It is July 4th and CNN just broadcast President and Mrs. Obama’s salute to the troops from the balcony of the White House. Across the United States, Americans are firing up their grills, watching ball games and attending local Independence Day celebrations.
Holidays for military families can be bittersweet events, especially if one member is deployed or on TDY (temporary duty elsewhere). Those at home enjoy the holiday, but wish their father, mother, husband or wife were there with them, and so there is often an undercurrent of sadness associated with it. A feeling of longing, if you will.
I know the feeling all too well. While active duty, my husband missed 4 or 5 Thanksgivings in a row. He was either attending military schools, was TDY, or was deployed. He and I tried to put on a good face for our two boys, who naturally, missed their daddy. My friends, my parents, and/or base organizations would go to great lengths to host nice dinners and activities, but we all still felt a loss. The holiday was festive, but there was a dark cloud just hovering overhead. We all laughed about the irony about his missing all the Thanksgivings, but inside we weren’t so jolly.
Military families have learned to cope with loss and longing. We put on a brave face even as sadness, resentment, and resignation simmer below the surface. We appreciate all the gestures of kindness people extend to us—but there is regret that our loved ones are missing out—we’re missing out.
This is a recurring theme, apparently. The HBO Series, John Adams, struck a chord with me when Abigail Adams pointed out to her husband, John, that out of 14 years of marriage, he’d been away seven of them. He acknowledged the fact, and then said that he had to serve his country.
Ask any troop why he or she serves in the military; the number one answer is that they love their country.
They love their families, too.
President Obama recently said that troops will be coming home from Afghanistan. As our military come back from the Middle East, we, as a nation, need to continue to support them—and their families. Just because the troops are physically back from the war, it doesn’t mean that they are emotionally back.
Just as our Armed Forces rejoice in being home, that very homecoming is bittersweet. There is sadness for comrades who sacrificed all; there is regret for lives interrupted. There is longing to be back with their comrades, there is the desire to reconnect with family. There is also pride, anger, and regret– and a multitude of other emotions—on both sides.
It is a great help to military families for America to make a great show of support for military families through picnics, parades, and “welcome home” celebrations. But subtle, steady and unwavering support will be needed for decades to come.
For some folks, the war will never end. And once the media has turned its attention elsewhere, their families will cope with the effects of PTSD, frayed relationships, and physical and emotional needs in relative isolation.
Let us not let them drift back into isolation and obscurity; let us welcome home our heroes, to be sure, but more than that let us also help them assimilate back into life with their families, in their neighborhoods, into their communities. Let us Join Forces with Michelle Obama, and Jill Biden and, above all, let us remember what sacrifices have been made. Let’s also share their stories with the Museum of the American Military Family. It’s the least we can do.
Circe Olson Woessner, Executive Director