This is a series in which you help me learn about America.
Cat, 27, is an army wife and bookkeeper whose husband is currently stationed in Afghanistan. Since they married in 2009, Cat and her husband have lived in Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina, where they’re currently based. I was so excited to learn about her life, and I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did!
Your husband is currently stationed in southern Afghanistan. What’s that like?
I could list every emotion a human could feel! The short answer: Sucky.
Long answer: Deployments are weird situations. The person you love is fighting a war halfway across the world and you have to go through your days as though you’ve got it all under control—and fake it when you don’t.
You learn quickly not to watch the news because they’re either behind or have incorrect information. Your cell phone is glued to your hand at all times. You live for the tiny *ping* of whatever instant message service you’ve agreed to use.
I could even say there are times when I’m happy because seeing my husband’s face on GChat is AWESOME! Nothing makes my day more than a two minute video “chat”—the connection isn’t good enough to have sound, so we just see each other’s picture and type.
My strategy for dealing with deployment is to keep as busy as possible with things that make me happy: playing with my pets (two Great Danes, an African Grey parrot), CrossFit, volunteering, and reading. The busier you are, the faster the time goes by! It’s true!
Redeployment (what we call coming home) is great!! The planning, shopping for a new outfit, coordinating with family. It’s awesome. It just takes nine months to get there! (His deployments have gotten shorter. The first was to Iraq for 15 months.)
Is it hard to get used to your husband being around again when he returns home?
It’s a little hard at first. Units hold workshops on “Reintegration” to help families readjust to having their partners home. You’ve both changed in the time he’s been away and it takes a little while to get used to having someone back in your house after you’ve been alone for a while! It’s kind of fun though. Think about getting to experience living with someone for the first time again!
How often are you able to communicate with your husband when he’s overseas?
Now, I “talk” (Gchat) to him for a few minutes a couple times a week. It’s very unpredictable. They have communication blackouts when soldiers are injured or killed (to avoid a family finding out prematurely) and there’s his actual job on top of all that! I’m pretty sure the last time we had a phone conversation was in March.
Who do you lean on when times get tough?
I have some good friends who are also Army spouses. I have friends who aren’t Army spouses who just like to chat. My family. Pretty much the same support groups a civilian would utilize if they needed someone to lean on. If things ever got really bad, there are a ton of government-sponsored programs for spouses and soldiers.
Do civilian friends “get it”?
For the most part, they don’t, but I don’t expect them to. It’s a crazy lifestyle that most people would not opt into, and if they haven’t had experience with military families, there’s no way they could understand.
What sorts of things are most difficult for civilians to understand?
We don’t have access to our soldiers like you would if your husband was on a business trip. If you ask me whether I’ve talked to him and I say no, the answer is probably go to be the same when you ask me the next day!
As a kid, did you ever think you’d be an army wife when you grew up?
Nope! I don’t think it was ever even a possibility! I grew up near Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, so the military was always there, but not to the extent that it is in other Army towns. I never knew anyone who was a soldier. It just so happens that my husband decided to join between the time we graduated high school and when we crossed paths again five years later. I was never opposed to the idea, but I just never saw a situation where that would be the case.
What’s surprised you about being an army wife?
The support from other military wives. It’s like a built-in network of friends!
You’ve lived in three different states since 2009. What’s that been like?
FUN! So fun! I never thought I would move out of New Jersey. We have been very fortunate to live in some great places: Fort Stewart right outside of Savannah, Fort Huachuca in Southern Arizona, and now Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Each place has been such a different experience from the last and it’s wonderful to be able to take a little bit of each place with you as you move on. Even now after only being in North Carolina for a year, I’m itching to move again! It’s so fun getting to decorate a new place with your stuff, finding new places to explore, eating at new restaurants, and starting over from scratch!
I find it harder to make friends as I get older, so I’m interested in how you do this!
I’m not going to lie, making friends is HARD!! Fort Bragg is huge and I’m involved in lots of things, but it’s very hard to find people with similar interests! I try to attend all the events I’m invited to, and, most of all, try to meet as many people as possible!
I used to be shy when it came to introducing myself, but now it’s second nature. You’ll never make friends if you don’t walk up, say hello, and extend a handshake!
You mentioned that you’ve had to deal with protestors. Can you tell me about what happened?
That was in 2007-2008 when I had moved back to New Jersey during my husband’s (then boyfriend) 15-month deployment. I used to have a sticker on my car to represent his unit and they shouted things at me as I passed. I don’t remember what the protestors shouted, but I remember them having anti-war/anti- soldier signs.
What went through your mind?
Back then I was hurt. I felt like my soldier was overseas fighting for their right to say what they wanted and they were using that freedom to bash him. I would have never actually said anything, because at the end of the day, they do have their freedom of speech and freedom is one of the things we’re fighting for.
I don’t get upset with protesters now. Sure, it’s one thing to protest the war and another to protest the soldiers, but it’s America and people can say what they want. I don’t agree with their stance on the issues and I hope I never encounter the most radical protesters, but everyone is allowed to voice how they feel. (That’s not to say I wouldn’t tell them all about my life if I got the chance to talk to one in person!)
What would you say to them now if you got the chance to talk to them in person?
