Navy LT Stephen Thompson, the author’s son, in Afghanistan, 2013. Photo courtesy Sarah Colby

When It’s Hard to Be Mom

It was a hot July day, 30 years ago, when I went from being single and a civilian to married and a military dependent family member. In the course of one afternoon, with my eight-year-old son, I got an ID card, and I enrolled in the military health care system and made sure my contact information was correct on the emergency notification roster—just in case. I didn’t think much about it. Why would I? It was a peace-time Army. My husband, a career counselor serving in an Active Guard/Reserve slot, didn’t need to move much. His plans and path to becoming a chaplain would keep us in the greater Salt Lake City area for several years, and there was a good chance that we would be picked up by a Guard unit near us, so things felt quite stable.

Less than one month later, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In the beginning, I was not too alarmed by this—there was only speculation that the U.S. would be involved in a Middle East dust-up. That all changed on Jan. 17, 1991. I was my son’s Cub Scout den mother on an ice skating excursion with an energetic crew of little boys. In the middle of our session, the ice rink stopped the music and announced that early that morning, a massive U.S.-led air offensive had targeted critical infrastructure sites in Iraq. Operation Desert Storm had begun. We were a nation at war.

As soon as the announcement ended, the boys went back to skating, blissfully unaware of exactly what that news might mean. I gripped the railing so tightly my fingers cramped. The ice rink full of happy boys all of a sudden seemed far away, like I was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I felt the world shift, take a new tilt, everything as slippery as the ice under my feet.

I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, or what would happen next. I barely knew anyone in the Army unit. None of my friends were military spouses. A tangle of questions tumbled in my head like clothes in the dryer—What about all of our plans for schooling? Would this mean a deployment?—questions I had no experience to answer. I did the only thing I could think of, which was to focus on what was at hand, figuring things out one step at a time. When my husband walked in the door that night, I gave him a big hug and said, “Whatever happens next, I’ve got your back.”

The author’s husband, Army Chaplain Cloyd Colby, Iraq deployment, 2008. Photo courtesy of Sarah Colby

The author’s husband, Army Chaplain Cloyd Colby, Iraq deployment, 2008. Photo courtesy of Sarah Colby

Since that hug, lots of things have happened. While my husband did not deploy for Operation Desert Storm, by the time U.S. involvement in Bosnia ramped up in 1995 he was an active-duty chaplain. He deployed there for 10 months in 1998 as part of a peacekeeping mission. It was our first long separation. My first time to understand the true value of a military spouse community—there for each other in matters large and small, and understanding how hard it is to be Mom when Dad is deployed. For an entire school year it was just me helping with homework, cheering football games, and taking prom pictures. It wasn’t the same. Neither were Christmas and birthdays, or even dinnertime.

On Sept. 11, 2001, we were stationed in Germany. In the early afternoon, alone on my living room floor, I watched the Twin Towers in New York City fall, over and over again, on every channel on my TV.

The world had taken a tilt that day. And in March of 2003, with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it tilted even more. Units from Germany, which for the most part had not been deployed for Afghanistan, were now slated for combat. My husband’s primary assignment at this time was as a family life chaplain. He was a key component of family counseling, separation preparation, and redeployment counseling, working long hours and most weekends. I often assisted with the workshops and family retreats, which gave me an intimate look at the effects of war on military families. It hit hard. But I knew how to be part of that community, to be Army family. I talked with worried spouses, listening deep into the night. I held the hands of women in labor, a poor substitute for a husband or a mother; visited wounded soldiers; made meals; tended children; and offered heartfelt prayers, not just in chapel services but all day. Every day.

Eventually it was my turn. While we were stationed at Fort Pols, Louisiana, my husband deployed to Iraq as part of the mission known as the Surge. He was based on the outskirts of Sadr City, one of the more dangerous places at that time. By now our nest was empty. Without the busyness and distractions of children, the 15 months of separation loomed long and lonely. Mostly I carried on as usual. I took some courses to keep my resume fresh. I went to work. I played Bunco, went to movies, held more hands, listened to more late-night distress calls. But I couldn’t watch the news, and I kept my cell phone charged and with me all the time, because I didn’t want to miss a call, rarely thinking about the calls I wouldn’t want to get. I flinched if the doorbell rang in the middle of the afternoon, fearing it might be an official notification team. I prayed all day. Every day. But I was lucky. My husband came home, whole in body and sound in mind, though we were both changed forever. A war does not let you stay the same.

Helicopter view of date palms in Iraq, 2008. Photo courtesy of Sarah Colby

Helicopter view of date palms in Iraq, 2008. Photo courtesy of Sarah Colby

By this time, that little boy on the skating rink was a grown man with a wife and children. He was a successful physical therapist, living in Lubbock, Texas. I was feeling content that all was well. Until he decided to join the Navy. The Navy? Who joins the Navy in dry-as-a-bone West Texas? But join he did at age 30. On a lovely spring day in 2012 under a high, blue Texas sky, with his wife and two young children beside him, my son raised his right hand and took the oath of office as a lieutenant in the United States Navy. The ceremony was flawless. Everyone was smiling. It was a proud moment—but only a moment.

I switched from pride to disbelief, and then to anger. At my son, standing there with his smiling wife and happy children—how could he possibly think this was a good idea? At my husband—11 years into a seemingly endless conflict, how could he have administered the oath of office to our boy? This was no peace-time military! At myself—why didn’t I talk him out of this?

I tried to take comfort in knowing I had been through this before. After all, I was a seasoned Army wife, practiced at deployments, familiar with uncertainty, accustomed to military red tape, and proud of the role I played in serving our country. Yet I was not prepared for how different it felt to be the mother of a service member. Was not prepared for my hands to instinctively reach to cradle my womb. Sending a husband to war would be different than sending a son. In that moment, after the ceremony, all I could see was that little boy, and it was my job to protect him, and I knew full well I couldn’t.

Navy LT Stephen Thompson, the author’s son, in Afghanistan, 2013. Photo courtesy Sarah Colby

Navy LT Stephen Thompson, the author’s son, in Afghanistan, 2013. Photo courtesy Sarah Colby

I looked again at my daughter-in-law, seeing myself 22 years ago, optimistic and anticipating great things ahead. That afternoon she would get her ID card, would enroll herself and her children in the military health care system, would put her name on the notification roster. She would officially be a fellow military spouse.

My son was assigned as the physical therapist to a SEAL team. Wherever they went, he went, including Afghanistan, in the foothills in small outposts behind Hesco barriers and barbed wire. This was not a safe place. I longed for the days when it was enough to zip his coat, put on his mittens, and pull his cap over his ears to send him armored into the world.

Instead, I sent care packages and letters. Invited my daughter-in-law and grandchildren to spend several months with us. Together she and I flinched at the doorbell in the middle of the afternoon. She was never far from her cell phone. When my son called her, I was glad. It meant that he was OK. I gained appreciation for my mother-in-law, who knew just how hard it was to be the Mom. We all prayed, all day, every day. Again, we were lucky.

At this point there are no more deployments in our foreseeable future. My husband is ready to retire. My son chose to leave the Navy and return to civilian life. He and his family live nearby. I’m proud of his military service; my husband’s too. And, no matter their medals, I will always wish to keep them safe.

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Sarah Colby

Sarah Colby

Sarah Colby is the wife of an active-duty chaplain in the U.S Army and mother to a Navy veteran son. She is currently working on a manuscript of poems gathered from her experiences and travels as a military spouse. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, where she mentors veteran/military writing groups.

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