‘A lot for a country to ask’
Far from the active-duty community, Guard and reserve families feel isolated
By Ken Olsen
(Copyright 2010/All rights reserved)
Stacy Bannerman ate her holiday meals at a local diner during her husband’s last National Guard deployment. She left an empty place setting across from her as families crowded the tables around her.
As lonely as she felt, that’s more routine than remarkable for Bannerman and other National Guard and reserve families. Unlike their active-duty counterparts in the war on terrorism, most Guardsmen and reservists don’t live near military bases, have a community of friends who share their experience, or have access to the family support and mental-health programs introduced on military bases in the past decade. Scattered across rural areas or blended into big cities, National Guard and Reserve families are also largely invisible to civilians.
“I cannot overemphasize the sense of social isolation,” says Bannerman, whose husband was first deployed shortly after they moved to Kent, Wash., in early 2004. “There was nobody else in my situation. It was a difficult, lonesome time – one I hadn’t anticipated and one I didn’t have any support for.”
Families feel this isolation in communities as small as Hayward, Wis., where Crystal Gordon knows just one other National Guard wife with a husband in the war zone. “I don’t think the community even knows there’s a unit from here that’s serving in Iraq,” Gordon says.
The isolation is equally prevalent in major metropolitan areas like Phoenix, where Virginia Lynch awaited the return of her husband’s Guard detachment from its second tour.
“We don’t have that really tight-knit community, and our lives aren’t geared around the military,” Lynch says. “The hardest thing is the loneliness.”
Even active-duty families point out the disparities. “National Guard and reserve don’t have the support the families of active-duty soldiers do, and active-duty families are having a hard time,” says Christina Piper, a veteran, Army wife and co-founder of the blog site “Her War, Her Voice.”
Guard and reserve families struggled the first time their loved ones were summoned to Iraq and Afghanistan. They expected their citizen-soldiers to drill one weekend a month and two weeks a year, and respond to periodic natural disasters. Instead, they became full-time combat troops serving overseas in the global war on terror soon after 9/11.
“I was so stunned, I was in a fog,” Lynch recalls of her husband’s sudden departure for southern Iraq. “Everything happened so fast. We didn’t even have a family-resource group.”
Gordon discarded plans for a July wedding and went to the courthouse soon after her future husband got news of his first deployment in February 2003.
Bannerman’s husband got the phone call that October, “I was totally sideswiped,” she says.
Bannerman’s husband left on Valentine’s Day 2004. She passed the time by working at a nonprofit agency, taking her dogs for walks, and withdrawing into herself. She exchanged e-mails with her husband and talked to him on the telephone a couple of times a week, sensing that he was shutting down, particularly when there were casualties in his unit.
“He was pretty contained about what he was saying. ‘How are you? I miss you. Send some brownies.’ The conversations after the casualties had a very different tone. Those just made me feel sad and scared.”
Anxiety and stress dogged her. Her husband was stationed at Camp Anaconda, Iraq, a base so frequently attacked that soldiers nicknamed it “Mortaritaville.” She was troubled as she watched U.S. government officials make their case for going into Iraq. “I paid attention. I needed to know what his sacrifice was going to be for. I needed to know what I was giving up a year and a half of marriage for.”
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, Lynch learned that her oldest son, then entering first grade, had an autism spectrum disorder. She struggled to help him understand that his father, training for deployment at Fort Bliss, Texas, wasn’t already in the combat zone.
“My son was convinced Saddam Hussein would fly to El Paso and hurt my husband,” Lynch says. “For kids on the autism spectrum, everything is either very dangerous or very safe. There is no middle ground.”
Gordon fared better that first deployment. She went to college, worked, and joined an archery league with her sister and father. She also lived with another National Guard spouse in Duluth, Minn. “We were both going through the same thing.”
The Bannermans’ marriage came apart after he returned. The couple couldn’t reconnect. Things that keep a soldier alive and functioning in combat – hyper-vigilance, emotional withdrawal – can kill a relationship. Her husband also could find no peers to help him in his transition home. “He’s with his buddies 24/7 for a year and then suddenly he’s not,” Bannerman says. “The Guard and reserve guys are forced to decompress apart from the people who are able to understand what they are going through.”
Frustrated over what happened, Bannerman packed up and went to Washington to lobby on behalf of veterans and military families. “It was never about not loving him,” she says. “There was a part of me that felt like I was going to die if I stayed.”
Gordon, meanwhile, found conversation awkward when her husband came home on R&R during his first deployment. “You get used to communicating with letters and e-mail for a year, and then when you are face to face, you are at a loss for words,” Gordon says.
Lynch wondered if her husband would come home at all. He had emergency gall bladder surgery in Iraq near the end of his deployment and, unbeknownst to her, developed complications and was flown to Germany. He was too weak to call and tell her how he was faring. “I didn’t know if he was living or dead for a few days,” Lynch says.
Her husband spent the next seven months at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where doctors discovered that his left hepatic duct had accidentally been sliced during his surgery. Lynch went to see him once, and he visited Phoenix twice, including for their 10th wedding anniversary, with a tube coming out of his side. He finally returned home in August 2005, 20 months after he deployed.
Lynch spent the next year trying to get reimbursed for her family’s travel to San Antonio and to straighten out her husband’s pay, fouled by the fact that he was never given orders to transfer back to the United States. She finally gave up. “You’d call somebody and they would tell you, ‘That’s not my job’,” she says. “That was an expensive endeavor for us.”
Health care is a problem for Guard and reserve families even if they don’t have a loved one in a military hospital thousands of miles from home. Those living in rural areas have difficulty finding mental-health providers who accept TRICARE, the federal insurance for military families, Bannerman says. And it’s nearly impossible to find a rural counselor or therapist who has the military-family expertise available at bases and military medical centers.
“Significant disparities remain between the mental-health programs and support for Guard and reserve and what’s available for active-duty folks living on or near a military base,” says Bannerman, who now lives in southern Oregon. In 2007, one Guardsman said that when he and his wife reached out for marriage counseling prior to his deployment, they felt the few sessions they received “were a favor to us, and that we were taking up a resource meant for active-duty soldiers from the base.’”
Guard and reserve families also lose their federal health insurance 180 days after deployment ends. This often leaves them with no coverage for the bulk of the time between deployments as the recession and repeated tours cost them their day jobs. As much as half of Oregon’s 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team expected to be unemployed once off active duty this summer, and their families are going to be without health insurance,” Bannerman says.
The federal law that prohibits firing or laying off Guardsmen and reservists as a result of a deployment is full of loopholes, she adds. Even if a soldier has a case, “when you are preparing for that next deployment, you don’t have time to fight it.”
No Personal Security
The deployments have eroded Gordon’s sense of personal security in the small Wisconsin town where she and her husband now live. “Almost everyone overlooks the safety of the family when a soldier deploys,” Gordon says. “Unfortunately, we are targets.”
She doesn’t hang a yellow ribbon outside her home or display a Blue Star flag in her window. “Anyone who drives by can guess there is a woman living alone in that house,” Gordon says. She’s careful not to wear any of the “Half My Heart is in Iraq” or “Caution: Going Through a Deployment” T-shirts. “I want to shout to the world that my husband is a soldier and is in Iraq and I’m proud of him,” Gordon says. “I just can’t. It’s very sad. It isolates me further.”
Gordon doesn’t even tell casual acquaintances about her husband’s status. “They just might be the one person who would be extra supportive and willing to help me out a bit,” she says. “But I’ll never know that because I need to keep my mouth shut in public. I’m guessing that this is not an issue on a military base.”
Gordon doesn’t hear much from her civilian friends, even those who know the situation. “I just wish someone would come and mow the lawn once in a while. Or friends would even call to see how I’m doing. I don’t think they know what to say, so they don’t really call.”
Bannerman and her husband rebuilt their marriage after nearly a year apart. “Neither of us was in a space where we could make ourselves vulnerable to the other,” she says. “That was critical.” As was letting go of what was “so I could make room for what is – realizing, accepting that our lives had changed irrevocably, and we were never going back to what had been.”
Her husband deployed again in 2008, and Bannerman soon was overwhelmed. She started having intense anxiety and panic attacks. “There were days I’d be working out in the gym, and I was just sobbing,” she says.
Counseling and medication helped her get past the bottom. She’s since turned to rafting, kayaking, working with horses and other therapeutic pursuits. “I had to create ways to survive,” Bannerman says. “Talk therapy and medications aren’t enough. We’ve literally got to work this stuff out of our bodies and re-engage life.”
Lynch and one of her sons connected with counseling services through the local Guard armory. She feels fortunate to have such a resource nearby, knowing that many Guard families are up to 75 miles from the armory.
Lynch still anticipated rough spots as she prepared for her husband’s return this summer. “You think, ‘Wow, I don’t know that person,’ she says. “And you have to look for depression and mood changes.” Her sons will act out more after their father comes home, she adds. “That’s how they cope with their feelings.”
Her youngest son, now 8, will have to adjust to living in the same house as his father. “The other week, he said, ‘Mommy, did Daddy ever live here?’ For me, the kids not remembering what it’s like to have (their dad) around is one of the hardest things.”
Five years ago, Guard and reserve families wondered how they were going to get through one unexpected deployment. Today, they are worried about repeated combat tours, the stress on children, their spouses’ ability to keep jobs when employers know that hiring a member of the Guard or reserve means dealing with an employee who might be gone a great deal of time. They worry that the government won’t take care of them as veterans.
Yet, they will keep serving.
Bannerman’s husband has 20 years with the Guard and plans to continue. She no longer pushes him to get out. “He becomes, in many ways, the most of who he is in that uniform,” she says. “As difficult as this has become, I love him, and I want to support his choice. It is the best way he knows to serve his country.”
Gordon’s husband plans to be in the Guard 30 years, so she knows that this unsettled rhythm is her reality. “Deployments are going to be part of my life,” Gordon says. “You have to let go of what you planned your future to be … people have no idea that families serve, too.”
Ironically, Lynch’s husband left the Army more than 15 years ago and joined the National Guard so that he and his wife could enjoy a more normal life. “Little did we know how much time we would spend apart,” she says.
She worries how much more time they will spend apart, not just because of the war, but because of all the other demands on the Guard: hurricane and flood relief, fighting forest fires, providing border security. She worries about the price families like hers will pay.
“Are you going to have the National Guard do the active-duty thing? Or are you going to have them patrol the border? Are you going to ask them to do both? That’s a lot for a country to ask of part-timers.”
This is Part Two of a special report featured in the September 2010 issue of The American Legion Magazine). Don’t miss the next installment. Subscribe to Veterans Voices. Click on this link – http://veteransvoices.net or look in the right-hand column about midway down the opening page of the blog. Enter your e-mail address under Subscribe to Veterans Voices.
Well done, Mr. Olsen. Another beautiful, yet heart-wrenching, piece.
Thanks for reading the stories of these families, who have given so much over the last nine years — and will keep giving for who knows how long. It’s worth remembering their sacrifice on 9/11 as well.
A well-written piece and an important issue which needs to be brought out in the open. I also believe it is important that we should remember the sacrifice which both which the members of the military including the National Guard and their families face on a daily basis.
This is poignant, important work and I can’t think of anyone better equipped to write it. Thank you for sharing this, Ken.