Op-tempo from hell
Military families struggle with the greatest homefront challenge of the war.
On a girls’ night out near Fort Bragg, N.C., Rebekah Sanderlin and her friends went around their circle and talked about which antidepressant each of them was taking. These military wives shared exhaustion, isolation and anxiety. They were mothers struggling to raise small children largely on their own because their husbands were deployed over and over again. They believed no end was in sight.
“My husband’s been gone about 60 of the last 80 months,” says Sanderlin, a journalist, Army wife and mother of two. “After so many years of war, I think people feel like, ‘OK, you have this down.’ Instead, we are worn down.”
Military families across the country echo this fatigue and frustration in national surveys as nine years of repeated combat deployments exact a significant personal toll. They believe few Americans understand or appreciate their sacrifices. They are determined to remain resilient, yet worry they cannot maintain the current pace of deployments – op-tempo, in military lingo. Additional military family programs, congressional proclamations, lapel pins and yellow-ribbon magnets won’t touch the problem, they say. Deployments have to be shorter, less frequent or both. The troops have to spend more time at home.
“The strain on military families is immense,” says Christina Piper, a veteran, soldier’s wife, mother and co-founder of the blog “Her War, Her Voice.” “The constant deployments, the constant separation, the constant worry of injury and death are taking a toll,” says Piper, whose family is stationed in California. “We’ve been in nine years of anticipatory grief. You don’t fault spouses of cancer patients for needing help, and military families are in the same situation.”
As the faltering economy diverts attention from the two-front war now being fought by our nation’s all-volunteer force, military families are in crisis, Sanderlin says. “Everybody’s hitting the wall. As a nation, I think we’re going to see that families’ needs cannot go unaddressed any longer.” Otherwise, “I think you are going to see an increase in child abuse – when young spouses with no coping skills are left behind for the third time – an increase in divorce, an increase in suicides.”
The Hidden Cost of War. Military families already are in trouble. Wives of deployed soldiers have far higher rates of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and other problems than other military spouses, says research epidemiologist Alyssa Mansfield, whose groundbreaking study of more than 250,000 Army wives was published in the New England Journal of Medicine last January.
“This is very different for families than earlier wars,” says Mansfield, who works for the Behavioral Health Epidemiology Program at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C. “Soldiers are deployed multiple times for lengthy periods. This is insurgent warfare, so anybody (not just combat troops) traveling the roads in Iraq or Afghanistan is in danger.”
E-mail, Skype and cell-phone communication between soldiers and families can suddenly cease for several days any time someone in a unit is killed. Spouses at home are left to wait in silence, wondering who is now widowed.
“It’s so stressful and intense and dark when they miss one of our communications,” Piper says. “(Even when there isn’t a communications blackout), we have a lot more information about how our husbands might get injured or killed.”
Help isn’t always easy to come by. The military’s mental-health system is strained caring for returning soldiers. “Spouses are often told to see a professional off base, and they may just say, ‘Forget it,’” says Mansfield, who analyzed the medical records of families of soldiers who were deployed at any time between 2003 and 2006. She cautions that her findings understate the magnitude of the problem, because she only studied Army wives and the health-care system doesn’t openly identify everyone who is struggling. Also, there’s relatively little medical information available about the well-being of National Guard and reserve families, who may lack the support of a close-knit military community and live too far from bases to use their family programs.
“We have no idea of the real mental-health cost,” Mansfield says. “I’m sure there are tens of thousands of other families who are struggling. The problem is bigger than what a prescription would fix.”
The Army says it’s addressed the problem in part by increasing child-care services available on base. “Household responsibilities, along with complete responsibility for the physical and emotional needs of their children, can challenge the coping skills of the most resilient spouse,” says Rene J. Robichaux, social-work programs manager for the U.S. Army Medical Command.
Family members can access, either in person or via the Internet, a variety of support services through Army Community Services at each military installation, she adds. And the Army plans to increase the span of time between deployments, a move overwhelmed spouses have long urged. Yet, Army officials haven’t given a date for the change or an estimate of how much time soldiers will have at home between deployments.
