Before opening the door to my husband’s brand-new squadron, I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. I was 23 years old, and I didn’t know a soul there besides my new husband. Tonight was the first social event we attended, and I felt desperate to make friends. I opened the door and was greeted by men and women rushing by like green blurs in their flight suits. Everyone wore rigid faces, and the tension was thick as fog, making the hairs on my arm stand at attention. Every instinct in my body knew something was about to creep up behind me and scare me.
My husband found me standing in the lobby, looking wide-eyed. He explained there had been a “real world event,” and they were leaving tonight.
“Where are you going?” I heard myself ask.
“I can’t tell you,” he muttered.
“How long will you be gone?” I probed again.
“I don’t know,” he replied, glancing at the floor.
He returned to the jungle of scurrying green running around the squadron. There it was. The big blue monster I dreaded and feared took my breath away. I tried to keep the dread at bay, but the tears already stung my eyes. In the chaos, I hadn’t noticed a group of spouses sitting on a couch near me, watching and listening. I knew I couldn’t cry in front of these women.
I rushed to the bathroom, and tears betrayed me, storming down my cheeks. I blinked furiously at them, frustrated by my reaction. He had explained to me this would happen when he moved to special operations, but it was like riding a terrifying roller coaster; I knew there would be twists and turns, yet my stomach still dropped with every dip.
I knew what I was getting into, I kept telling myself. And yet when the time came, I wasn’t brave enough.
I’d grown up in a small community in West Texas surrounded by military children and service members from the local base. Yet the only thing I really knew about the military lifestyle was that I did not want it. I had never really taken the time to think about what their lives really looked like or how they felt. They were there, and then they left just as quickly as they had arrived, like a curious bird flying about the world. I had no interest in leaving my beloved home state, my friends since grade school, or my close-knit family. I even swore I would never date a military guy for those reasons and the reputation of those single airmen in our conservative Christian town.
I met my husband by chance when my roommate began dating his roommate. He was certainly different from anyone I had ever met and challenged my preconceived ideas of what a military man was. He was kind, thoughtful, loyal, and creative, with bright blue eyes. Most of all, he made me laugh, and he knew when I needed a good giggle. His sense of duty and dedication inspired me, and I quickly fell in love. It was easy to adapt to being an Air Force girlfriend in my tiny town with my friends, family, and all the familiar landmarks wrapping me like a comforting blanket on his many deployments. After a whirlwind romance and a beautiful wedding ceremony, we headed to England for his next assignment.
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Now I stood in the bathroom, crying.
On top of worrying about his safety, a new fear began to invade my thoughts. How was I going to do this? I was in a new country with different driving rules, customs, and cultures. I had only attempted driving “on the wrong side of the road” twice, and a double roundabout nearly ended me. I wasn’t brave enough for this.
The bathroom door opened, and in walked some of the other spouses who had watched us from the couch, one with a beautiful Colombian accent and the other with a comforting southern Alabama drawl. They had followed me in to check on me. I felt so silly standing there crying, but they assured me they felt the same way too. It wasn’t their first time. They told me the feeling doesn’t go away, you just learn how to live with it. I didn’t believe them.
That deployment introduced me to “Murphy’s Law of Deployment”: What can go wrong during a spouse’s absence will go wrong. It was trial by fire as I navigated small, winding roads in a left-hand drive with a British-accented TomTom GPS system as my guide. Then my car broke down. While my car was in the shop, my radiator quit working, leaving me with no heat or hot showers. It was February in England, and I lived in a 300-year-old house that was older than my birth country.
I decided I couldn’t “rough it” and called one of the other young spouses, who had wide, terrified eyes like mine that night. She welcomed me into her home, and we spent three weeks together, watching the news trying to figure out where our husbands were and what they might be doing. We avoided leaving the house or using the internet because, in the olden days of 2007, troops couldn’t call our British cell phones, and if they called while you were on the computer, it wouldn’t go through the dial-up connection.
Our husbands, and their crews, made it home safely after about a month. Their mission appeared on the news, and I started to understand what it truly meant to serve. That surprise deployment was the first of many. My husband has gone on to serve eight combat deployments, countless temporary duty assignments, yearlong schools and commands away from the family, and more “surprise, I’m leaving” missions than I can begin to count.
Fifteen years later, I no longer cry in bathrooms, but I do follow the terrified-looking new spouses in to reassure them they are brave enough. I am now a part of the flock of blue birds flying in and out of places, viewing the world through quick glimpses and trying to plant seeds. I no longer stalk news stations trying to figure out where he is because I learned long ago that watching the news during “real-world situations” is terrifying when you have someone you love there.
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“Murphy’s Law of Deployment” still strikes often and fiercely, with broken refrigerators the week before Thanksgiving, sick kids, and worldwide pandemics closing down schools and travel. If there is one thing I have learned in my 15 years as a military spouse, it is that I am brave enough.