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Excerpt: 'While They're at War'

Welcome to the Sisterhood

"Does it get easier?" asked Beth Pratt.

She had a voice that was flat as the Midwestern Plains state she came from. She had a long, fragile neck and a willowy dancer's body that drooped with sadness. She had a husband in a war zone. She was asking me because, twice already, I too had waited for my husband to come home from a war -- first Afghanistan, then Iraq.

I was visiting Fayetteville, North Carolina, home of the Army's Fort Bragg, when a friend said he knew a woman who needed to talk to me. He introduced me to Beth.

"This is our first deployment," she said.

Her eyes were wide and blue green and shadowed by her straight, dark hair. She gave me a level look before withdrawing her gaze and adding, "They say it's supposed to get easier but it's been four months and so far it's just been hard. When does it get easier?"

"Oh," I said, and the oh dragged itself into a sigh while I decided whether or not to lie. I wanted to fix it for her; I wanted to make it all right. But I knew the only thing that would make everything right would be for her husband to walk through the door right now, safe and whole in body and mind, the same man he was when he left. So in the end, I couldn't. I couldn't lie to her. When does it get easier?

"It doesn't," I said. "Wartime deployments are always hard."

"Don't tell me that," she said.

But they are, they're just so hard. Eventually you figure out ways to cope -- or not. But they never get easy. A wartime deployment is always a mountain, no matter how you climb it. All I could do was tell her some of the climbing techniques I'd relied on to help manage the fear and the loneliness, and listen to her anger and bewilderment as she climbed it now herself. When Beth left, she hugged me. And I thought, Welcome to the sisterhood.

Over the course of her husband's deployment, while she was worrying about his survival, Beth Pratt's own survival was hanging in the balance.

Though I didn't realize it at the time -- no one did -- Beth had begun to think about killing herself. This is her story.

I came across Marissa Bootes on the Internet. She belonged to a group of Fort Bragg wives who had formed their own private support group online. The first time I met Marissa in person, she had tied her long, dark hair in a ponytail. She was broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped in a black tanktop and black pants with a racing stripe down each leg. She looked faintly exotic and streamlined; she was moving fast.

She talked fast, too. "When my husband deployed, I was working sixty-plus hours a week and suddenly taking care of our five-year-old daughter by myself, and this house, and the bills, and volunteering with the Family Readiness Group for my husband's unit -- " She paused long enough to light a cigarette. "I'm an overachiever." She exhaled smoke. "I was doing the Superwoman thing, I felt awesome."

I was forty-two, nearly twice her age. I saw right through that smoke she was blowing, spotted a part of my younger self through the haze. I used to get busy like that, too. When the feelings got to be too much, I'd just get too busy to feel.

The first half of the deployment, that's what Marissa did. Gave herself four hours each night to sleep, the other twenty hours devoted to constant motion, because when she took the time to think about her husband she couldn't breathe. But before this deployment ended, because of this deployment, Marissa Bootes would find herself crashing head-on into the memories of a painful past she was trying to outrun. Not only that, she would be forced to give up one dream -- the career she had hoped for since she was a child -- but she would make another dream come true. This is her story, too.

Anyone who watches TV has seen the familiar images from the warfront: military men and women in desert camouflage uniforms riding in Humvees, patrolling dusty streets, firing their weapons.

The homefront gets a lot less screen time -- the camera swings around to focus on military families just long enough to peek through the window at the tearful goodbye and the joyful homecoming and, in between, the occasional yellow-ribbon moment. The rest of the homefront experience is hidden behind a closed door. Out of pride, or perhaps from a feeling of vulnerability, those of us who live the homefront life often feel the need to protect ourselves from anyone who has never been left behind during a deployment.

"They don't have any idea what it's like," I complained to an Army chaplain. "They just can't understand."

He looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he said, "Maybe they don't understand because we don't tell them."

So this is the story of Beth and Marissa's friends and fellow military spouses, and the chaplains, social workers, teachers, and support staff with whom they crossed paths. It's the story of the Beths and Marissas scattered across America and on military installations around the world, who, like them, hurry through their days listening for the distant sound of guns.

Both Marissa Bootes and Beth Pratt are married to junior enlisted men in the 82nd Airborne Division. Beth's husband, Private E-2 Luigi Pratt, drove Army trucks on convoys through Iraq's Sunni Triangle. On other convoys along those same roads, Marissa's husband, Specialist Charlie Bootes, manned a Mark-19 fully automatic grenade launcher.

Marissa and Beth never met while their husbands were deployed. Marissa was twenty-three when the deployment began. She grew up in foster homes, had a two-year degree under her belt, and was married to her high-school sweetheart. On the subject of the war, she had no patience for Americans protesting in the streets; it killed morale, she said, made life harder for soldiers and their families. Beth was thirty-three.

She had a happy childhood, held multiple postgraduate degrees, and was newly married for the second time, with no children. As for the war, she believed it was wrong from the start. The UN weapons inspectors, it seemed to her, had been doing just fine.