Married to the Military. Just about everything is stacked against young military couples. Their first post is likely their first experience living away from home, Sanderlin says. If a soldier marries his high-school sweetheart, he probably went back home to get her after basic training and dropped her off at his military base.
“She’s probably pregnant and they are living on a private’s salary,” Sanderlin adds. “You talk to anybody who’s been a team leader or a platoon leader and they will tell you about a young guy who leaves his wife with no food, no money and goes off to training – not because he’s mean, but because he’s 19.”
When Sanderlin married in March 2003, she had a college degree, had worked as a journalist for several years, and had lived on her own in a few different cities. She was 28 when she had her first child. Even with those advantages, “it’s been very difficult,” Sanderlin says.
She moved to Fayetteville, N.C., two days after her wedding. Her husband deployed two weeks later. She left her job and her professional identity just before her son was born, and was ambushed by postpartum depression. “I was overwhelmed.
I was miserable. I couldn’t figure out why – I had this happy, healthy baby.”
Once her husband returned and the couple settled into a routine, he told her she wasn’t herself. She sought help. “Leaving work was a big transition, having him deployed was a big transition, having a baby was a big transition,” she says. “And it all hit at once.”
Eighteen months after she left her reporting job at The Fayetteville Observer, the newspaper invited Sanderlin to write a blog. That blog, Operation Marriage, helped her shake the depression and sustain herself during deployments. “There have been times with the other deployments that the blog was my main source of adult interaction,” Sanderlin says. “My heart goes out to other spouses who don’t have that.”
More often, depression goes unnoticed. “Your closest connection is thousands of miles away in a war zone,” she says.
The demands of young children further isolate the spouses. And if a young couple moves every two years, as is common, it’s difficult to get to know anyone in the local community. Even when military spouses have close friends, they are reluctant to complain. Quite often, the other friend is also a military spouse who is also enduring a deployment.
Meanwhile, they are overwhelmed with worry. “The fear is really, really bad,” Sanderlin says. “Speaking for myself and my friends, we get a sense of dread when an unfamiliar car drives down the street because you think someone is coming to tell you bad news.”
There is a barrage of other stresses. In their first few years of marriage, Sanderlin’s husband was deployed right before and after the deaths of her grandmother, aunt and grandfather. Then, in a two-week stretch in 2008, Sanderlin found out that she was pregnant, her husband was being deployed again, her father had six months to live, and she had a potentially cancerous spot in her mouth that could not be biopsied because of her pregnancy. Although the spot turned out to be benign, “I lived with that worry for a year,” she says.
Readjustment Blues. Military spouses have a three-word shorthand for the unending deployment cycle: wait, honeymoon, suck. Wait for their soldier to come home, enjoy a brief honeymoon, and then things “suck” as a couple tries to re-connect and re-establish a two-parent household.
“If he’s gone a year, it takes a year for us to adjust to him,” Sanderlin says. “There are lots of parenting things they miss. They miss big chunks of development time. They don’t know the rules that apply. It’s like having a houseguest who doesn’t know where anything is kept but is really pushy and insists on doing things.”
After nine years, this deployment cycle is excruciating. “There’s a lot of discussion among military spouses about what’s worse: deployment or re-integration,” Sanderlin says. “All of us would rather have our husbands home than not. The challenge is getting life back to normal. You never really hit your stride.”
And parenting is awkward, Piper adds. “He doesn’t know when to step in with the kids. You don’t know when to let him. By the time you get organized and back into being married, he’s gone again.”
Dread about the next deployment begins immediately. “You wonder, ‘Will he come home next time?’” Piper says. There are constant reminders of that next time. Piper says her family received the telephone call notifying her husband of his third deployment as they were returning from vacation soon after his second deployment. “We get to prepare for goodbye, before we’ve ever said hello.”
Although the Army has increased the time between deployments to a year, that doesn’t mean families get another 12 months to regain their footing. Soldiers spend substantial time attending schools and training for the next tour, and some draw temporary duty assignments away from their home bases. This means Piper has seen her husband about half the year he’s been back from Afghanistan.
