In the fall of 1971 as the Vietnam war was winding down my long time boyfriend enlisted in the Air Force to avoid being drafted. Seven months after I graduated from high school, I left my hometown to marry him after he finished boot camp. The husbands of the two couples who attended our wedding at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi were his classmates who he had known for mere days. There was no one from either of our families present. He was the oldest of six children who had known too much responsibility and I was the youngest of four girls who had known little. We were excited to be starting a new adventure together thinking we were escaping the ho-hum of the small town we grew up in.
We learned quickly that military life was unlike what we were used to. There were many rules to be followed by the service member; no calling in sick, wear the uniform with precise requirements of creases and boot shine, learn how to budget on little pay, don’t even ask to have a holiday off, live and work where you were told to, and sometimes end up working in a job field different than the one the recruiter promised you. We were young and giddy, we didn’t recognize these rules as sacrifices of our freedom, it was just how things worked. For him, he had a job with good benefits, and for me; I was getting to “see the world.”
Now it’s almost 50 years later and I have realized when I left home, the familiarity of family and friends went with me. I lost, sacrificed, a personal connection to the daily lives of my sisters and their families and my school chums and their siblings. Had I stayed near my hometown I would have maintained a closeness to my nieces and nephews. I would have known one of my classmates became a local businessman able to pay for the town’s new playground and own a golf course. I would have known the neighbor’s little brother ended up working for the state and has been able to retire comfortably at age 55. Instead, I met lots of people who I have no connection to today. The exception being one girlfriend that is a letter writer who keeps the communication alive. I’m attempting to regain friendships with people I grew up with via Facebook. It isn’t all that satisfying nor successful.
My life as a military wife expanded my horizons like I didn’t know was possible, but I sacrificed my roots to live in a bigger puddle of experience. I can’t change the past, but I can go to my veterans’ writing group and discuss what I have learned. They will understand because they sacrificed their roots too, or in one lady’s case, she feels she has lost familiarity with her child to the service.
Diane’s son is a 10-year Marine and now a Major. She tearfully shared with me she doesn’t know her son anymore. Her memory of him is an immature, but driven college student and now he is a man and she didn’t witness the growth because he was “off in the service.” She continued to tell me when they Facetime and she asks what he is doing at work, his answer is, “You know Mom, military stuff.” The sad fact is Mom doesn’t know. She doesn’t know when he switches girlfriends or where he might be stationed in two years. She doesn’t know when he buys a new car or has a toothache and he doesn’t think to tell her. She tells him she would like to set up a ZOOM chat with him and his sister and he says he has to deal with his men first. She has fallen on the list of importance for him. It hurts her and he doesn’t realize it because his focus is elsewhere. She feels like she has lost him and longs to see his face more often. I expect some sons stay in touch better, but this is her story. (Name changed for privacy.)
The Rochester Veterans Writing Group book, United in Service, United in Sacrifice is now available on Amazon. The writing group is proud the project is finished, of their service, and of being able to share their experiences to maintain a record and help non-military folk understand the sacrifices some made so others didn’t have to.
In the book I didn’t use a pen name, so look for Sue Spitulnik’s essay. Included in the back are prompts you are welcome to use to help you start a personal notebook or writing group.
In the comments please tell about something you have given up, sacrificed, for the good of others.
If you would like to contact me personally, you can do so through my blog Susansleggs.com.
Excellent book description. Your intro should be mandatory reading for anyone wanting to marry into the military life.
During my years as the wife of a chief warrant officer with access to military housing for captains, I saw some of the enlisted housing and knew that if I had married a private, I probably would have left him in a year instead of 4.
Doesn’t it seem that we are filled with regret over the loss of time with family, while family that stayed at home might have been dreaming of a life where they could see the world? In truth, no life is perfect and had we lived the one we thought was better we would have been filled with different, but as many, regrets.
I could share stories about the base housing I lived in in the U.K. They called it substandard and it was, but we didn’t have to pay rent!
I have to admit when I left home to be a military wife, I didn’t know one of the results would be losing touch with those close to me. I thought everyone would write letters. I quickly found out that most people were not letter writers.
You are correct. A different life, different results. It makes good writing fodder.
Reblogged this on Carrot Ranch Literary Community.
That’s quite a story, Susan, and I’m sure the book is quite a book. How wonderful it must be for the authors to have an avenue through which to share their stories and for others to learn from them. I’m sure the telling was painful for many and, perhaps, therapeutic for some. My dad saw service in WWII. Like many others, though he lived, he gave up much of the life that might have been and carried a harsh burden for the rest of his life. War is destructive in more ways than one. Your post is a great reminder of the damage that it, or even service without action in war, can do.
