Dear Military Spouse To Be:
Just like a woman awaiting to give birth for the first time, you aren’t truly ready for military life. You can’t possibly know how much your heart can love, and conversely, how much it can ache.
Recently one of my favorite authors published a column on Military.com about why you shouldn’t marry your military love. While I believe it was intended to be tongue in cheek, it encouraged you to run the other way, or at least wait until your significant other was out of the military before you wed. As with most things, there is another, if not several other sides. This is one of them.
Nearly eight years ago, I stood at the top of what seemed like an impossibly long aisle. As the doors to the church opened, I saw my groom in his dress whites and my father asked if I was ready. The word still gives me pause: ready. Excited? Absolutely. Confident in my decision? Without a doubt. But ready? Is anyone really, truly ready for the unknown? With any marriage, civilian or military, you never fully know what twists and turns your lives will take.
No words in a column can prepare you for the incredible adventure you are about to begin. Yet somehow, we find a way to make that walk, to say those vows, and to look at our collective future with optimism, commitment, and unbridled love.
If you can make that walk down the aisle, I can all but guarantee you the following things:
1. You will learn the culture. You will, someday, understand most of the acronyms. You’ll know what parts of the world are eight hours ahead, where Zulu begins, and at some point, you will accidentally (or intentionally) write “1600 hours” on your calendar. You’ll know who gets which parking spots, and while you might not know all of the titles, you will quickly find that the most well-liked military spouses don’t wear their husband or wife’s rank.
2. You will be invited to be in a spouse’s club or readiness group. You will have a great experience with your compatriots and you will have a bad one. The key is having the great one first, so you know that good can exist, and you will keep trying. If you have the bad experience first, then “be the change you wish to see in the world.” If you can’t remember that quote from Gandhi, then remember one from my grandmother: “Honey. You will always catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Some of these spouses will be lifelong friends. They will be your rock, your support, and your strength. You will laugh harder and love deeper because of these friends. Some of these spouses won’t be as kind. Remember that insults generally stem from insecurity, and always strive to be the honey.
3. You will have adventures. Places you once couldn’t pronounce, like Ouagadougou, will roll off your tongue once you’ve researched whether or not you can accompany your spouse there. You’ll find yourself packing, in tears, for your first PCS to somewhere you had to find on a map when your spouse got orders. Know that it’s usually those places where you’ll find yourself in tears again when it’s time to leave. You will be presented opportunities to travel; take them. You will have a chance to live far from family, from friends, from anything and everything you’ve ever known; seize it. And when you find yourself all alone, in that place far away, know it is in that moment that you will truly see what it is you are made of.
4. You will impress yourself. You will, at some point, most likely feel broken. You will feel lonely. You will feel afraid. You will feel lonely, and broken, and afraid, all at the same time. You will question yourself. When you can’t keep your career on track, you will challenge your support of your spouse’s profession. You will be, as soon as you walk down that aisle, referred to as a “dependent.” You will hate that term, for you will know that to hack it in this marriage, to make it through deployments (and sometimes just through the day) you have to be everything but dependent. You will, at some point, resent the military and the choices it makes for you and your family in what seems to be a vacuum. Then, you will dust yourself off. A senior spouse will tell you to “put on your big girl panties,” and while you will resent her in that moment, you will do what she says, and you will someday thank her. You will find, in this rock bottom time, that you are resilient. You are strong. You can, and you will, keep supporting your marriage, your spouse, and yes, your military. You made vows to one another, and your spouse made an extra one to the military. You must both continue to honor all of those.
5. You will have trials. I wish I could protect you from this. You don’t know yet what it feels like to send your spouse off to an undisclosed location for an undetermined amount of time. You haven’t watched your children kiss their mommy or daddy, the other half of your heart, goodbye. You can only imagine the indescribable angst you’ll experience when you don’t know if it was that same mommy or daddy, your forever love, that an anchor is reporting was KIA on CNN. With that, you can only fathom that insatiable relief that consumes you when you find out he or she is okay. You can’t possibly know the hurt, the denial, and the mix of helplessness and anger that you will feel when you find out, just days after getting your spouse back in your arms, that they’ve been selected for “an opportunity” to go back.
6. You will know loss. Either first or second hand, the likelihood is, that at some point, you will likely know unprecedented grief. You may stand at a ceremony and either receive, or watch someone you know be presented with a folded flag. If it is another spouse receiving it, you will feel horrific sorrow, deep empathy, and guilt fraught with relief that you are standing there holding your spouse’s hand, instead of that precise triangle. If it is you who receives that flag, then for you, dear military spouse to be, I have no words. Those of us who have not experienced that first hand cannot possibly begin to pretend that we fully understand.
Before you turn and run far away from this military marriage you’re about to embark, know that out of that awful darkness, you will find unparalleled light. You will feel a community rally. You will experience standing room only. You will witness processions filled with supporters. You will, alongside the other spouses, sign up to provide months of meal deliveries. You will hold one another’s hands, and you will all help heal one another’s hearts.
And you will weep. Every time you see a headline about the death of a service member, either here or abroad, you will read the full story. You will honor the dead. You will know the real, true meaning of Memorial Day, and you will hold onto it with your life. You and your spouse will know patriotism, sacrifice, and service more than any of even your most well-intended civilian friends. You will raise your children to know those same values.
You will, when you walk down that aisle, enter a world of honor, respect, and incredible courage upon which our very nation is founded. Uncle Sam might need your spouse, but your spouse needs you. Now go run down that aisle; you are as ready as you will be.
Welcome to the family.
T.T. Robinson is a proud Navy wife, writer, and crisis management consultant — a skill that proves useful every day as the mother of two toddlers. She currently writes the Deployment Diary for Motherlode, the New York Times parenting blog. Follow her on Twitter @T_T_Robinson.