“My husband gets four days off every 28 days,” Piper says. “So even when our soldiers are here, they are not here.”
The Army has tried to ease deployment demands since the surge in Iraq ended in August 2008, but it’s a significant challenge. “Stretched by commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Army spokesman Wayne V. Hall says, “Army leaders continue to struggle to give soldiers more time at home with their families (and) away from the war zone.”
“You Signed Up For This.” The civilian-military divide is exacerbated by mythology and misinformation, Sanderlin says. “I would love to debunk the ‘you-signed-up-for-this’ mentality. It seems like there is an element of the population who doesn’t see it as a sacrifice so much as a bad career choice. That hurts.
“I don’t think the general public understands what life is like day to day for members of the military and their families. There are families who are on their sixth or seventh deployment. And when our husbands are gone, we feel like we are deployed with them.”
Amid the recession, military families also hear grumbling from civilians who envy their jobs and health-care plans, and who mistakenly believe that soldiers earn handsome wages and overtime pay. “All of that misinformation causes a lack of sympathy, and that lack of sympathy is hard,” Sanderlin says. “Army wives aren’t killing themselves because life is good.”
Gestures of moral support often do little to ease the burden. When a magnet appears on the back of a car declaring “I support the troops,” Piper says, “The first question I want to ask is how? And where did that five bucks (for the magnet) go? Where was that magnet made?”
She says it meant far more to her to walk out her front door near Fort Campbell, Ky., during one of her husband’s deployments and find that someone mowed her lawn, and for someone to tell her daughter, “Hey, you are a great kid. I hope your dad comes home soon.”
Program Overload. Families credit the military for expanding child-care services and for creating a corps of counselors who see families in the privacy of their homes. Called Military Family Life Consultants, the counselors don’t take notes and don’t report up the chain of command. Thirty-five were sent to Fort Hood for three months in the aftermath of last November’s shootings.
Yet, more programs will not alleviate the stress military families feel. “These are some wonderful programs,” says Mansfield, the epidemiologist who studied Army wives. “But there are still significant problems in these families. Something else needs to be done.”
Military spouses agree.
“Believe me, the military is doing as much as it can,” Piper says. “But we don’t have time for the programs. With the op-tempo and the stress the families are under, there’s hardly time to go to the bathroom, much less find a baby sitter so we can go to counseling.”
Military-family support services simply will not catch up until the wars have been over for a while, Sanderlin predicts. “There’s not enough people, energy and money to address all of the needs.
I don’t know one military spouse who would want to have one dollar diverted from soldiers, from training, from treating PTSD.”
The most effective solution – dialing back the op-tempo – will not only help families but will strengthen the fighting force, they say. “If the family is having problems, the soldier is going to know about it,” Piper says. “I don’t want the soldier fighting next to my husband distracted by his family.”
Sanderlin says trimming long Army deployments is a good starting point.
“I personally think if we’re going to make it sustainable for the next 10 years, we’re going to have to have shorter deployments,” Sanderlin says. Other branches of the military already use shorter deployments. The Marine Corps primarily has seven-month tours. The Air Force deploys its people for four to six months.
Sanderlin sees two other options: expand the fighting force so more soldiers share the load, and reduce the number of deployments any one individual faces. Or take a page from oil companies, which built living compounds in the Middle East to allow U.S. families to live near spouses working in oil fields.
“I could move to India or Pakistan, and he could come home every two weeks or every month,” Sanderlin says.
Until there are significant changes, families like Piper’s, Sanderlin’s and tens of thousands of others have no choice but to endure.
“Every time he leaves,” Sanderlin says, “I never expect to see him again.”
‘A lot for a country to ask’
Far from the active-duty community, Guard and reserve families feel isolated.
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.”
Surprise Mobilization. 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.”
Fractured Homefront. 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 extrasupportive 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.”
Reconnecting, Redeploying. 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.”
From Blue Star to Gold
For military spouses and families, death changes everything.