Most of my friends wrote “sharable” information about their general days on duty, but Gary Redlinski who worked in a Vietnam war morgue tent for two tours wrote a poem about a “man he never met.” That one needs a box of tissues.
We had two WWII vets until recently when we lost Kurt. They both admit they saw death but reiterated they did what they had to do to stay alive. Bob turned 95 in May and is a treasure to know. Both have stories in the book.
Yes, the front lines of war especially, but any kind of service can indeed do physical and emotional damage to any service member and their family members.
So many different stories, so many different life trajectories. Some do better than others. Thanks once again for sharing these stories.
Thanks for reading, Norah.
this is an amazing story, Susan, and you can really speak to the experience. it should be mandatory reading for all who are considering joining the military. no judgement, just consider it. you are a gifted writer and I’m glad you’ve found your literary voice.
Thank you, Beth.
My voice does get louder when on a military storyline because that is what I have experienced. My writing group friends are my most intimate friends. We share truths among ourselves we don’t feel safe sharing elsewhere.
Thank you for sharing Susan. For those who have no military connection/background other than perhaps an extended family member can learn from your words.
It is our pleasure to share Ann. We do hope our experiences will help others understand the experience.
Oh Susan, I resonate so strongly with your powerful and moving story. I wasn’t married long to my GI, but by moving away to be with him, I set in motion a lifetime of separation from my family when I ended up living in California for almost 20 years. I have spent a lifetime saying goodbye to my dear ones, not knowing the ins nd outs of their daily lives. That deep loss of connection. How wonderful to have your group of writers to share their deep and personal experiences. What a connection. What a sacrifice as military wives and mothers about which we know nothing. Thanks to your book, now we do. These are stories we need to read. I need to read. And ditto the comments above <3
Thank you, Sherri.
I will take a computer with me when my writing group meets next and share these comments. They will be humbled, yet excited, that their stories are doing what we had hoped them to do, extend understanding.
We have discussed why people that leave home to serve often don’t go back. Our thoughts are that happens because the person experiences a large world so feels they wouldn’t fit in back home anymore, and sometimes because of what they have had to do while on duty. It is a sacrifice.
That’s a wonderful idea to share these comments with your writing group, Susan. We need to understand your sacrifices, more than ever today <3
Excellent. I went in the Air Force in 1976. That was the beginning of my life. My childhood was difficult and as a foster child I created a new life. Best decision I could have made. I didn’t have close friends or family at home, so I never experienced that sense of loss. My husband is a retired 100% Air Force vet. We still use the base for prescriptions, but otherwise our lives have always been connected to the military. This sounds like a fabulous read!
Thank you, Colleen, for your and your husband’s service.
I’m glad the Air Force was good for/to you. It would be fun to talk about whee you were stationed and MOS’s. Sherri (above) and I have figured out we may have been on the same street at the same time in Norfolk or Suffolk, England. It’s fun to know we share a small world connection.
Get out! I was stationed at RAF Lakenheath from November 1980 to July 1983! How cool is that??
My ex was stationed at Lakenheath from mid ’74 to mid ’77. We lived one year in Brandon, one at Feltwell and one in Thetford. My daughter was born there in Dec. ’74. Small world.
Giddy in your younger years, reflective 50 years later. Yes, I would say that the sacrifice of roots is a common shared experience. I’ve often written about how rootless I feel with the number of times my husband and I have moved. I used to think we were improving our lives or opportunities. Then It got to be that I had to fight him to give our kids stability with those opportunities. It never occurred to me that he was “self-deploying” a trait many veterans have. When his PTSD and brain injuries converged, it led to us wandering about homeless. To him, it was familiar and “on mission.” To me, it was a nightmare of uncertainty and instability. I’ve learned so much about the altered brain of a veteran, and see that I, too have sacrificed roots in order to help him carry his burden. I’m going to share copies of your book with with my veteran spouses group. Bravo to you all!
It will be an honor to have you share our book with your veteran spouses’ group. One day I hope to meet them. I’m sure we could chat for hours.
I had not heard the term “self-deploying” but it may apply to me too. While living in Washington, I kept the same job the whole time but moved so many times I was turned down for a vehicle loan. Who knew.
I was interested to read your story, Susan, which, perhaps strangely, reminded me of an academic I studied years ago about the pressures on “diplomatic wives”. Which then makes me wonder how many men there are in veteran spouses’ groups, as I’d wager it’s generally the woman in heterosexual partnership who makes the sacrifice.
It’s a shame to lose touch with your roots, but I also think there are always losses and gains at any decision point. I tend to be more curious about those who DON’T leave the place they grew up in. Are they stuck/bogged down or simply planted in firm ground?
Good question about those that don’t leave their roots. My father used to say, “He sure lives in a small puddle,” meaning not a lot of different life experiences. I see one of my sisters that way. Stuck in a small town mindset. As you say, each has it’s plus and minuses.