Don’t judge people. If you feel that strongly about something, create real change. Standing on the corner, shouting at passersby probably isn’t going to accomplish much. I’d also invite them to have a little pow-wow with my fellow spouses. We’ll tell them what it’s really like.
I just realized I made some possibly sexist assumptions about life on army base. (Eeks!) I’ve imagined that most of the people living there are women whose husbands are overseas. Is that close to true?
I don’t currently live on-post. We own a home in a nearby town because the waitlist for on-post housing was about a year long!! I did live on post in Georgia, though, and that’s not really the case anymore. Of course, you have your deployed families, but many units are still at home, too. You also have a lot more women serving now, so there may be quite a few stay-at home husbands!
Also, it seems really hard to have a job if you have to move all the time. What do most of the spouses do?
It is VERY hard to find a job when you move so much, hence the reason I’m a bookkeeper with a degree in Journalism—two complete opposites! You’ll find a lot of military spouses in fields like teaching and nursing, though there are so many that it’s becoming hard to find those jobs around posts too. At-home businesses (Tastefully Simple, Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, etc.) are extremely popular as well!! A lot of spouses are stay-at-home moms/dads, which is definitely a full-time position too!
What is your day like? I have never been on an army base and I’m trying to figure out if it’s like a college campus. Do you all live within walking distance of each other?
My experience living on-post at Fort Stewart was AWESOME! I had the best neighbors, there was always someone home if you needed to chat, we hung out on our porches together all the time so yes, in that way, it’s a little like college. Our houses at Stewart were duplexes in very small neighborhoods, and you could pretty much walk wherever you wanted.
If you were to live on-post at Bragg though, I’m not sure you’d be walking to houses outside your immediate neighborhood—this post is huge!! My days now are just like anyone else’s: get up, feed the pets, go to work, do all the errands/volunteer commitments I have to get done, eat some dinner, go to the gym, sleep!
Are there any coastal liberals? Or are there people whose spouses are overseas who don’t support the war. That seems really difficult.
We don’t really discuss politics too much and I’m sure there are some spouses who don’t support the war, but they more than likely aren’t living here. I’ve never met a spouse who didn’t support her husband because if they don’t support them, they aren’t going to get involved!
You’re a Family Readiness Group Leader, meaning that you take care of family members when soldiers are deployed. Can you tell me about that?
I could talk about Family Readiness Groups all day long! It is, by far, my favorite part of Army Life. FRG’s are here to provide information and support to families whether their husbands are home or down range (deployed). It’s a 24/7 commitment.
We hold seminars, provide information daily to families, push out official information both good (like a new summer camp being offered to families) and bad (for example, an official message from the Commander detailing a casualty). We also prepare families for deployment, and help them get through hard times to the best of their ability. Every FRG is different and some people see it as a gossip group but, for the most part, it’s not.
I work very hard to ensure our families are cared for and that they have someone to come to if they need help. We have books with contact information for every support program offered and if we don’t have the information on hand, we can surely put you in touch with someone who can. We also hold fun events, such as our Spring Fling, a big party with a bounce house, potluck, and pictures with the Easter bunny, because it’s important for families to get to know other families in their Unit and make new friends!
You’re also part of the team that helps out immediately after a spouse is notified if his or her soldier was Killed In Action. That seems like one of the toughest jobs. How did you learn to do this?
When you volunteer to be on a Care Team, you go through training classes to review everything that’s needed in a situation—someone to go in the home, someone to make meals, someone to act as transportation for family, etc. and then you choose your involvement based on your level of comfort with emotional situations.
For example, I can easily separate myself from other people’s emotions, so I chose to be one of the people who goes into the homes. We run scenarios, we do worksheets, take all the training provided to be best prepared to handle the situation. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any way to learn to do something like this. Every situation will be different and you just have to take what you know and adapt.
What’s that like?
Thankfully, I don’t know. While we’ve had several casualties in our unit this deployment, we have not had any directly in my husband’s company. Hopefully, we can make it through the next months with no other care teams needed!
Is there any advice you give to young wives or young army wives?
Stay positive! Stay busy! Make the best of any situation! And don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it! There is nothing I hate to see more than a wife who hates the military, hates that they move so much, hates that there’s gossip, hates that her husband isn’t home… Military life is what you make it.
My husband has been gone a LOT between our moving here and deployment, due to training, work hours, and classes at other posts. If he was home a combined four months between May 2011 and January 2012, I’d be surprised.
It stinks and it’s awful, but if you go into something with a bad attitude, you’ll never be happy. Get involved, volunteer, get a job if volunteering isn’t your thing, but do something. It’s hard to have your own life when you aren’t in control of most of it, but control your attitude and what you make of each situation. Everyone you will meet at FRG meetings or Spouses’ Clubs has either gone through, or is going through, exactly what you’re going through right now.
Are there any questions that people ask and don’t realize they’re being insensitive? (I’ve probably done that, and would love to know!)
I don’t think it’s really insensitive, per se, but it’s an automatic response for people to say, “I’m Sorry” when you tell them your husband is deployed. Don’t be sorry for me! I chose this life and my husband has a steady job with health benefits and good pay!
And what’s the question you appreciate being asked, in case I ever meet an army wife in person?
I wouldn’t really ask anything, just offer a simple thank you!