and German immigrants.” She grew up moving from relatives to foster homes and back again. Everybody thought she was wild. But she was smart and ambitious to secure a good education and a good job.

She told Henderson, “When my husband deployed I was working sixty-plus hours a week and suddenly taking care of our five-year-old daughter by myself, and this house, and the bills, and volunteering with the Family Readiness Group for my husband's unit -- I'm an over-achiever. I was doing the Superwoman thing, I felt awesome.”

That “awesome” feeling evaporated during her husband’s deployment to Iraq. She lost her relatively well-paying paralegal job when her daughter’s serious illness kept her from always being available for the travel and long work hours her employer required.

Notwithstanding the Army’s intense efforts to support the families, including the Family Readiness Groups in which Marissa played a major role, her life imploded.

The Army is doing much more than it ever has before. But in spite of its efforts to prepare Marissa and her husband for his absence, the stain of worry and managing the family by herself took its toll. Nor could she be prepared for the difficulties of adjustment to his return, especially in light of the strong possibility of his swift redeployment.

Henderson writes that that the experience of Marissa, so widely shared with others, “creates a bond like sisterhood. Those of us who are married to the military may be female, or may be male -- our honorary sisters. We may be white, black, or brown, young, old, Republican, Democrat, or independent. We may worship different gods or no god at all. We may be high-school dropouts or holders of advanced degrees. We may not even be officially married, may be engaged or living together or seriously dating. But at one time or another, we have all been left behind while the one we love has gone off to train for battle, or keep the peace, or wage war. Particularly for those of us who have waited for our loved ones to return from a combat zone, it's like joining a secret society -- when you encounter another member of that society, not much needs to be said.”

Every North Carolinian who wants to know the true costs of today’s military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan should read Henderson’s detailed and poignant stories of these spouses.


D.G. Martin is host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which is on break during “Festival” and will return on Sunday, April 2, at 5pm.

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What about the soldiers' families?

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