There is a cartoon that has been circulating for years in the military community that always get a laugh out of me. Not just because it is funny, but because there is a dark truth in it.
It shows a couple guys who are obviously supposed to represent Taliban fighters running and screaming; in the background is a line of figures in combat fatigues, but they look a little different than your average soldier. The caption reads “Aaaiiiii!!! Achmed, run! They’ve sent the Moms!
Ask any group of military wives and mothers, and you’ll get a resounding “Hell Yes!” to the question if they would go in place of their sons and husbands. That statement is generally followed by lots of creative ideas on how they could show those Taliban and Al Qaeda (insert expletives here) why it is good and right that they should fear women. This is not meant
as a statement about having women on the front lines, it is simply about the wrath of military mothers and wives.
These women are strong, as they’ve had to be to endure multiple deployments of their loved ones while holding down jobs, raising kids and caring for a home all while swallowing the fear that threatens to choke them on a daily basis. This is the life today’s military families expect. What they shouldn’t have to expect is the isolation too many feel. Most don’t live
on military bases, they live right here, in our communities, in our neighborhoods, on our block.
Politicians, while pandering for the military vote, talk about how an entire family serves when a soldier is deployed. These women are used to hearing that, and used to ignoring it as well, since it is more often than not a simple, lone statement intended as a good sound-byte that is rarely if ever followed up with conversation on how to better support these families.
What are harder to ignore are the day to day interactions of loved ones, neighbors, colleagues and even their children’s teachers who say and do the most incredibly insensitive things. The fact that most of the time no harm is meant, that people think they are being supportive actually makes it harder, as these strong women who are the definition of resiliency and grace choose to overlook the rudeness, the callousness of these comments and actions. If they were to respond to what was said and not what was meant, they risk losing even that minimal support and acknowledgement.
It seems that today, because the choice to serve was one that was voluntarily made, the families are somehow less deserving of the understanding and support that was granted previous generations. The emotional duress of the kids, the loneliness of the wives, the fear of the moms is not lessened because the soldier volunteered. If anything, they are heightened because we know and see, in more detail and in real time exactly what our military is facing every day.
Within hours, and often before a family can be notified, reports are on TV of a downed helicopter, an attack on a base, a car bomb at an airport. In previous wars, families didn’t have consistent, real time communication with a soldier which is a blessing most of the time, except when the family sees the news and knows that footage is showing exactly where their
soldier was as of a few hours ago. Now, they have to wait a minimum of twenty-four hours for the communication blackout to be lifted before they can get in contact with their soldier via Facebook, Skype, email or phone, all while waiting for the knock on their door, praying it doesn’t come.
Most of the families say that if the car pulls up in front of their house with the two guys in uniform, most of their neighbors will have no idea what that means. This is not because they may not understand the significance, but because their community is oblivious to the fact that a soldier lives there. Or rather, lived there. They may have a yellow ribbon tied
around their tree, and even a Blue Star Banner in their front window, but the meaning of these things is lost to a culture who knows what Kim Kardashian wore on the red carpet and which celebrity is being shipped off to rehab.
Still, this societal ignorance is no excuse for the casual cruelties our military families are subjected to all too often. So, as a primer to politicians and the civilian connections of these families, here are a few ground rules on what to say and do to help those who are serving by default.
Don’t ask what they think of the war; offer to take the kids so they can take an uninterrupted bath.
Don’t tell them you don’t know why we are over there anyway; tell them that you are going to mow their lawn this Saturday while you are doing your own.
Don’t ask them how they can stand to watch the news and see the reports of another base over there being attacked; bring over a movie to watch with them.
Don’t laughingly say that you wish your own husband would go away for a while because maybe you’d appreciate him more when he got back, too.
Don’t ask a mother if she agreed with her son’s decision to enlist; tell her she must be very proud to have raised a young man who is willing to put his life on the line for others.
If you are a teacher who has a military child in your class, don’t penalize the child because their parents took them out of school for a few days while their dad was home on his mid-tour leave. The military doesn’t schedule leaves to coincide with school breaks.
But most of all, don’t ignore them, avoid them or stop calling because you don’t know what to say. Call and simply say “I don’t know what to say”. Show that you are thinking of them and at least trying to be supportive. When these women of remarkable strength burst into tears at your small act of kindness, let them cry. They have to be too strong, they
think, to allow themselves to cry for their husbands and sons, don’t dare let that genie out of the bottle for fear they won’t get it back in when they have to get up in the morning and do it all again. Shedding a few tears because they are touched and moved by your kindness is not a weakness for them, it is a grace. Give them that grace.