Shellie Smith buried her husband near Clayton, N.C. Army 1st Lt. Justin Smith could have been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, but he always said sweet tea and Southern food were the best. “So I buried him in the South, near me and the boys,” says Shellie, whose husband was killed by a suicide car bomber in Iraq. “I like it where I can go have a picnic with him if I want to.”
That’s where the poetry ends for Shellie, one of thousands of women who have heard the knock on the door that plunged them into the world of widowhood, single parenting, the military bureaucracy they feel neither wants them nor knows how to deal with them, and a nation that too quickly forgets the surviving families. They find solace in each other, but old friendships fracture and fade.
“You realize this is as good as it gets,” Shellie says. “I almost think that’s the hardest.”
Shellie got word of her husband’s death the night of her oldest son’s birthday. She was exhausted, sleeping on the living-room couch after putting her youngest son, then an infant, down for the night. Unable to rouse her, the military detail went to the apartment next door and woke Shellie’s grandmother, who was a week past heart surgery. Her grandmother made the men wait while she called the lieutenant’s parents. And then they were back, “bamming at my door,” Shellie says.
She peeked out the window, saw a man in a military-style coat and said, “No way.” She checked his car to see if it had government license plates. She looked back at her porch and saw a second man with a Bible in his hand. She tried to remain calm. She opened the door, made eye contact, and asked for a minute. She called her parents twice, angry that they didn’t answer. She reached her aunt, who said, “I’m on my way.” She went back to the living room, suddenly aware of her mismatched T-shirt and pants, and covered herself with a blanket.
These are things you remember.
“How?” she asked, flatly.
“We think an IED.”
“Are you sure?”
Shellie held herself together until her aunt fetched her infant son and placed him in her lap. Seeing Justin’s features in his face brought tears.
“I was apologizing to them for crying,” Shellie says.
Her father arrived, also in tears, and asked, “Are you sure it’s the right Justin?”
The military detail left them brochures about grief.
Still in shock, Shellie sent 8-year-old Spensir to school the next morning without telling him. Her son from a previous marriage, Spensir considered Justin his father. He came home to a living room full of people and thought his mother had organized a surprise party for him. He went to the kitchen, surveyed his birthday cards, then looked at his mother and said, “My daddy’s dead, isn’t he? I told you he wouldn’t come back.”
“That was the worst,” Shellie says. “Telling my child.”
“A Feeling.” Shellie is surprised she even met Justin. She didn’t go to dance clubs, yet found herself at the High Five in downtown Raleigh, N.C., with a friend one night in August 2003, where she saw a tall, handsome man working magic on the dance floor. She couldn’t help but join him. “I’m a white Baptist girl,” she says, laughing. “We don’t dance. Our hips don’t move that way.”
By the end of the evening, Shellie had given Justin her telephone number – also out of character for her. “I had a feeling,” she says.
After Justin died, she ran into a man who had been with him at the club. “He said, ‘Are you that girl Justin met at the High Five that night?’ We all told him he was crazy. And he told us, ‘I have a feeling about that woman.’”
Headstrong and charming, Justin was earning his bachelor’s degree, and he owed the Army another eight years after he graduated. Shellie decided the military life was worth it. He returned to active duty a few months after they married, and in October 2004, Ayden was born. Justin carried his son’s picture to the war zone the following spring and showed it to everyone. “He would walk up to the regimental commander and say, ‘Colonel, do you want to see something to make you smile?’ And he would show him Ayden’s picture,” Shellie says.
Three weeks before he was supposed to come home on R&R, Justin and his men were running a checkpoint on the outskirts of Baghdad. They stopped a car. Justin approached it, glanced inside and started to back away. The car exploded, killing Justin, his Iraqi interpreter and three other soldiers.
“He was 225 pounds, muscular, 6-foot tall,” Shellie says. “I can see him in full battle rattle, out there sweating in the heat, and the next thing he knows he’s standing in heaven saying, ‘Whoa, dude.’”
The Scarlet W. Fallen soldiers’ wives find their identities abruptly changed. They are no longer Ann, Casey or Shellie. Or Dan’s, Joshua’s or Justin’s wife. They are widows.
