Why Do All the Letters Sent by Military Wives Disappear?
For comfort, we have blogs instead.
I've written letters to my much-deployed husband, Scott, on monogrammed stationery, hotel letterhead, notebook paper, and even, once, in the margins of a menu from a restaurant in Switzerland. In Japan, I invested heavily in cards that featured cute animals of different species talking to one another; when I worked in an office, I scribbled on the back of recycled meeting agendas. But only the memory of these letters exists. Like most deployed service members, who are always on the move and have to travel light, my husband couldn't hold on to my notes. It's not a question of sentiment—I know he cherishes my missives—but of mobility and storage space.
I've kept Scott's mail, of course. I stay put, and when one shoe box spills over, I reach for another. That's how it is with most military wives, and that's why archives and books like War Letters feature correspondence from husbands on the battlefield but little from the wives waiting back home. Here's one exception, circa 1952, that has always charmed me:
"Jan is snoozing in her afternoon nap & Jay is dragging himself blearily about trying to keep awake. He hardly even takes a nap anymore & is really ready for the sack at night... I think it is high time you are coming home because Jan is beginning to call every man she sees in a magazine 'Daddy'."
Louise Duquette sent this note to her husband, Norman, just before his plane was shot down in North Korea and he spent 587 days as a prisoner of war. The letter was returned to Louise unopened, which is probably why it survived. (She found out 19 months later her husband survived, when a radio station broadcast the names of released POWs.)
I've often wondered what a collection of letters from wives to their husbands-at-war would look like. Would most, like mine, sift through the detritus of the day before snagging on a shiny nugget of interest to the partner exhausted by combat? Would they be filled with romantic poems, full of longing? Pleas? Regrets? Would these letters capture important moments in American history, or fads known only to military families, like Flat Daddy? Such a collection, hinting at how other wives manage long and frequent separations, would give me some comfort. So I turned to the closest thing that exists: blogs by military spouses, which I started reading a few months ago when I got tired of hearing myself whine about my husband's 12-month deployment. The blog entries by Marine Wife Unplugged, Household 6, Mrs. G.I. Joe, New Girl on Post, Battleship Bettie, and others (some of which can be found here) finally make the firsthand experience of the waiting wife accessible to all.
The military spouse blogs are compelling reading because they're a hot mess, which is precisely their charm. There's a little bit of America in each of them. One preaches Proverbs; another complains about high electric bills. One encourages questions from readers, promising a $10 Target gift card to the most probing one; another's monologue hints at self-imposed isolation. Long silences between blog entries are often more moving than words, like the short, overdue post from The Vyper Pit, who confesses that "I can't write more because the computer shares the room with the baby." Among those with time on their hands, some blog authors are unrelentingly positive: "The Army has made my life full of countdowns and I love it," writes a wife at Across the Ocean who has been through two deployments. She says she spent 365 nights "crying, praying, sleepless, stressed, and hopeful," concluding that "I am nothing but proof that a year apart IS survivable."
I don't blog (though I have contributed posts to other blogs), mainly because I lose perspective and good cheer early on in a deployment. That's why I particularly appreciate the writers whose bracing, direct humor makes the best of a bad deal. Army Doctor's Wife writes of having to give up her "secret single behavior" when her husband returns, and how she'll miss eating frozen dinners and passing out on the couch after an evening of junk TV. Trying Our Best refers to her husband as "flyboy" and calls their three sons "dash-1," "dash-2," and "dash-3," a clever spin on the military's code for a flight of aircraft in formation. Like many of these writers, she asks questions that others would admit only under duress, such as "Is it wrong to be jealous that flyboy is out of town and sleeping in peace and quiet right now" while she is up all night caring for the dash boys?
My favorite blogger, Just Another Snarky Navy Wife, is based in Monterey, Calif. After bitching about TriCare, the military insurance system, which "sucks the balls of hairiness" because it declined to pay for her anesthesia during a gum graft, she writes about the difficulty of living a double life. "It's hard being a liberal Pagan milspouse," she confesses. Like many of these bloggers, she prefers to stay anonymous for her husband's sake: In this case, "He's shouldering enough just being a liberal service member with a penchant for logical thought in socio-political discussions." But her problem, in a nutshell, is that members of the nondenominational, otherwise open-minded church she joined to find community off the base are giving her the stink eye for being married to the military. She wants to tell the hippies who founded the church that she has more in common with them than they think, but she's furious with them for judging her harshly based on the fact that her husband is a service member.
I am not a Pagan or a hippie. But this blog appeals to me most because I'm convinced that the majority of military spouses feel like they're leading a double life. Appearance and tradition are still highly valued, especially in the officer corps. For a more seasoned military wife, this means that you serve as an upbeat and positive mentor for younger wives, take a leadership role in the spouse group, and generally contribute to the well-being of your husband's unit to the best of your ability. The job is 24-7, like marriage itself, and it's not always easy to be upbeat and positive, or even pleasant. In eight years of being married to the military, I have met only one woman who has said she was born to the role. All the rest of us confess to feeling like an impostor every once in a while.
These kindred spirits converge in military-spouse blogs. It's not just that writers can use acronyms and lingo unique to service members' families, referring to the time as 0130, debating the location of their next PCS (permanent change-of-station move), or sharing the woes of weeks spent in TLF (temporary living facilities) when baby No. 4 is due any minute. It's not just that your readers will know exactly what you mean when you talk about "the perils of multiple moves with IKEA furniture," which tends to disintegrate when transported too many times. Just as the value of traditional war letters is to unite the multitudes who have served while illustrating to others the individual sacrifice that this service exacts, military-spouse blogs create community while writing themselves into the larger conversation about the cost of war.
Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin 2009), which will be released in paperback this spring with a new afterword and reader's guide.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel.