This HAL we honor our men and women in uniform, though in my humble opinion words and ceremonies don’t seem adequate for what we ask of them. It also seems to me that the sacrifices of their families are too often mentioned as an afterthought. I’d like to change that and outline for you what some of those sacrifices are, at least from my perspective as a Navy wife from 1968 until 1990. This isn’t meant to be a pity party, just a few facts about military life as I lived them.
Sacrifice was pawning my wedding rings so my children could eat. Early enlisted pay was not much to start with, but when my husband’s ship was sent out to sea before he could get an allotment set up it meant he got his paycheck where he was, not where the kids and I were. That month I hadn’t a penny until he either came home or could get something mailed to us, so I did what I had to do. I never did find the extra money to redeem my rings.
Navy life meant packing up and moving on, usually on very short notice. It meant reintroducing our kids to their grandparents and extended family once every two or three years, and never being able to shake the feeling that somehow we didn’t quite fit in.
It was making a home out of a house so ramshackle the only thing holding it up was the cockroaches in the walls linking legs and the layers of pea green paint on the walls.
It meant no chance for me to have a career – just a series of dead end jobs that barely helped make ends meet.
It meant my kids didn’t form lifelong friendships, and in each new school they were either ahead of or behind their classmates academically.
Heartbreak was holding my sobbing 10 year old daughter in my arms when she was the only one who wasn’t going to the father/daughter dance with a proud dad escorting her.
It was promising my eight year old daughter that I would remember to tell Daddy how well she performed in the school Christmas concert because it was her third year in school and he’d still never seen her on the stage.
It was learning the rules of baseball because I was the only one who could teach my son enough of the game to try out for a team, and it was leaving the laundry and the dishes behind to take him fishing. It was facing those difficult times when a young man has questions only a dad can answer, but has only a mom to turn to.
Sacrifice was coping with the loss of premature twin boys alone because the Command decided my situation wasn’t critical enough to extend emergency leave when they were born.
It was long distance holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and milestones. We had been married 13 years before we spent our first Easter together.
It meant postponing Christmas until May when the ship which was supposed to return to port in early December had its tour extended by 5 months during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. It was something my kids thought was right to do, and I was so proud of them!
Sacrifice meant putting my pride in my pocket and asking a neighbor for help when the washer (or the dryer or the car or the whatever) broke down.
It was the sound of the phone at 3:00 in the morning, praying it would be him but terrified that it might be about him. It meant hearing his voice for a few precious minutes, and being willing to go in and wake up three sleeping little people so they’d have a chance to hear him too.
It was losing sleep night after night during the three years he spent in a village called Chu Lai during the VietNam war. The television broadcaster thought it was his job to give a total body count at end of his broadcasts, apparently not caring that families wouldn’t know for days if their loved one was part of that count.
It meant that my hallway wasn’t decorated with family photos, but with a world map. Once a week we would stand in front of that map and use red pins for where we thought the ship might be. We used blue ones to mark the far away places he called us from when the ship would hit port.
We shared our affection with two men in blue uniforms during those years – our sailor and the mailman who brought us the letters and packages. Letters always meant a celebration.
During the day I was busy taking care of the kids and the things that need tending. But the hours between the time they went to bed and I finally went to bed were the loneliest times I have ever known. There was no one to hold me so I could cry and no one to tease me out of a bad mood. No one there to reassure me that everything was going to be alright. No praise for a job well done or help correcting a task I’d muffed up. And, selfishly speaking, there was no validation of me as wife, partner, and friend.
I cannot imagine going through those things and so many more without an end in sight - day after day, night after night - because he never made it home to us.
Let no one think that in this day of instant communication our military families have it any easier. They may have access to email, web cams, instant messaging and cell phones, but that doesn’t diminish their sacrifice. The families left behind are still the ones who have to keep it all together while their loved ones are away, and put it all back together if, God forbid, it all goes terribly wrong.
So you’ll all forgive me if, while I honor and pray for our brave men and women in uniform, I pray just a little harder for the ones left behind. It’s the only side of the fence I’ve been on, so it’s the one I understand best. I’m proud of my small role in protecting this country, and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. We were blessed, and well do we know it - Ken came home from every deployment. Too many don't. It sometimes seems like once the military honors and funeral services are over, the hero's loved ones go home to a house that will no longer ring with laughter, no longer feel the excitement of a homecoming celebration, and it becomes far far too quiet. Where are all the people who said, "I'm so sorry. If there's anything I can do....."?
Please, please - if you know someone who has lost a loved one in any conflict, don't forget them after a month or so. Remember and honor them every day - make a phone call once a week, send a "thinking of you" card. Do something. But don't pretend that that service member never existed. To do so dishonors his/her memory and the family's sacrifices.
My hero - then.......
And with our grandson Jamie in Charleston, South Carolina when Jamie graduated from Nuclear Power School in 2009.