“There was this feeling that my only identity was being a widow,” says Ann Scheibner, whose husband was killed during his last combat mission in Iraq. “I couldn’t run into anybody where that isn’t what it was about.”
Casey Rodgers’ journey into this upside-down world began at her husband’s funeral when a well-wisher gave her a book about being a widow. “Why would you give somebody something with ‘widow’ on it at a funeral?” Casey says, pacing the living-room floor of her home near Sanford, N.C., where a high‑ceilinged wall is covered with photos of her late husband and their family. “Treat me like you would if I was still Casey Rodgers with my husband.”
Joshua Rodgers died when the helicopter he was piloting was shot down in Afghanistan in May 2007. After the funeral, Casey quit receiving invitations from her social circle. She was dropped from friends’ e-mail chains. People became uncomfortable when she mentioned her late husband’s name. “You can’t be a widow in front of other people,” she says.
She was surprised to find her presence threatening to some married women. She quit wearing high heels to church. She learned to speak to the woman first when approached by a couple. The cheap suspicion is insulting. “Don’t assume I want your husband just because I don’t have one,” she says. “Get to know me like you would get to know somebody else.”
Casey finds even her relationship with the military awkward and strained, a surprising discovery she made when she went to greet her late husband’s unit after its return from Afghanistan in early 2008. “I knew it was important to them to know I was still standing, because if families were destroyed by it, how were they going to be able to go back over there and do their job?” Casey says. Commanders avoided her and sent “a poor old captain over to ask how I was doing. Even the Army doesn’t know how to deal with widows.”
She avoids telling strangers she’s a widow. “Everything stops, everything changes, when they find out,” Casey says. “Half the time, they just up and walk away. If they think it’s hard for them, what do they think it’s like for me?”
This is called the “Scarlet W” in military circles, says journalist and Army wife Rebekah Sanderlin. “One of my friends tells me if she goes somewhere there’s not a military base and tells somebody her husband was killed in Iraq, she’s kind of a freak show,” Sanderlin says.
Some military spouses are uncomfortable around widows. “They think it’s some sort of jinx,” Sanderlin says. “A lot of wives will not watch the news. If you’re in the ignorance-is-bliss group and you’re sitting across from a widow, you can’t really deny it. I don’t think they want to shun the widows, it’s just the discomfort.”
Families of the Fallen. People who work with families of fallen soldiers say this awkwardness and alienation is common not only for widows but also for the parents and siblings of those killed in war.
“There is this initial crush where the family is often deluged with gifts of food and flowers,” says Ami Neiberger-Miller, public-relations officer for the Transition Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). “The funeral happens, and all of that goes away. People think, maybe we shouldn’t invite this widow or that family to our Christmas party because they’re still sad.”
She still hasn’t reconnected with the longtime friends she was vacationing with in 2007 when she learned her brother Chris – a soldier on his first deployment – had been killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
People are also uncomfortable when widows and other survivors talk about the loved ones they’ve lost. “Unfortunately, society interprets us wanting to talk about our loved ones as, ‘we haven’t moved on,’ ‘we’re grieving too much,’ ‘we’ve been grieving too long’ or ‘we’re grieving in the wrong way,’” Neiberger-Miller says. “They tell us we need to see a doctor.”
Survivors, however, “don’t think grief is a mental illness. We think grief is the price you pay for losing someone.”
Families report mixed experiences with their casualty-assistance officers, and the military in general, in the wake of a loved one’s death. Part of the issue is the grueling process of doing all the military requires to make sure a servicemember’s remains are properly laid to rest and benefits started.
“The widow is suddenly put in a position to make a lot of decisions that are pretty jarring at a point where she is least equipped to deal with them,” says Neiberger-Miller, who contacted TAPS as she tried to deal with her brother’s death and later went to work for the nonprofit survivor-advocacy group.
As for the reception widows receive from their husband’s military unit, “it depends upon the training and support they have. I’ve seen commanders do a great job at reaching out.”
