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During the final days of the Gulf War, I took our three-year-old son, Daniel, his two-year-old brother, Philip, and our infant daughter, Bethany, to watch their father launch his F-4 Phantom II. He was going to the Middle East. His mission: to fight for our nation's freedom.
"When will de Papa be back home, Mama?" asked Daniel as he waved his chubby hand at the roaring jet.
"Soon," I said as I fought back tears and kissed my baby daughter on her fuzzy blond head. "We are praying he will come home soon."
Philip was excited; he loved watching airplanes: "I wuv you, Papa!" he shouted as he jumped up and down. Then all of a sudden he turned to me, furrowed his brow, and said very seriously, "You know, I weally wuv de Papa." Then he turned to wave at the small speck in the sky as his dad flew off to his mission.
Later that week Mrs. Phillips, Daniel's Sunday school teacher, told me that Daniel had a special prayer request. She said he asked, "Please pway for all de air farce guys dat fly to betect our fweedoms." Then he paused and added, "And please pway for dem Army guys dat do de same thing—but dey fly and fwight on dem helicopters. Oh, and pray for de Army gulls, too!"
Daniel didn't quite understand what his father did for a living a decade ago, but after the Kosovo war and now with our current situation—he does. As a military family who currently has five school-aged children and two adult children, we have a keen appreciation for what it takes to keep this nation free. We've lived through these two wars and know that my husband, Lt. Col. Bob Kay, will likely be called upon again to fly and fight in order to protect our nation's freedoms. The kids and I are the veterans on the home front.
Some have called military families the "hidden heroes at home," but most of us would not accept such a distinction. After all, we don't wear the uniform, we haven't sworn to offer our life's blood to defend our nation, and we don't eat MRE rations in some faraway place. We merely support those who do.
And yet if Bob knows that when he returns from his mission he will have a loving family waiting for him, he is better equipped to perform at the height of his capabilities. When he believes that his family will have people in the community who will assist them through the uncertain weeks and months ahead, he rests a little better when he contemplates the stars in a darkened sky half a world away. And in many ways, these families, as well as their communities, have contributed to our national defense, as have all the supportive families of other airmen, sailors, and soldiers.
I have always disliked the distinction "the little woman," who stays at home, wringing her hands, waiting for her husband to come back. Military spouses tend to be proactive, courageous, and every now and then a little goofy (in a patriotic kind of way). There are plenty of things we can do ahead of time to prepare effectively for those long and short separations. While we can't be sure the kids won't get sick or the washer won't break down, we can do some preventative maintenance in order to help things run smoothly while our heart anxiously awaits the return of our loved one.
There are some basic things military families can do to be more prepared for the various aspects this lifestyle presents. While some of the things listed here seem pretty basic, others, such as relationship issues, are not as evident. And yet these other aspects of our lives have a great impact on how we are able to cope with the moves, the separations, and the financial constraints. Later in the book there will be dozens of specific helps for the areas we're discussing in this chapter. But for now here's a general overview of your adventure as a military family.
Network of Military Support
Plug into your unit's individual family readiness group; if not actively, then at least in a casual way. You don't have to head a fund-raiser committee or be the driving force in this group, but attend a few coffees or activities. You will need this group when your spouse deploys—for information disbursement as well as support.
Network of Non-Military Support
When families live on base/post, their children attend the base school, and they go to the base chapel. They can easily become "base cadets." We need to broaden our scope of influence and our children's through developing relationships with non-military friends. We need a break from military-speak, and these friends can provide that bit of touch with reality. Consider joining groups off base/post or go to a civilian church to make sure you have friends who will keep you balanced.
If your spouse is going to deploy (it could be for a month that turns into a year), you will need to check with your installation's legal department and get your wills in order and a power of attorney. Make sure that your name is on your checking and savings accounts and that your name is also on the title to your vehicles and your home. These simple precautions can save you major financial and legal problems.
If you don't have a budget, look at one of the chapters in section 5 of this book to see how you can get one set up for your family, and then get on a budget right away! Be sure you know about the finances in your home and that you have the power of attorney to handle all the financial decisions that could arise when your spouse is deployed. You might also want to budget for "Fun Funds" to be used when your spouse deploys. This would cover those binges such as extra eating out, going to the movies or a theme park, or even buying a new outfit. If these are funded, they won't be a liability to your budget.
