One Marine, Home for the Holidays
A reservist's family survives his deployment to Afghanistan.
Jane's husband is home.
No more helicopters whirring in the background of every tenuous satellite phone call, no more talking in code. No more worrying about certain Marines in Afghanistan, no more kids sharing the life-size, cardboard-cutout photo of Dad. This Thanksgiving, Jane's husband is a veteran of the war, and he's back.
He's back on the streets of Boston, as a police officer for the city. That's no picnic itself, but it's not Helmand province, Afghanistan, either (to protect the family's privacy, we're not using their real names).
Deployed in March 2010, Tom went to the U.S. Marines' largest base in California and left behind a wife and children here with friends and neighbors – but little of the support that military families who live on bases have.
"It's sort of an alienating position to be in, a military family in Boston," Jane says. Once a week, she would get an e-mail from her Family Readiness Officer, or FRO. There would be an update on the soldiers, and information on the myriad services available to families. At this time of year, there'd be free turkeys, parties for the children, presents from Santa. "And all this was happening in Camp Pendleton, in California," says Jane. "There was nothing here."
Jane did have the kindness of Tom's coworkers, the fraternity of the BPD, who would call often and sometimes show up on the doorstep when, for example, the hot water heater broke down in the middle of a winter of record-breaking snowfall. But the family "of the average Joe may not have that – and then what?" says Jane. So, under the auspices of the Home Base Program – a partnership between Massachusetts General Hospital and the Red Sox Foundation that helps recent veterans – she's starting to look for ways to better connect the families of reservists. "It's logistics: There's no way the military could reach out to everybody," Jane says.
According to U.S. Department of Defense statistics, in 2009 there were 15,335 reservists and National Guard members in Massachusetts. And the Home Base Program, which serves veterans (and their families) who suffer from stress or traumatic brain injuries, says there are 13,000 children in the state who have one parent currently serving in the military. Research shows that while the military member is deployed, his family is vulnerable to increased stress, and even upon return the children don't necessarily bounce back right away. Because of the home parent's difficulties, kids are more vulnerable to neglect. And if a parent has post-traumatic stress disorder, the children are at increased risk for depression and anxiety themselves.
There's "a natural course of recovery" after being at war, explains Bonnie Ohye, a psychologist and the clinical director of the family program at Home Base.
"But not everyone is able to continue on that trajectory of recovery" without help. Families of reservists add their isolation to the challenges. For these families, "the most profound challenge," says Dr. Ohye, "is their invisibility within civilian communities."
But during deployment, even families who ultimately escape without serious mental and physical problems can find the obstacles in everyday life more daunting. Reflecting on last November, Jane says, "the holidays are just days. The kids have fun," and it's over. And as the wife of a police officer, she's used to her holidays being interrupted. But there are times when her partner's absence was acutely felt.
One night last winter, all the ice on the roof of the house came crashing down. All the patio furniture was broken, since it had been left out when "I just didn't want to ask for help again," Jane says. At the time, she was also dealing with her mother's increasingly aggressive cancer and other extended family issues. So while she dearly wanted to be able to do it all alone, she often had to recognize that she couldn't.
"Military families don't want others to pity them, but to appreciate that their choice to serve is a choice for the entire family to serve," says Dr. Ohye. There are still ways that civilian families can help. "Offer to eliminate a daily burden – a meal, a few hours of babysitting … without a focus on 'lets make sure we talk about how hard this is.' Give a sense of opportunities and help them to stay in regular, happy lives."
A sense of appreciation also goes a long way. While Jane felt enormous pride in the job Tom was doing, going on patrols and training Afghan police officers, she was also deflated by comments people would make.
"I don't think they were ill-intentioned, but people could says things like, 'I don't understand why we're there ... I don't believe in war,' " Jane says. "Well, how nice of you to be able to say that, while you're sleeping next to your husband and waking up to roses and sunshine?" She describes how, after 9/11, her husband, who'd been a Marine, felt it was his duty to serve again, and only her pregnancies kept delaying his move.
"I think that people can have the impression that soldiers are war mongers. But they just want to protect. My husband doesn't want our son or daughter [to go to war], or for their to be another attack on our country."
Even though Jane and Tom's children were very young, they too were vulnerable to unintentionally hurtful talk. "Sometimes my son would be confused," explains Jane, "because little kids talk without thinking," saying things like, "'The bad guys are going to kill your daddy.'" They were the only students in school with a parent serving in the war, and "it was heartbreaking, for the kids to be making this humongous sacrifice that they didn't quite understand." Dr. Ohye says that military families can be wary of a community's negative attitude toward the U.S. role in these conflicts, which further adds to their isolation.
Yet Jane is quick to add that there was lightness, too, in their lives when Tom was gone, namely in the guise of "Flat Daddy." Jane bought the children a life-size, waist-up mounted photo of their father, which went to school, to parties, everywhere.
One day, Jane's daughter was angry at her, and Jane found the little girl talking to Flat Daddy, telling him how mean Mommy was. Jane has a photo of her son, legs draped around Flat Daddy, which looked so realistic that it seemed Dad was giving the boy a piggy-back ride. "It became a badge of honor, to have Flat Daddy at your party, or to get your picture taken with him," Jane says with a laugh.
Flat Daddy even sat on the Green Monster with the children, images of which Jane could share with her husband through Facebook. When Flat Daddy became too cumbersome, a junior version, called "Baby Daddy" by the kids, made his own rounds in Boston.
"Sometimes now," says Jane, "we'll be walking around the neighborhood, and my husband says, 'you don't know how lucky we are.' " Tom is no longer scanning the ground for land mines, and Jane no longer feels like the "17-year-old with the phone in my hand all the time, waiting for a text from my boyfriend. Finally, I don't have to worry anymore."