I grew up an Army brat, moving and losing the few friends I made every other year. No place in particular is home, there is nowhere to go back to, and once my family disintegrated, there is also no sense of belonging to anyone not immediately in front of me.
Yet I would change NOTHING about growing up in the military.
My family would have exploded anyway, friends who do not make an effort to keep in touch were never that good of friends, and increasingly I see those who lived nonmilitary lives lose friends and family and sense of place as surely as anything I experienced. But what I have over them is an irreplaceable world view, a respect for other people, other countries, other cultures; I can pack and move anywhere anytime and adapt quickly.
I have come to realize home is where the heart is, where pets sleep, where family IS and not where they are from (which is all but unrecognizable today with the rate of tearing things down to build strip malls no one rents or shops at).
But my family is also all of those other military kids, their fathers and mothers, and all of those who went before and came after. The military is a unique community filled with community sufferings and community experiences. We know how to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, because we watched our veteran fathers, mothers, and possibly siblings do the same.
We know we can survive whatever we have to, that we never say “die” even when every pore screams it. We love our country with all of its faults, because we see what else is out there calling itself good government. We know what we have and what we stand to lose if we are not responsible adults And we know we owe solidarity to any veteran and their family who needs ANY kind of help ANY time. We know that despite our differences, we are all in this together.
In the end we may be hampered by a disinterested government when all is said and done, but in our hearts we really believe no man or woman should ever be left behind. We believe service has no color, no race, no religion…because we just stopped seeing it.
And maybe it is a difference not only of personal experience, but of duration serving… But I know I will never regret the experience. I am a better, more self-reliant person for it.
Thank you Dad, for your military service, and for putting up with the childhood tears and tantrums; it was all worth it. Thank you Vietnam Veterans, for enduring the unthinkable, and taking a part of me with you…YOU are my family. Always. And so are your families who served with you…
KC you put the whole experience into words. Your description tells the truth about the results of living a military life. It also explains why those who haven’t lived it don’t know what we mean when we say some “don’t get it.” Thanks for expanding on the understanding. Go Army.
I can imagine your experience – while I didn’t quite grow up in the military – I did move around and had very little roots until settling in to where I am now (about 30 years ago). From birth until now I must have moved over twenty-five times before our current home.
I always ended up starting in new schools and never finishing in them. So no real lasting friendships. And I was the youngest of the youngest… so to speak so there were no younger cousins after me to visit and become close with.
I have relatives who were in WWII, served in peace and now currently have a niece and nephew in the Army. It is unfortunate to still in this day we hear how they are not being treated well. They don’t talk about time served out of the country much. And depending on where you are stationed the medical services are different. Shouldn’t they be the same everywhere?
Does all the grief of not being allowed to homestead balance out with the other educational and travel opportunities? Just found out from my niece who enjoys a high rank that the Army is still a ‘Good Ole’ Boys’ network so after her 20… she may shift to the government for a job.
There is much the families of soldiers and soldiers sacrifice and they do not get enough back. Thank you. Thank you. And Thank you! Those of all services and the family that truly have their backs.
Thank you for sharing your experiences Jules. There certainly are other folks who don’t have roots besides military brats. I do belive my travels rounded me much better as a writer. It’s only been recently that I have regretted not having roots.
I too have heard the ‘Good Ol’Boys’ network is still a major force, and I agree those who serve don’t get in return what they deserve. I wish there were an easy solution.
Thank you to your family and loved ones for choosing to serve.
I feel like the sacrifices you’ve mentioned make the ones us civvies do feel… pale. I have sacrificed time, money, stuff like that.
I don’t know if this counts, but one time I called out some sexist nonsense during a church business meeting and got kicked out. I lost touch with ost of those people, but it was maybe my biggest sacrifice.
I have to admit, when I left home, I didn’t feel it was a sacrifice. It’s only now, in my senior years, I am realizing what I missed, but my life experience puddle is so much larger than my sisters I feel fortunate. Hard to decide which is better.
Grass is always greener on the other side.
An interesting post, Susan. Your thoughts about your lack of roots are thought provoking. My mom left the UK and came out to South Africa when my biological father died. I was three months old. Her sister lived here and offered to look after me while my mom worked to support us. My mom met and married my dad who had a job that necessitated a lot of moving around the country. I went to more than 14 schools and lived in more than 21 different houses. We only had the one aunt here in South Africa. We didn’t have any roots either. I think it made me very removed from people. I never held on to any relationships from my youth either.
I’m sorry you didn’t get to know your real father, but it sounds as if your ste-father has done a great job. It’s an interesting point that you feel removed from people. I have trouble trusting that people will stay in my life so don’t get too close very often. The psychologists would have fun studying us.