One came to Arlington National Cemetery over Memorial Day to talk to a widow while Neiberger-Miller was there. Other units are less comfortable, and may not know how to react.
“I think the leadership sets the tone,” she says.
Through all of this, it’s important to consider how circumstances may be different for military families. “Their loved one often died in a violent way. As a result, our families are all traumatic survivors.”
Single Parenting. Handpainted silver letters on the front door of Shellie Smith’s home say: “Family, Friends, Faith, Freedom.”
Anger, bitterness, loneliness and incomprehension have also lived at this address. “I’ve been pretty pissed off about it,” Shellie says. “The fact that his life was cut short makes me angry. The fact that his little boys don’t have a dad makes me mad.”
She must also help her children understand their loss. Her youngest son would say, “‘Let me just see him.’ And I said, ‘He’s in heaven.’ And Ayden would say, ‘So why can’t I go to heaven and see him?’”
Ayden is now beginning to understand that his daddy is gone. Shellie worries about him starting school this fall with students whose fathers are there for soccer games and class performances. “I’m trying to explain what death means,” Shellie says. “And why it’s final.”
Then there is the daunting task of raising children without a father. Spensir told Shellie he won’t know how to use the grill because he doesn’t have a daddy. And she doesn’t have anyone to help her shoulder the load. “My little one was sick a lot with ear infections,” Shellie says of her single-parenting struggles. “And it would be helpful to have a husband when you are puking.”
Well-meaning people push her to start a new relationship, offering the pat advice that widows loathe: “You’ll find somebody else.” Or, “It’s been four years – it’s time for you to move on. You’re still young – you’ll meet someone else. There’s still time for you to have more kids.”
“Their heart’s in the right place, but their mouth isn’t,” Shellie says. “Right now, people are asking why I’m not dating. I tell them, ‘The line of men looking for widows with two boys is empty.’ In reality, I have no energy for that.”
Shellie and her widow friends have dissected the difficulties of dating. “Let’s say the new guy comes along,” Shellie says. “First he has to love me. Then he has to love children that aren’t his. Then he has to deal with the fact that I still love my husband. And he will have to deal with the fact that my husband was a hero.”
Instead, she is moving to a house across the road from her parents and grandparents so her father can teach the boys to hunt and fish, and “they can explore and rip and run, like boys love to do.”
A Son’s Journey. Ann Scheibner didn’t have a chance to tell her 12-year-old son about his father’s death. Tyler answered the door when the military detail came with the news. Dan was killed on his last combat mission, a patrol he volunteered to join to help the new platoon sergeant learn the dangerous terrain his unit patrolled in Iraq.
“With such an awful thing, my son came over and put his arms around me, and said, ‘We’re going to be OK, Mom,’” Ann says. “He was already taking on that role when his dad deployed.”
Ann had spoken to Dan that morning. He was done with combat missions. He was excited about his transfer to a less dangerous job at headquarters after his unit took heavy casualties. At the last minute, however, he took an Iraqi interpreter’s seat in the back of a Hummer and was the only one killed by a roadside bomb that exploded as the patrol returned to base.
For Ann, the first week after her husband’s death was particularly awful. Getting military IDs changed, signing paperwork, dealing with her casualty-assistance officer.
“There’s a lot of things that were so wrong and done so poorly,” says Ann, who had been helping the spouses of other soldiers in Dan’s unit deal with their husbands’ deaths just a month earlier. “A lot of times, I was telling my casualty-assistance officer things that needed to be done. In a lot of circumstances, I was trying to make him feel comfortable.”
She also worries about the way the door was slammed on her son’s grief. Tyler established a rapport with a child psychologist at Fort Lewis, Wash., and then arrived for an appointment one afternoon to find that the psychologist no longer worked there. The staff told Tyler he could start over with another counselor. He turned and told his mother they were leaving. “To this day, my son won’t talk to anybody” about his father’s death, Ann says.
“The kids are the ones who are forgotten,” Casey adds. “People say kids are resilient. Every day I worry about the girls. I have a widow friend whose 11-year-old is suicidal.”