Beth and Marissa didn't have much in common except for this: In the fall of 2003 they both faced the frightening challenge of their husbands' first deployments. And they knew it wasn't likely to be their last, either. Given America's increasing military commitments around the world, even if their husbands came home, they wouldn't be home to stay.

This shared experience creates a bond like sisterhood. Those of us who are married to the military may be female, or may be male -- our honorary sisters. We may be white, black, or brown, young, old, Republican, Democrat, or independent. We may worship different gods or no god at all. We may be high-school dropouts or holders of advanced degrees. We may not even be officially married, may be engaged or living together or seriously dating. But at one time or another, we have all been left behind while the one we love has gone off to train for battle, or keep the peace, or wage war. Particularly for those of us who have waited for our loved ones to return from a combat zone, it's like joining a secret society -- when you encounter another member of that society, not much needs to be said.

"Is your husband home?" I asked a woman I had just met at a conference of military spouses. She looked like a southern belle and talked like a trucker.

Her macho voice suddenly shrank. "No, he left two months ago. Iraq."

Tears suddenly welled in our eyes. We both ran a careful finger along the lower edge of each eye, to wipe the tears without smearing the makeup. We were at a cocktail party. You don't burst into tears at cocktail parties. For a moment, she blinked at the far distance, swallowing hard. Then she suddenly turned to me and told a deliciously dirty joke about southern belles that saved us both.

A civilian reporter once asked me, "Does it ever bother your husband that you're . . ." He fumbled for the right words. "That you're writing about the wives instead of the real story?"

The question itself speaks volumes. Despite the fact that America is once again engaged in major combat operations overseas, most Americans have only a limited grasp of what it means to go to war, and no wonder. The Persian Gulf War and the Iraq and Afghan Wars a decade later are the first major wars in America's history that have been fought without broad-based conscription to mobilize all levels of American society. Going forward, this is a potentially ominous development for our democracy. In a country of nearly three hundred million people, only two and a half million serve in the active-duty armed forces, the Reserves, and the National Guard. Only these warriors and their families are experiencing the day-to-day sacrifices, small and large, that war requires.

Yet in our American democracy, the warriors themselves don't get to decide when those sacrifices are to be made. Civilians make that decision. It's up to our civilian Congress to declare war. It's up to our civilian president to send the troops into battle. And it's up to the civilians who elect those leaders to pay attention, to make sure that the cause of the hour is worth the sacrifices being made on their behalf.

The sacrifices start as soon as a person signs an enlistment contract or accepts an officer's commission. Those who join the United States Armed Forces give up many of their constitutional rights in order to ensure that other people can continue to enjoy them. They give up their freedom of speech. Sometimes, they give up their right to live. No other institution in America wields so much power over the lives of its members. And even though their families haven't joined the military, it controls the families' lives, too.

Of course, it isn't really an "it." The military is more of a "them." Though we say the Army did this, or the Marine Corps did that, as if a military institution is a monolithic giant operating under the control of a single brain, in reality it's a big, messy collection of individual human beings. Some of them are military service members and some of them are civilian employees. Many of the people who provide services to military families, for instance, may work on a base but in fact work for private companies that have won contracts from the Pentagon. All these individuals -- whether they wear a uniform or are a private contractor, a federal employee, or a political appointee -- are the military. Some of them are very good at what they do. Some are not. All have the power to affect the lives of the military families who cross their paths.

Is my husband bothered that I don't train the spotlight on him and his combat experiences, or on the experiences of the Marines he serves, or the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who serve alongside them? Of course not. Because the men and women who go to war will tell you that the loved ones they leave behind have a profound effect on their ability to hold up under fire. These days, this reality is recognized even in official Pentagon policy. A Department of Defense philosophy statement reads:

. . . families as well as the service member contribute immeasurably to the readiness and strength of the American military. Efforts toward improved quality of life, while made out of genuine respect and concern for service members and families' needs, also have a pragmatic goal: a United States that is militarily strong.

Military readiness is like a three-legged stool. The first leg is training, the second, equipment. The third leg is the family. If any of these three legs snaps, the stool tips over and America is unprepared to defend herself.

When our nation decides to wage war, we women and men who love America's war-fighters comfort them when they call home sounding hollow, we manage their lives while they're gone -- we pay their bills, service their cars, care for their children. We're told: "If there's a problem, don't cry to your spouses, there's nothing they can do about it, it will only distract them, and where they are, distractions can be fatal." So we solve the problems ourselves. And while we're doing all that, we're waking up every morning knowing today could be the day the staff car pulls up in front of our house and two or three people in dress uniforms walk up to our door. Today could be the day our life as we know it disappears into a black hole of grief. As a result, when our warriors return, they're not coming home to the same person they left behind.

This is the war story you never hear. This is the story of what happens while they're at war.

From While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront Copyright © 2006 by Kristin Henderson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Kristin Henderson