Friday, July 4, 2008

Book Review

While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront
by Kristin Henderson

Several months ago, a fellow blogger had asked for a book or other resource that might be helpful for her sister-in-law. Her brother is a reservist and had been activated. The family was facing a deployment. The blogger didn't come out and say this, but I understood the feeling of helplessness. We all want to do something to help make the pain go away, even for a bit.

I clearly recall telling people about my husband's deployment. "Hi! I haven't seen you in a while. What's new with me? Well, let's see...I'm pregnant! Thanks! And my husband is deploying with the National Guard...he'll be gone a year...leaving next month..." I lived in a civilian world. The look of horror that would pass over the faces of those just given the news was amusing to the woman who could not imagine how bad life could be and was desperately blocking every attempt her mind made to try.

As the horror gave way to sadness, and my friends' eyes would well up with tears, I would wave off that emotion. "Stop! You're going to make me cry, too. Just pray for me."

It's a little different in the military world in which I now live. There is no look of horror. We've all been there. And there are fewer tears. There's a time and a place, and we know to save them for the right ones. There are comforting hugs and pats. There are helpful discussions about plans: where to live, how to manage, selling the car, mowing the lawn, shuttling kids to baseball.

When my blogger friend asked for a book, I had nothing to suggest. There are tons of resources available (I suggested some of those), but I couldn't think of any one book. Then, a month later, I found While They're at War on my bookshelf. The copyright is from 2006, so it must have been given to us when we moved last summer and was packed up and forgotten in all the chaos.

At first glance, I really didn't think it would be very interesting. From the inside of the dust jacket:

We first meet Marissa Bootes and Beth Pratt, new Army wives undergoing intense indoctrination on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, while their husbands are fighting in Iraq. Their stories unfold to reveal often hidden aspects of life on the homefront. Through gripping storytelling (I think this is the phrase that really turns me off), we see families battling the overwhelming effects of isolation and anticipatory grief, the strongly enforced codes concerning infidelity, their feelings of alienation from military staff and non-military citizens, and the harrowing impact of e-mail/cellphone/CNN culture.

I didn't want to recommend a book I hadn't read first, and I wasn't sure this would be worthwhile, so I made time amidst packing and other pre-move errands and dug in.

I was pleasantly surprised.

The author frames her book on the story of two women, Marissa and Beth, who are very different and have dissimilar lives, views on the war, and coping mechanisms. She does begin with the soldiers already in Iraq, but then goes back to how the couples met, how they joined the Army, and how they found out about their deployments. She takes the reader through their deployment and to their homecoming. But that is just the frame of her book. Within those stories are the stories of dozens of other women as well as an explanation of many resources available to military families. The author is a Marine chaplain's wife. Although her primary characters are Army, she includes information applicable to all branches of the military.

Although the book does seem a bit jumpy, and at times, especially at first, I was confused about whom she was talking, if you stick with it, it gets easier. Admittedly, some chapters are extremely difficult to read.

Chapter 6: The Knock at the Door goes through the scenario every military spouse dreads. Not only does it describe what several women actually experienced, it also covers the fears and completely irrational worries that many of us have. It doesn't matter that we know that the news of our loved ones' death will be brought between the hours of 6 am and 10 pm by a team wearing a certain uniform and having a certain rank. A phone call at midnight or a strange soldier in ACUs at the door can strike terror into our hearts.

And probably the hardest chapter to read is Chapter 12: Pigeons in the Desert which talks about how the children are affected by their parents' deployment. Having watched my own little ones suffer tremendously while Bill was gone, it was difficult to reopen and examine those wounds.

The final chapter, Chapter 18: The Terrible Relief, is all about homecoming. I had to laugh at the author's description of her own feelings when her husband returned from one deployment:

The crowd screamed. For a moment I felt overstretched with emotion as if I might pop, my eyes pricking with tears. But even now that Franks's plane had landed safely, I reminded myself that he still had to get from Cherry Point Marine Air Station to Camp Lejeune, over forty miles down the North Carolina coast. At any moment, a bus could blow a tire and slam into an embankment, or run off a bridge and sink straight to the bottom of a river.

I didn't laugh because I thought she was ridiculous but because I had had similar thoughts as my husband returned from Kosovo. The plane will crash, I was convinced. It is difficult to keep a tight rein on your emotions for a year or more, but letting it all go is just as hard.

Although emotionally rough to read, I think this is a good book for any military spouse. At the back of the book is a list of dozens of websites mentioned throughout the book, and the general knowledge of how things work within the military is useful even for those who have been in the system for years. In addition, the comfort of hearing the stories of other women who have been through the same thing is invaluable. My sister's husband leaves in a few short weeks for Iraq, and I intend to get my copy to her soon.

But first, I am going to send the book to my mother. I really think this book is most helpful to those outside the military system who have no idea what the families are going through. This book should help explain the true answer behind the obligatory, "I'm fine, thanks," response usually given to questions about how everything is going. Things are never fine - merely status quo.

Often people want to know what they can do to help. The first step to that is understanding. The next is knowledge. For those outside of a soldier's immediate family (parents, siblings, priests or religious leaders, childrens' teachers, etc) to know what resources are available for struggling families means having one sane person outside the trenches able to offer thoughtful suggestions to someone who might not be aware of them or might be in denial that they are necessary.

If you, like my blogger friend, are looking for something to give to a friend or relative with a deploying spouse, I highly recommend this book. But first, read it yourself and share it with other people who will help form that person's civilian support network.


Amanda said...

Hi! Just found your blog googling for a Military Rosary ,love it! The Sorrowful seem so appropriate and the intention are so right. Thank you

Robert J. Moeller said...

Hey, I randomly found your blog today and I'm glad that I did. Very interesting stuff. I'm a conservative blogger and seminary student in Chicago ( Keep up the good work!

Sara said...

Think I may pick this up for some summer reading. Thanks.