For Military Families, a 'Merry-Go-Round' of Deployments

Nov 22, 2016

Ginger Munson of Bedford has a rare perspective on being part of a military family. She is a veteran herself and her husband, George, serves in the N.H. Army National Guard. They met when they were both serving in Korea. She spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about life in a military family.

If you could, Ginger, paint a picture for us of what it’s like to be someone in your position, someone who is married to someone in the military.

One that I thought about more recently, I called it “the Sea Captain’s Wife.” Your image of that is that the wife’s constantly scanning the horizon. Today’s version of that is often through media and through our communications. There’s email now, and when my husband deployed he’s in a living situation he’s fortunate enough to be able to have email.

It starts quite innocently. You talk or communicate maybe once a week or maybe every two or three days, and then all of a sudden two or three days go by and you haven’t seen that email, you don’t see his name in the title or a quick “hi” or “hello,” and often your imagination runs away with you. Certainly you’re in the here and now, you have to go about your day to day, so half of your brain is doing the day to day. Going to work, doing things with the kids, doing things with your neighbors. The other half is distracted. You wait until the end of the day, you check your emails – “Ah! Is something there?” So there’s this constant vigilance, if you will, or this constant scanning of the horizon.

You live half time in real time here and half time checking the horizon. And you can get yourself pretty worked up about it. I’ve done that before, and then kind of had to talk myself out of it, “Oh, it’s fine. He’s a pilot. Sometimes he goes two or three days, so I’m sure internet ‘s down.” And then eventually you get the email that says, “Hey, sorry. I had to go up north. It’s been busy and I’m exhausted.” And I’m relieved, absolutely. And then I finally exhale and I think, “Wow, I’m exhausted, too.” I’ve been checking that horizon, I’ve been holding stress I didn’t know, I’ve been constantly on vigil.

Ginger Munson holds a family photo at her home in Bedford, N.H.
Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

And another image you’ve made reference to in the past is what you refer to as the merry-go-round. Tell us about that.

The merry-go-round. Some of us have had to go through more than one deployment, and there’s definitely a complete circle that happens in this. You have the time that you find out that your person is going away, and it’s usually about a year ahead and initially there’s shock, interest, dismay. Who knows what? But you settle into it.

Then as time gets closer to the deployment, certain things start to get squirrely around the house. Everyone gets emotional in different ways. Usually the person leaving has a lot they have to do and take care of and a lot they feel responsible for, and I’m often, I want to spend more time, so that’s the before. Then you have your away time, and again that’s a transition and they finally leave and get on the plane and go, and you settle into whatever your new pattern is.

And then you have the welcome home, which in many respects is great. But then not long after the welcome home you realize, “Oh my, we both do things differently now, and you’ve been away for a year and you’re used to living on your own or being responsible for x, y, z, and I’m used to being here, and…” So it’s another transition but it’s kind of this whole circle.

And then, as has been my experience, you may be home a year and a half and then you get another notice and you’re going again, so now you’re back on the merry-go-round again. And you don’t get much time off to just be and live life in kind of more normal fashion – if there is a normal.

I think a lot of people would, if they’re not in a military family situation, just imagine it’s a simple series of comings and goings, but here you are describing the emotions that go with it. And I imagine if you have children, which you do, that you have to be the rock, right? Where your kids maybe feel emotions that they’re not sure how to cope with, and you as the responsible adult have to help them through it and experience your own emotions.

That is very true. This last deployment was interesting. My second oldest child was a senior in high school, and we started off the year kind of strong. We knew he’d be gone sort of her whole senior year. But maybe about a month in there’d just be a few mornings that I’d be home getting ready to go to work, and all of a sudden she would come back in the driveway from having gone to school, or so I thought, and she would just come in the door and I’d look at her like, “Oh, honey, what did you forget?” And then I’d see that look in her eyes, and then I’d see the tears, and she would just look at me and say, “I can’t do it.” And that happened more than once. It was a little unsettling the first time. I didn’t really know what to do. And then I just learned to draw her in, give her a big hug and say, “I know. It stinks. I’m sorry.” We’d hug a little bit, we’d cry a little bit, we’d eventually laugh a little bit, and we’d get through. But yes, there’s often that component of having to be there for others.

Listening to your story, it feels like when civilians like me say, "Thank you for your service," that barely covers it.

Yes. You know, the “thank you for your service” is an interesting campaign, shall we say. A lot of people say, “Oh yes, you really need to say thank you or your service.” And number one: yes, I think it barely covers it.

Number two: it’s hard to receive thanks when on the one hand it is something you just do. My husband and I made this choice. We decided this is his profession. I decided it when I went into the military. So to thank someone for their job, it can be awkward on our part.

Also, and here’s the really key point: I think it can very easily minimize the situation or cover it over because in using “thank you for your service,” you’re not really engaging in what really is the sacrifice, what does really that service mean? Yes, you’re appreciative. I think it’s much more important or impactful to say, “Tell me how it was for you.” Engage a little bit more. “What did you do there?” Use it to start a conversation.

I’ve heard people say, "Start the conversation." Don’t say, "Thank you for your service," because that’s not a conversation starter. What’s our response? "You’re welcome"? That feels weird, but also it ends the conversation. 

One of the things I’ve heard civilians be cautioned about is don’t ask too many questions, you don’t want to bring up bad memories of service, or painful memories. So maybe that lack of understanding is leading to an abundance of caution on the part of civilians?

You make a good point because, yes, there are certain specific questions that aren’t good to ask. But I think there’s open-ended questions and curious questions. "Tell me about your time in service if you feel comfortable,” or “What did you do there?” It will take a little thought on the part of the asker, but I think there are some good and safe and encouraging questions that you get asked that would be good.

Tags: