Ten years ago, my husband Christopher surprised me when he said he’d like to join the Army Reserve. His father and grandfather had been in the military, and he wanted to carry on the tradition. It didn’t seem like a big deal—what was one weekend a month, right? But as the military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan increased, reservists were tapped more and more for deployments. Christopher left for Afghanistan in 2008 and had only been back for a year when we learned he was leaving again for another, more dangerous mission. I couldn’t believe it. This time I was 35 weeks pregnant with our first child; I was a waddling, sleepless mess, and now I had to face the realization that I would be on my own with a newborn.
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When my husband left for training, our child, William, was only four weeks old. Christopher came home whenever he could, trying to bond with our baby as much as possible before his next deployment. When Christopher left for Kandahar, I knew that in some ways I was lucky. William was nine months old, so I didn’t have to deal with the questions and tears that parents of older children do. And while it was rough working full time and being a first-time parent, I found that I was far from alone. Family, friends and coworkers invited us out, came over to play (sometimes with a pizza and six-pack in hand) and offered to babysit so I could have a couple of hours to myself. I’m infinitely grateful for those people and the glimmers of much-needed sanity they provided. But seeing, every day, what Christopher was missing was always difficult: first words, first foods, first steps—all the big milestones and tiny, funny, everyday moments that make being a parent so amazing. I wrote long emails, trying to describe a silly giggle or a new discovery, but you can’t really put things like that into words. Today, I’m grateful that I have those memories. But I won’t lie: Even now it’s hard knowing my husband missed this phase of our son’s life.
Sometimes on the news, you see touching military reunions with hugs and tears and flags flying—that reunion is a wonderful moment. But most people don’t realize that it’s only half the story. Nine months after he left, Christopher returned home. The first few months were in some ways harder on our family than his deployment. William, at 18 months old, was terrified of the “stranger” in our house. And Christopher, who was dealing with his own post-deployment issues, didn’t know how to connect with an energetic, babbling toddler. Plus, we had to figure out how our marriage worked within this new dynamic. (Divorce rates in the military have skyrocketed since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.)
I’m thankful to say that our story has a happy ending. With patience and love from all of us, we put our family back together. Christopher and William (who’s three now) are best pals, always eager to wrestle or play catch. When Christopher is in uniform, strangers often come up to shake his hand and express their appreciation for his service. And that is always welcome. He faced dangers that most of us will never experience, and he deserves every ounce of their gratitude. But here’s a tip: When you thank a member of the military, try also to thank the family. Trust me, they’ve been through a lot, and they’ll appreciate your acknowledgement of what they, too, have given up for their country.