Joshua was the kind of father who was out bouncing on the trampoline or splashing around a swimming pool with his daughters. His presence can’t be replaced. “He was just a big kid,” Casey says with a rare smile.
The Death Bureaucracy. If grief is not overwhelming enough, widows are awash in bureaucratic struggles from the moment they learn their spouse has been killed. Casey had to call for her senator’s help so she could accompany her husband’s body on a flight from Dover Air Force Base to his family’s home in Nevada after the military repeatedly rebuffed her request.
Ann said she had to fight for months to get the active-duty health-care benefits she was entitled to receive for three years after Dan’s death. She also learned she would only receive half of the military pension Dan could have drawn if he hadn’t gone to Iraq. That essential financial help is temporary. It expires when Tyler is 18 – or, if he goes to college, 21. Social Security stops when he is 16.
Most egregious, however, was Ann’s battle to have her husband cremated. Dan’s urn was engraved with the wrong date of death, and the government refused to change it because it matched his death certificate, which was also incorrect.
“It was terrible,” Ann says. “I was trying to go home to bury my husband. And it wasn’t my mistake. Every other piece of paper, every other award, his Purple Heart – all of them had a different date. If they had all been the same, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would have been understanding.”
Ann finally called TAPS. The group got the date on the urn changed, but her frustration from the ordeal lingers. “That’s what spouses, who are overwhelmed, are battling with the military,” Ann says. “Our soldiers and our families deserve more than that.”
The personal hurdles are just as daunting. Shellie floundered for three years after Justin died, in part because she lives an hour and a half north of Fort Bragg, N.C., and the nearest community of military widows. “I didn’t know anybody else like me,” she says.
That changed 18 months ago, when Shellie met Casey and another widow at an event for children of fallen soldiers. She’s discovered a bond like no other. “When another widow says she understands, I know she means that,” Shellie says. “Widows have credentials. They have gotten the same knock. They have cried the same tears.”
Widows share fears and feelings, and form a close-knit surrogate family that will drop everything to drive 100 miles at midnight to be with another widow whose child needs emergency surgery – as was the case when Shellie’s son was injured in an accident last spring.
Like widows, children are more comfortable around other children who have lost their parents, Shellie says. “I’ve heard my kids say to other kids, ‘Is your daddy in heaven? My daddy’s in heaven too.’”
Ann lost that connection after she moved back to Michigan two years ago so her son could be close to her late husband’s family. “I felt like it was the best place for him to be grounded,” she says. Still, it’s a struggle for her after having the support of military communities for 17 years. “Some of the loss is moving away from it all.”
That’s the dilemma facing Casey as she prepares to move her daughters back west. Last summer, she realized that Madison, Autumn and Ashlyn were happier in Nevada, when they visited Carson City, where she and Joshua became high-school sweethearts.
“I have a support system here,” Casey says, referring to her widow friends in the Fayetteville area. “But when my kids went home last summer, they just lit up.”
Now she’s preparing to make her way in a civilian community that has largely forgotten the wars.
Remember and Respect. That disconnect is especially harsh when it comes to a soldier’s death. A week after Justin died, Shellie went shopping for a dress to wear to his funeral. She overheard two men in a mall food court having a loud antiwar discussion. She ran out of patience, walked over, and pulled out Justin’s dog tags and wedding ring, which on a chain around her neck.
“I told them, ‘My husband gave his life seven days ago so you could sit in this food court and express your opinion as loudly as you want to and as freely as you want to, without thinking twice. I want you to remember why.”
Remember. Respect. At the heart of it all, that’s the widows’ simple request.
Shellie has since run into similar situations – strangers asking questions until they find out she is a military widow. Then they quiz her about her feelings on the war and the president.
“I tell them, ‘His death was personal. His death was not political,’” Shellie says. “Whether you believe in the war or not, whether you support it or not, it’s happening. The people involved in fighting the war are real, and the families are real. My children are without a daddy – and I live without a husband – so they can live and do and say whatever they want without any fear.”
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.
Amy C. Elliott is a photographer and documentary filmmaker from New York.