I’ve been a military spouse for 18 years. My husband has technically been out of the military for about two years, but I’ll explain my reasoning for using present tense in a bit. With all of those years of experience, I am able to say that I know a little about being a military spouse. I’m not saying that facetiously either. I am well aware that my experience as a spouse is not the same as many other spouses and that the world of military spouses is far larger than just my bubble of knowledge. I know just enough to understand that I have a deep respect for every military spouse out there. This isn’t an easy world to navigate and those who do (and do it successfully) are truly amazing people.
One of the things I learned about being a spouse happened about two years into our marriage. I learned that I could not be my husband’s military movie buddy. He loves military films and will watch them all day long if he could get away with it. For over twenty years, the man got up at 5:00 a.m., put on a uniform, spent all day teaching people about weapons or tactics, and then would come home and ‘veg’ with films like “Black Hawk Down.” It still boggles my mind.
The way I learned that I could never be his movie buddy was a baptism by fire. I was six months pregnant with our first child and my husband begged me to do a movie date with him. We went to see Saving Private Ryan. It was the first military film I’d ever watched as a spouse and I’m not ashamed to say that I did not do well handling it. I was a hot mess for weeks afterward. I’d burst into tears. Couldn’t sleep. I just could not get past the images splattered (almost literally) across that huge screen. It was not entertainment for me. It was every nightmare I ever had about him when he’d deploy played out in vivid color in front of me. It gave definition to the ‘unknown’ that he always walked into when he left. I couldn’t handle it. At the time, he chalked it up to pregnancy hormones and admittedly, that probably played a large part in it. But later when Black Hawk Down and some other films hit theaters, I still adamantly refused to go with him. I couldn’t go through that again. It never dampened his love of the films. He just needed to shift gears and take some of the guys with him instead of his wife. We both were quite content with this being the status quo.
Enter American Sniper. We recently had our anniversary and for his gift, I picked up a Blu Ray version of the film for him. Neither of us had seen it yet, (It came out while we were working through my cancer recovery, so it wasn’t a priority for either of us.) but with all of the rave reviews, I knew he’d love it. I also knew that I didn’t want to watch it. However, after the kids went to bed, he put the movie in. I wasn’t about to leave the room, but I figured if I multi-tasked on other things, I could tune it out. That usually works. This time it didn’t. Against my own better judgement, I got caught up in the film. And it showed me some hard truths about my marriage – many things I’d never even realized.
One scene in particular hit me hard and it wasn’t what you might think. At one point when Chris Kyle came home for the birth of his child, Taya was begging him to be WITH them. He was in the house but his mind was elsewhere. He couldn’t settle and though he might have actually been present, he really wasn’t there. She was angry and frustrated. He was emotionally absent. She was trying to make a home and he just wasn’t in it. And the very next scene, he gets off the plane overseas and is greeted with a heart felt “Welcome Home” as he stepped back onto the battlefield. And that’s when I saw it. He really wasn’t at home with his wife and kids. His ‘home’ was with the guys. Battling. Fighting. Overseas. She was his ‘vacation’ but his real world was there. That brought home a powerful truth for me and a bunch of pieces of my life clicked into place. My husband loved me and the kids fiercely. But he had married the Air Force long before I came along. By the time I entered, I was really, in a way, the other woman. I took him away from his ‘real’ life. He didn’t leave to go and do his job. He never really ever left his job. I was just a vacation from his real life.
I don’t know if the filmmakers were trying to make that connection, but for me it was a powerful message and it ran throughout the film. Several other scenes underscored this fact. For example, at their wedding, Chris was dancing with his bride. All of the guests at the wedding were focused on the happy couple with love and joy in their eyes. Everyone except the guys he worked with. They were there and they were doing their duty – they were standing up for their brother at arms. But they didn’t express joy until, in the middle of the dance, they got word that they were deploying. At that moment, the focus was taken away from Chris and Taya and boom – straight to the ‘real life.’ It struck me that in most situations, people would say “give them their day” or “let them have this before you tell them” but not in this instance. We saw what really gave them excitement.
Now listen, I’m not saying that those people he worked with didn’t love Taya or that he didn’t love her. Please don’t take that from this. My husband loves me and he always has. That’s not what I’m saying at all. This idea of being truly bonded or married to the military is an overall mindset and it wasn’t something that either of us realized was happening until after we watched this movie. We always just pressed on the best we could through the tough times. But he was truly bonded with the Air Force as if it was his actual marriage and I was the other woman. I was the thing that took him away from his real life. (That old saying “If the Air Force had wanted you to have a wife, it would have requisitioned one for you.” comes to mind.)
Now here’s where things get interesting. When my husband got injured this was where his ‘marriage’ to the Air Force took a hit. He couldn’t provide the services they’d come to expect and they became annoyed that he couldn’t do his job. The happy ‘marriage’ that worked together for nearly twenty years began to dissolve and resentment formed. He had to jump through a lot of hoops to get discharged and his unit was annoyed. He was taking up valuable space that an able bodied man could do. They were anxious to dissolve the bonds and they wasted no time in letting him know that. They found someone new. Someone not broken. And they unceremoniously kicked him to the curb. Literally. There were no retirement ceremonies. No medals. No rewards. Everything that my husband had poured himself into for more than half of his life just…disappeared quite literally overnight. He didn’t even get a goodbye lunch. It was crazy.
We all had some problems dealing with this ‘divorce’ as it were. He was angry but he didn’t have an outlet for that anger so it came to us – his family. We didn’t understand why he was angry with us, but after this ‘marriage’ realization from American Sniper, it suddenly made sense. Over the entire course of our marriage, I’d been the thing that took him away from his marriage to the Air Force. The ‘other woman’ as I’d mentioned earlier. We’d always taken him away from that real life. Then he got hurt and the Air Force didn’t want him. But we did. And we’d always wanted him home with us. We’d gotten what we wanted. So this must have been our fault. It’s a really strange dynamic and one he didn’t understand until the morning after we had watched American Sniper. When I told him about my theory, it was like a light bulb went on in his mind. He agreed wholeheartedly and he even supplied a few situations that I had forgotten about. For us, this revelation made a life changing alteration to some situations we’re still dealing with.
Do I think every military spouse has this issue? No. It’s entirely possible that this could get around to other spouses and they all call me crazy and tell me there’s something wrong with me or with us. That’s okay. I don’t expect that this revelation applies to everyone. But I do think it’s possible that other spouses may be experiencing this and not understanding it. The unit my husband served with in New Jersey had a divorce rate of close to 75%. The job was a killer for those families. It wasn’t that the men didn’t love their wives or that the wives didn’t love their husbands. It was a complete flip of priorities. Who comes first and second and third in someone’s life when the military owns you? These men and women very literally signed their lives away before they pledge their lives to their spouses. How else are they supposed to balance all of that?
So this is why I count all 18 years of our marriage as being a military spouse. With his injury, disability, and us still working through these ripples, it still feels like we’re active duty. I’m sure we’ll get past that at some point, but for now, it remains our status quo.
I’m grateful to American Sniper for showing us that part of our military walk. I hope that maybe, somehow, somewhere, this might give someone else a little hope or understanding in their journey. And if you happen to be a military spouse and this has spoken to you or I can pray for you, please, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We milspouses need to stick together.