Saying Goodbye Every Three Years in the Military

Observations of a Black Traveler

There are too many goodbyes in the military. It was barely 5 am— soldiers’ time. The ground was wet and the air was damp from the early morning dew. We sat in the comfort of our Honda. The heat at full blast. And the radio was silent. Many of the soldiers from his unit were already in a loose formation outside of the headquarters building just across the parking lot. Then he kissed me. And I held his embrace as long as I could. He grabbed his duffel bags and rucksack out of the trunk and made his way across the chaotic field. Neither one of us said goodbye, because there are too many goodbyes in the military.

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There are Too Many Goodbyes in the Military

When He Leaves

A large pile of duffel bags blocked part of my view. A few younger soldiers stood to watch over a few M16s stacked uprights just as you would stack logs for a campfire. The mood was tense but mellow.

We sat there talking but not saying much. Small talk about the last movie we watched together— Inception. We were just waiting for the signal that it was time to go. And then it became clear that his departure was imminent as a caravan of chartered coaches pulled into the parking lot. The pot had been stirred and everyone seemed more frantic. The mood turned from mellow to anxious.

I watched the last few soldiers leave the embraces of their loved ones for the doors of the chartered coaches. Many of them trying to live a lifetime in the short embraces left to them. Others were preening to catch that last glimpse of their soldier before they’d disappear through the doors. But many were simply trying to hold it together when he leaves.

See You Soon

I got back in my car just as the first bus released itself from its tether to the rock we call Baumholder. The silence was deafening— loud and crystal clear. I stroked the warm tan leather of the handbrake with my fingers. The car was thoroughly cleaned, the registration extended, the oil had been changed and I had a full tank of gas…compliments of Steven. The rest would be up to me for the next 3 months. I can say with some accuracy that it will be 3 months before I see Steven again because he always comes home for my birthday. Deployments used to be a whole year. Now, thankfully they are 9 months. He’d be home for a few weeks in March. He’d be home for good in November.

How to Say Goodbye
Changing Plans

Goodbyes are all too common exchanges in the military— especially recently. Six to twelve-month tours, training exercises, and unscheduled drills made planning couples time, let alone life, tenuous at best. We always made the best of our time together. Knowing that one day we would reap the benefits of our service and sacrifices.

Thank You for Your Service

The first time I had to change our plans, I had booked a 12-day cruise to the Mediterranean which I had to cancel. My hubby was in Iraq for the second time. When I called the travel agency, they were more than happy to cancel our reservation with a fee. I explained that I wasn’t canceling because we decided to go somewhere else. We were canceling because my husband was deployed. The next day I received a phone call from the President of the travel agency. He was happy to cancel the reservation and refund my entire deposit. He apologized for the confusion and ended the call by asking me to thank my husband for his service.

The second time my hubby spent more than twelve months away was logistical. He left with the advanced party to set up the camp and returned with the rear detachment. He ended up spending an extra month in the theater as a result.

We All Suffer in Different Ways

A woman with Texas-sized hair piled high atop her head, wearing an Old Glory style jeans jacket grabbed me. Tears flowed freely down her face. I didn’t instantly recognize her. Pat’s face was contorted and pale and she looked like she hadn’t slept in days.

We had attended her wedding to Doug a few months ago. This was her first deployment. I patted her back. Assuring her that they would be fine and back home, safe and sound in no time. She just had to be strong and have faith. I truly believed what I was saying. But deep down, I hoped my voice didn’t belie my expression. I was scared too.

You Know, We’re Still at War, Right?

War, I sighed softly, more to myself than out loud. It’s a three-letter word with huge ramifications. War was perfected by men like Alexander and Caesar. Archaic in its implications, yet modern in its applications, since there are no actual “front lines” anymore. It has been used to install friendly governments, remove hostile ones, create a homeland for the homeless, proliferate genocide and create vast fortunes on the back of slavery, the poor, and the disenfranchised.

However, it never ceases to amaze me just how many Americans have no idea we’re even at war. I support the troops has become a slogan and not a true reflection of how most people actually feel. I blame the media and I blame the government. Only the sensational is televised or even openly debated. For Goodness sake, the media wasn’t even allowed to broadcast the caskets of the fallen as they returned home. We haven’t been asked to sacrifice a single thing, expecting— no demanding— to have our cake and eat it too.

We fight for the Same Thing
He wears khakis and I wear heels

I fought back the tears— because that’s what soldiers do. He did his fighting in khakis and carried a 9mm. I wore jeans and juggled a spatula, broom, checkbook and the keys to the Jeep.

In the end, we fight for the same thing. Call it camaraderie, love, or affinity. Just don’t try to make it a battle cry, slogan, sound bite, platform, or a punch line. We fight for the love of our country— not necessarily the one we have— but the one we could have. He fights so he can eventually stop and come home and I fight so that the home he comes back to was worth the effort.

It drives me crazy that people say that soldiers should expect to go to war— just like waitresses should expect some people refuse to tip. It’s all about choice, right?

Mechanics, Lawyers, Cooks, and Truck Drivers

Most soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines have regular jobs just like the rest of the world. They are mechanics, doctors, secretaries, truck drivers, lawyers, and cooks. Very few of them are just soldiers, but every one of them is trained to defend themselves, you and the rest of the country. They are the real 1%, actually less than that. And if we’re being truthful. The salaries most of them receive aren’t even comparable to the salaries of their private sector compatriots.

 

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The First Deployment

Alone. Alone is not really alone when you have two young kids. You also have their friends and activities, the neighbors, family, and the countless people you come into contact with on a daily basis.

Everybody remembers the first deployment like it was yesterday because of the loneliness.

