Last Friday I was buttering my bagel at work when a colleague married to a former marine walked into the room.
“Happy Veteran’s Day,” she said softly. “Thank you for your service. I mean it.”
Somewhat flustered, I mumbled, “Um, Happy Veteran’s Day, you too.”
It’s been years since someone thanked me for my service. I frantically racked my brain in a flustered silence, trying to figure out if, at some point in the last year, I’d made some statement that implied I had been the one in the military – not my ex-husband. But after a few minutes, I remembered her husband was a marine before they got married, and I remembered that, while I was married, I was thanked for my service regularly.
Military spouses don’t “serve” the nation in nearly the same capacity as those in uniform, but the sacrifices of those spouses absolutely helps the contributions of their loved ones. I felt strange and almost guilty accepting her gratitude for those years so long past for me, but then I thought about just how much the military shaped my life, without my ever donning a uniform.
My brother joined the Navy right after high school. He’s super smart but wanted to see the world instead of going to college. Joke’s on him: he spent most of his active time stationed 20 minutes from our grandparents’ home in Rhode Island, and he attended the Naval Academy after applying on a whim during his third year. Now in the Reserves after getting married and starting a family, his service was the closest to my heart for years.
Both of our grandfathers were in the military. Our father was a merchant marine – not the same thing, but still gone for months at a time “on duty.”
And then, I married an Airman-turned-Soldier in the process of earning his Green Beret. I didn’t know anything about the Army. I remember Googling some of the peculiar terms he’d use in our phone conversations: BDUs (now-obsolete), ACUs, TDY. I didn’t realize “redeploy” meant coming home, not going overseas again. I couldn’t read ranks and although I knew he was a lieutenant, I had no idea where that fell in the chain of command.
I learned all of the above in less than a year. I ended up working at a military museum, reading books and speaking with veterans every day. I spent 300 days of each of the first three years we were together alone in our house while he was TDY or deployed. 300 days out of every 365 for three straight years. How do you even begin to build a relationship with that kind of schedule?
Thanks to geography, I was surrounded by people either currently serving or retired from service. My rock band ended up touring with a couple other bands comprised primarily of vets and active-duty soldiers. We performed at benefits and September 11th memorial concerts and huge July 4th celebrations. An interview I gave made it into the Army Times and, to this day, is still some of the biggest press I’ve received.
Being married to the military 100% changed my life, for better or for worse. I learned how to fix a toilet that wouldn’t stop running, how to mow a lawn, how to shoot a gun, how to bake cupcakes in jars so they wouldn’t spoil, how to be even more independent than I already was, despite being in a relationship, how to be patient, and how to stay strong when I was worried. In return, I now have friends the world over, in various stages of life, and I’ve visited many of them. There’s a subculture sisterhood these other wives (and former wives) and I share, and there’s a nearly-brazen “do it yourself/get it done” attitude I share with those who served, male or female. I can’t find those connections with other civilians. You had to live it to understand, and it shaped so much of who I am now.
In the end, the military lifestyle wasn’t for me. I also learned I wanted a partner who could be there for me, not only mentally but physically. I wanted a partnership in which my goals and dreams carried equal weight. My self-reliance borne of necessity eventually led me to want to rely solely on myself. I felt guilty for so long, for leaving a lifestyle that had changed me so much, for letting down the people who said I’d be great at this, and for leaving a good man who just wasn’t good for me. I think that guilt is why I felt so strange accepting my colleague’s thanks last week. But those years are absolutely 100% a large part of my history and who I am, and I’m glad for that. That time in my life wasn’t easy but it taught me a lot about myself and the people with whom I choose to spend my time. I didn’t serve in uniform, but I did serve, in a small way, by being there for my loved ones and friends.