Learn It, Don't Burn It!
I've heard of more than one person who burned up a car engine because they didn't change the oil! During sustained deployments, your local Family Support Center equivalent often has programs to help you maintain your vehicle. In the meantime, learn the basics of car maintenance (or where and when to take it to have this service done) and home maintenance. You are quite capable of simple home repairs if you decide you're going to learn how to do it. The key is to learn to be flexible.
For example, when we were stationed in northern New York, I took a snowblower class in early September. Later in the month Bob went TDY to Florida, and we had our first snowstorm—but I was prepared. I simply took our handy-dandy John Deere snowblower and cleared our driveway. Then my neighbor Joy asked me to clear hers—so I did. By the time I was finished with her driveway, Elke, my neighbor across the street, was yelling over the wind, asking me to do her driveway. By the time I finally shook the snow off my boots and went inside in time to get the kids ready for school, my husband's operations officer called and asked in an "I'll help the little woman out" way: "Would you like me to come over and snowblow your driveway?"
I squared my shoulders, smiled sweetly, and held the phone firmly in my hand as I replied, "No, thanks, I've already cleared our driveway—and two more!"
It's pretty cool to be equipped to blow your own snow (or do other routine maintenance chores). But you have to prepare before the storms come.
Have a plan for some rest and relaxation before your spouse deploys. Interview baby-sitters, find a reliable friend you can swap kids with, look over the course schedules offered by the local community college or civic center, join a choir or an aerobics class. But it's critically important to have scheduled play times for YOU while your spouse is away. If it's not immoral or illegal, build it into your schedule. This will keep you from frantically scrambling at the last minute, when you're at your wit's end, looking for someone to watch the kids or trying to find a break that is yours alone to enjoy.
If you or your spouse has "unfinished business" with each other or with extended family members, peace time is THE time to get these issues worked out. It may be hard and may even require the assistance of a counselor or base/post chaplain, but it is vitally important that you make every effort to mend these fences. If you've at least tried, you can have a clear conscience that you have done your part. Encourage your spouse to do the same with his/her extended family members.
Don't Burn Bridges
Remember the classic saying "What goes around comes around"? Well, it's true! Bob found himself to be outranked by guys that he once hazed as a sophomore at the Air Force Academy. Boy, did HE ever regret acting like a jerk back then! Conversely, one of the cadets that used to work for Bob, and who kind of had a few run-ins with him over parking tickets, found himself face-to-face with his old Air Officer Commander when the young pilot graduated from pilot training and went to fighter lead-in school. As a matter of fact, this pilot was in centrifuge training, out of state, when his young wife went into labor three weeks early! They had no one else to call to coach her in childbirth, so they asked me to go to the hospital. The pilot made it back just after his son's birth, and was he surprised to see who helped deliver the baby!
The truth is no matter what walk of life you're in, you never know when the tables might be turned, and a past acquaintance is in a position to either help you or hurt you. So it's a good idea when you run into "difficult" people to just walk away—don't get even. You might end up living near them at some point, or worse, your son might marry their daughter!
1. Sense of humor
An ability to laugh at oneself and with each other.
What it's called when you create an elaborate candlelight dinner and farm out the kids for the night, and your husband calls to say he's not coming home because they have an inspection coming up.
The ability to wave good-bye for the two-hundredth time, fight back the tears, smile, and say, "You come home safely; I'm proud of you!"
An ability to move fifteen thousand pounds of household goods in twenty-four hours.
Nerves of steel (for all those close calls and near misses).
Unashamed to shed a tear during the presentation of the colors or the singing of the national anthem.
Brimming over with faith in God and true to your country.
Confident during solo parenting gigs, but ready to move to interdependence when the spouse comes back home.
9. Acronym Reader
The ability to decode three-letter acronyms (TDY, PCS, UOD, MRE, OIC, SOF, BDU, SOL, etc.).
The capability to conquer new lands, stay in touch with old friends, keep the home fires burning, jump buildings in a single bound, and stay out of the funny farm.
Heroes at Home: Help and Hope for America's Military's Families by Ellie Kay
Copyright © 2002, Ellie Kay
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.