But… no matter how hard I tried, a part of me always goes into a stasis a bit when he leaves. I preferred the familiar surroundings of my home and during the first deployments and rarely ventured out alone. I felt a little out of place, self-consciously the rational part of me knew that people couldn’t have cared less. They were far too busy with their own lives— and their own loneliness.

But the worse thing without a doubt has to be sleeping alone. The absence is unmistakably tangible. I spent hours downstairs in the family room in front of late-night TV to avoid climbing into the cold bed we’ve shared all these years.

And when I finally did I tossed and turned all night long— beating the pillows into unconditional surrender and falling asleep a few hours before it was time to get up. And almost always crying softly into his pillow which still smelt like Fahrenheit cologne, making sure I didn’t wake our children who slept soundly in their rooms down the hall.

Deployment Rituals

By now we were used to deployments that the whole thing had become “ritual” that is seldom deviated from:

Phase 1

Phase 1 was initiated by him. It usually began with an innocent talk about unit deployments. Then it would solidify with talk about a specific unit preparing to deploy to some God-Forsaken place in the near future. Eventually, he would tell me he was leaving. I never took it well. He was always considerate and managed to tell me many months in advance, so I could begin to resign myself to the eventuality. He would be leaving again.

Phase 2

Phase 2 was a team effort. After we knew, but before we had an actual date, we would act as nonchalant as possible. This state of semi-denial would continue right up until a date was announced. After which we would begin simplifying business, gathering the power of attorneys and making financial arrangements, and discussing timelines. We knew he would eventually leave, but for the present time— it was still something down the road and didn’t immediately affect our behavior— or our relationship.

Phase 3

Phase 3 was my baby…and mine alone. It always began the same way. A few days before the great exodus, I would find something— anything— to argue about. It didn’t matter what it was. There was no way he could win. It was my defense mechanism. I became slightly agitated, distant, and hardened to him. That was the only way I could survive and continue to function at an adult level.

He was extremely tolerant and loving during this phase and sooner or later, I would realize that it was me who couldn’t win. Steven took me by the hand and asked me not to do it this time. He asked me not to distance myself from him. So I didn’t… this time.

I stood next to him in the laundry room the night before he left. We do everything in our power to hold this family together. I stood on my tiptoes and leaned my head on his shoulder, trying to visualize how hard it must be for him. He was a badass soldier with unconditional love for his family… patriot… husband, father, son, and brother too. Leaving everything he knew far behind to fight a war that may or may not have been started for legitimate reasons. And he had to go without voicing an opinion one way or the other— not in public anyway.

This time we skipped Phase 3.

Phase 4

Phase 4 usually starts moments before he leaves. Emotions are bottled up and not out for public display— but out of control nonetheless— sorrow, fear in hand. I resolved to just enjoy the last few moments we have together. However well aware now that there was always a slight chance he wouldn’t return.

Always reticent, he never wanted to appear unprofessional in public and certain gestures were never appropriate. It wasn’t until recently he let down his guard and held my hand. That’s something he never did years ago— not in uniform anyway. Now he held my hand without hesitation as we made our way across the crowded field.

When we walked hand in hand like that, I always wanted to laugh. He was obsessively uniform. He had to walk in unison, right, left, right, left. I would sometimes walk out of step on purpose just to get under his skin. He’d smirk and get us back in step again.

Phase 5

He’s gone and I’m by myself. I usually start with a month or so of unending crying. Then it’s onto redecorating the house by moving all the heavy furniture with my feet. And lots and lots of exercise.

too-many-goodbyes-in-the-military Saying Goodbye Every Three Years in the Military

Deployment Survival Guide
It’s All About Establishing Routines

Deployment survival is about establishing routines. It takes a few weeks, but the kids and I fall into step after a little trial and error. We know it’s hard for them too; however, they seem to adjust quickly. It must be the constant motion and all that fresh air and sugar.

The kids and I made it to basketball practice a few minutes early for a change and I took up residence under the huge oak tree behind the school. It has a clear view of the playground and the sandbox my youngest dove into— headfirst. Traffic was awful this afternoon and I thought we’d be late. I took a deep breath, inhaling the overwhelming fragrance of freshly cut grass.

Time to Get Things Done

I sipped on my coffee and began to think about all the things I wanted to get accomplished during this separation. My husband often said he felt like he held me back when he was home because I accomplished so much when he was gone. I got so much done because it kept my mind from wandering to the dark side. Then I ended up making another list. I think there is a name for the mental condition of perpetual list-making. I make a list of the books I want to read, the paint colors I used in the house, the places I’ve wanted to visit, birthdays, etc. Once made, sometimes
I never look at them again.

I sat there under the clear blue sky. Wondering whether or not any road I would have chosen would have taken me to this hunter green wooden park bench opposite the bike path. I placed my laptop down beside me and snuggled under my turtleneck, bringing my knees up to my chin which was cold from the crisp, cool air. Staring up and wondering what the sky looked like over his head.

He called later that night. The flight was bumpy, but the brandy was smooth, he laughed.

Staying Connected
I hate goodbyes, but they are a necessary evil to get to hellos— which I love.

I tried to sound upbeat. The last thing I wanted to be was for this man to worry about me. He promised to stay safe and call when he landed at his final destination. More chuckling ensued because we were conversing in our all too familiar telephone code. Telephone conversations have to be edited for security reasons otherwise known as (OPSEC). No dates, times, places, or military-related information can be shared on unsecured lines, its serious business that neither of us takes for granted.

I love you guys he whispered. And don’t forget to water the lawn twice a week— the earlier the better. I got this, I responded. You just worry about you.

We hung up the phone and couldn’t help but laugh. Halfway around the world and he was still trying to tell me what to do. That was a running joke with us. He’d say something, I’d say don’t tell me what to do. He’d say I had daddy issues.

I kissed the kids one more time for him and set the alarm for 6 am.

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