Wartime Reflections: The Homecoming—a Sometimes Bitter Affair
It’s been a week and I still haven’t made my wife cry.
The military homecoming is a cherished ritual full of pageantry and joy. It is a time of reunion and renewal, a time of hope and love. Unfortunately, for many this season of joy inevitably turns sour.
For her, he’ll return and joyously sweep her off her feet and they’ll instantly reconnect—emotionally, spiritually, physically. Things will be amazing, instantly as the pangs of separation fade.
For him, she’ll be waiting in the well-ordered home, with the well-behaved children, ready to accommodate him physically and surrender her role leading the home just as soon as he checks the mail and chills out for a bit.
Reality quickly tempers expectation.
For Ami and me, reality happens like this. For a day or two, we’ll live the fairytale, all smiles and cheer. Gradually, I’ll notice things not to my satisfaction. I’ll initiate with some probing passive-aggression.
“Did you move the couch into the other room?”
“You’re letting so-and-so go where these days?”
“What is the plan for this stuff over here?”
Ami will sense my not-so-subtle disapproval of things and will inquire, knowing that I’m unhappy about something. I’ll refuse to admit it for a day or two though my passive-aggression is both obvious and intentional. Eventually, I’ll cave and admit to being unhappy. In reality, I want her to know I am unhappy. I know, what a guy.
That’s when the tears start. Ami is in disbelief that I cannot ignore small matters for the sake of the joy of being with my family. If I truly loved her and the kids then what would it matter if the laundry was not caught up or the garage was a mess?
Here’s the real kicker, once I have expressed my dissatisfaction, I feel better. My tent is up. I’ve aired my grievances and am now ready to move ahead and seek resolution.
Unfortunately, the heart of a woman doesn’t quite work that way.
As unbelievable as it may sound, in many ways combat is far less stressful than modern American life. We generally excel at warfare and stack the odds in our favor so greatly that usually, not always, but usually the mission goes well. Consider that in our nation’s longest war, we’ve lost just over 6,000 soldiers. Now that is a lot, but in perspective consider that we lost 23,000 in a single day at Antietam.
Combat simplifies life.
I close with and destroy the enemy and outside of that, I kind of hang around.
During the mission, things get complicated and hard. Personal risk and other factors induce combat stress, but then the mission ends. Most deployed soldiers never even depart the base and engage the enemy anyway. No dishonor in this, it’s just that their occupational specialty does not necessitate it.
Militarily, I seek the imposition of order, to establish process amid chaos. After 22 years, it’s just what I do.
Deployed life takes on a simplistic, Spartan kind of feel. Outside of the mission, my deployed life pretty much belongs to me. My reality consists of the few square feet next to my bunk where I neatly arrange my shoes and stack my Bible and whatever else I may be reading. Outside the mission, my time is my own. I work out, eat, read, write, whatever.
Then reality hits.
Usually a couple of days before redeployment, I’ll get an email from Ami saying something like this:
“Hey baby, can’t wait to see you. We’ve got a church function this Friday evening after you get home. Saturday morning, Miguel has a soccer game followed by DJ’s. That afternoon we have so and so’s birthday party and Saturday night, we have dinner at Scott’s house. Sunday after church, we’re all going to the lake. I love you!”
Whew! Life takes no breaks.
In a manner of 24 hours, my time and my life has gone from completely under my control to completely outside of my control. As deployed life is simple, home life is anything but. The pace and complexity of modern American life consumes many; it can easily overwhelm a returning soldier.
This is exacerbated by the sheer pace of return. I’ve literally stepped off a mission, handed my mission packet to my replacement, hopped aboard an aircraft and been walking through my front door 24 hours later where life continues unabated, as it must. The modern American soldier has little time to decompress, to process.
Couple these stressors with other issues such as PTSD or other pre-existing issues and is it any wonder that many military families struggle during redeployment?
Existence becomes a struggle.
My wife is a warrior, a fire-breather. Military spouses vary per their level of independence. Mine is on the far end of the independence spectrum. “Get five rowdy boys dressed and ready for church in 15 minutes? Piece of cake.”
Words cannot express the extent of what she has to deal with while I am deployed.
I’m sure that each family struggles uniquely during deployment. Our appliances break, always. I’ll leave and the air conditioner will die or the hot water heater will break or the dishwasher will go tango uniform. It’s like clockwork.
And a kid will misbehave, at least one. This time it was my 17-year-old, but previously it’s been others. I love my sons, but the thought of raising the five still in the house by myself sends me into a panic attack. Someone is always punching someone, our dog pukes on the floor regularly, the two-year-old destroys everything he touches and hits people with sticks.
“Mom. Mom. Mom.” They actually line up outside the bathroom door, waiting, while she’s in there. Madness.
I give little thought to the uncertainty that governs her existence. I cannot imagine being in a situation whereby for an extended period, I had no idea if my wife was safe or not. At any time, night or day, a knock at the door could change life forever.
We lost some men in 2006 while I was deployed. Per SOP, all communications were shut down until family notification could happen. Everyone back home knew that men had died. Across our community, hundreds of military families braced for the unimaginable.
Ami was running on a treadmill at the YMCA, crying softly, pleading with God for it not to be me, but swearing that she would still praise Him, even if it were. Thank the Lord, a friend of mine saw here there, saw her grief, and quietly let her know that I was okay. I’m so thankful to this day that the Lord sent this messenger. This uncertainty would destroy me.
And I wonder why she gets her feelings hurt when I complain about the dishes upon my return.
A New Reality
I suspect we are not alone in this struggle.
I know that we are not alone in this struggle. A deployed friend of mine called the other day to let me know that he and his wife had previously experienced issues when he returned and as he was a couple of weeks out from redeploying, wanted to talk about it.
I had no easy answers for him, only to encourage him that many others shared this struggle.
Last summer, returning from what I thought was my last deployment, I swore that things would be different, that I wouldn’t make my wife cry. Within a day or two of returning, I’m ashamed to say that I did exactly that.
This time though, I find a new hope, a renewed joy. God has a way of doing that as He has driven me to a new humility, broken me to a place I’ve never been. When I fully embrace the notion of my position before God, that I deserve and am entitled to absolutely nothing, that only His grace has saved me from destruction, it becomes much harder to be dissatisfied with anything, much less the laundry.
The secular would tell us to find coping mechanisms, to communicate and find ways to ease the pressure of the reunion and these are all good things. I’ll not deny them, but they are mere band-aids on the bleeding ulcer of my sin. Only a repentant heart can deny self in the face of difficult circumstances such as these.
I’m still not sure what to tell my friend.
Author - Founder
Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).
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