By Kathy Roth-Douquet
Two months ago, my husband read our children a bedtime story until the tears in his eyes blurred the page. My daughter took the book from him. “Daddy, I’ll finish it for you,” 7-year-old Sophie said. When she was done, my husband, Greg, rocked her and her younger brother, Charley, and held us all for a long goodnight kiss. Then he picked up his sea bag and walked out the door — to his car, to an air base, and to a plane that carried him to Iraq.
Seventeen thousand families in southeastern North Carolina are, like mine, sending someone to Iraq this spring. The country may think of them, and especially of the ones who don’t come home, as we mark another Memorial Day at wartime.
The country is divided into separate pockets, some communities shipping folks off to war, and others — like those from my pre-marriage days — witnessing the war on television, fought by strangers. For families in those other ZIP codes, the military life can sound both scary and pitiable.
But there is more to our story.
True, it is wrenching for families to send the people they love to war. As Frank Schaeffer, author of Faith of Our Sons: A Father’s Wartime Diary, says of his Marine son, “He is my heart; he is the best I have to offer.”
This echoes the bumper stickers in my neighborhood that read, “Half of my heart is in Iraq.” It is hard to have your heart far away, so we who stay home welcome your support. But neither I nor the military wives with whom I regularly talk want pity, neither for what we do nor the reasons we do it.
Mommy and Daddy
“What we do” is easily understood, even by those who don’t live it: We are both Mommy and Daddy to little ones who may be sad or mad that a parent is gone. We keep the household together, repair washing machines and cars. We volunteer; many of us hold demanding jobs. We e-mail our husbands, assuring them all is well; we send them kids’ crayon drawings and cigars, and toys for Iraqi children. Some days we’re overwhelmed; other days, we pull it off.
Why we do this, however, is a little less understood. We are motivated by the same reasons for which people have put themselves at risk through history: for love and for country. The love is for our husbands, who work with skill, discipline and determination, at a real personal cost.
The love is also for their fellow Marines. To watch a unit prepare for war is to come to care about everyone in it. Stateside, I have seen the men and women in my husband’s squadron live in an environment that lacks comfort and glamour, yet strive to be their best — for the sake of their lives, each other, and the success of the mission the country asks them to do.
In their home hangar, these Marines walk up and down concrete steps that are literally stenciled with words to live by: honor, commitment, duty, fidelity, courage, respect. They talk about these words and try to live up to them. These are real people, with real flaws. But they wanted to go to Iraq and complete their missions. And they want to bring each other home.
Where he needs to be
Would I take my husband away from these men and women? No, I wouldn’t. I think he and they are better off by having each other there. I am proud of them all.
The fact that we send our husbands to war for the sake of our country may confound some people, since about half of the country wouldn’t send soldiers to Iraq at all. Many military wives, too, have ambivalent feelings about the current fight. But that’s exactly the point. Our position on any given policy is just that — our opinion — and what transcends opinion and politics is our commitment to serve.
“Looking back, I would not have changed our lives one bit,” says my friend Ingrid Mollahan, a 26-year Marine Corps spouse beginning her eighth six-month-plus separation from her husband. “I truly believe we have made a positive contribution to the nation and the world by our service.”
That’s a feeling many of us share. A recent Military Times Media Grouppoll found three-quarters of those on regular active duty would re-enlist or extend their commissions tomorrow if asked. Why? Not for money, security, or even for the global war on terror. The reason for their service is the service itself. The poll called it “patriotism.”
Military families make the conscious decision to be engaged in “extreme citizenship.” When we are called, we will stand. We choose this life understanding that there is a constitutional role for the military. That role is not to make policy, but to respond with ability and honor when called to action by our nation’s elected leaders. No one — war critic or advocate — could want the military to behave otherwise. It’s called civilian control of the military, and it’s a bulwark of our democracy.
I once helped to elect a president of the United States, which is admittedly a much flashier experience than being a military wife. But the sense of privilege that I felt at being part of that American pageant — from walking through the empty West Wing of the White House on inauguration day to flying on Air Force One — was no greater a feeling than the one I feel today, in a different role for my country.
‘War is no skinned knee’
In the wonderful parenting book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, author Wendy Mogel argues that trying to protect our children from hurt and difficulty is a mistake. Trials, she writes, are opportunities for character development and growth. I’ve learned that this lesson applies to grown-ups, too. War is no skinned knee. It’s hard. But for my family, I think this experience has required us to be better people.
So the odd thing is, while my family — most military families — struggle in ways, we gain in others for the sacrifices we make. We’re hopeful that the country and the world will gain from it, too. Yes, there is a limit to how much a small group can sacrifice, and we may be close to or over that limit. But we will continue to do our best, hoping for wisdom from our leaders and fellow citizens, and waiting faithfully for our Marines to come home.
This Op-Ed was originally published by USA Today.