It is safest, always, to assume that any moments of grace in what we know as reality television are somewhat accidental and largely incidental. That is, they require a large measure of good luck, whether in casting or in circumstance, and while they might be the reason the show was made, they are not the reason the show was put on television.
It's even true for Oprah.
The Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, is the home of the little-watched, hardly discussed, but surprisingly graceful Married To The Army: Alaska, which admittedly sounds like a stew cooked up from other shows: all the Alaska shows, all the tough-dude shows, all the Real Housewives shows. And, of course, it benefits from the success of Lifetime's drama Army Wives. But it's none of those things, quite. [The show, after unfortunately bouncing around the schedule in recent weeks, is airing its final three episodes back to back beginning at 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, Dec. 29.]
Married follows seven women whose husbands are stationed in Alaska, whose husbands are deployed to Afghanistan with various parts of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) 25th Infantry Division. Yolanda is married to the brigade commander; Blair is married to a staff sergeant; Lindsey and Rynn are both married to majors; Salina is married to a sergeant; and Traci and Sara are married to specialists. All have children: Yolanda's son at West Point; Rynn's teenagers; Lindsey and Sara's little kids; Traci's baby. Salina's baby is on the way.
Parts of the show are indeed familiar elements for any regular viewer of any other reality show. Traci, in particular, is very young, very dramatic and given to loud arguments. She and Sara are friends — and then not friends. (The words "threw me under the bus" are even used.) She and Blair are friends — or maybe not friends. Lindsey used to be married to an enlisted soldier and now agonizes over the effect everything she does might be having on the reputation of the officer she's married to now, because she's convinced everyone thinks she married "up" for the status and the money. Seeing herself as the guardian of proper behavior for wives, she's horrified when Traci says in front of other wives — including officers' wives — that she met her husband while working at Hooters. Of course, much of a type as she might seem, Traci is also raising a little baby by herself in Alaska, and while she and her husband haven't known each other long, she frets over him and longs for him to come home.
Some of the other women's stories are substantially less common to the reality format, though. Both Blair and Rynn are being treated for depression, and Rynn is finding that, to her surprise, this deployment — her husband's fourth (he's been to Kosovo once and Iraq twice) — is harder than the ones the family went through when her children were younger. Yolanda's genuinely enormous job — as the brigade commander's wife, she's essentially in charge of the support system for the families of 3,500 soldiers — weighs on her, particularly when the group suffers several deaths during the series' run. Sara acknowledges grave doubts about the military-spouse life for herself, saying at one point that she cannot imagine doing this for years and years as, for instance, Yolanda has. "We've got to get out of the Army," she says plainly. (By the way, while the tone of the show is bullish about the decision to serve and enormously praising of the sacrifices made by families, it's largely agnostic about the particular mission these soldiers are on, neither criticizing it nor cheering for it, particularly.)
I sat down a few weeks ago to talk to Yolanda and Rynn, as well as producer Stephanie Drachkovitch, over breakfast. We chatted a bit about production and the six-year process of getting the show from conception through Army approval to air.
But soon, Yolanda and Rynn got chatting about "reintegration," the process of soldiers coming home, which isn't as easy as you might think, as much as they've been looking forward to it. "For our husbands coming back," Yolanda says of her husband and Rynn's, "they're commanders. They're in authoritative positions ... they think, just do this this and this, and move out. And you're supposed to act like you're a soldier. I'm not your soldier, sweetie, I'm your wife." Drachkovitch says with a chuckle that when it comes to what goes on at home, Goins refers to his wife as the commander of "the 1209," after their street address, while he's the commander of the brigade, the 425. "He's like, 'I gotta yield that to the commander of the 1209.' "
It doesn't come easy when spouses try to adjust to living together after spending so much time apart under such stressful circumstances. "This is how Morris and Casey explained it," Yolanda says. "They're over there, 10 months, and the only thought that keeps them going is, 'I just want to get back to Yolanda.' 'I want to get back to Rynn, and have her hold me.' 'She's there, she's going to love me and take care of me.' Unfortunately — that's a good thought — unfortunately, for us, because our lives went on over the 10-month period, there are obligations even we have now with the children, me with work, and so the unfortunate part is, that's what they expect ... and so that is such a big picture in their minds. And Morris admitted this last night. He expects me to just sit with him and hold his hand. Don't talk on the phone. Don't read your email. Just — I need you right here." And for her, spending a lot of time at home, particularly now that their son is at West Point, has shifted her perspective. "I am not the nurturer anymore," she says. "I am in control. There's stuff I need to do."
For Rynn, even the most pedestrian disruptions reminded her that things were changing after her husband, Casey, got back, no matter how incredibly relieved she was. She had, for instance, taken over his side of the bed. "I go back to my side of the bed," she says with a laugh, "but now I've got a different lamp, so my outlets are taken, so I have to use an outlet to charge my phone and I have to get out of bed to get my phone ... and I didn't know that the light switch had to be turned on for that outlet to work. So the first day, I wake up and my phone's dead. ... And I'm like, 'You're complicating everything!' "
Yolanda's role, of course, is different from almost everyone else's, because of the massive support structure that exists for military families and her place within it. She calls herself the grandma, while the leaders below her act more like moms. Here's her explanation: "You have the brigade senior adviser, that's me. And then each battalion has a senior adviser. And then below them, they have companies. So depending on the size of the battalion, they have from four to six companies in them. And each company has an FRG [Family Readiness Group] representative ... that's someone who's over 25, 30, 50 women." Or more accurately, mostly women. Of course, there are male military spouses. In fact, one of them is Yolanda's own FRG leader. And while she says he's gotten very involved in the group's activities, he didn't really have much choice about being a leader, because his wife is the commander. "It's her call," Yolanda says. Spouses of those who lead soldiers don't technically have to take these enormous (entirely unpaid) jobs back at home, but they generally do anyway. As Yolanda puts it, it's "not required, but definitely expected."
Of course, it's never far from the minds of any of these spouses, and never forgotten on the show, that while these women are arguing and hosting parties and juggling little kids, they live with grave risks that feel constantly nearby. And when there's a death, one of the first calls goes to Yolanda, because she's in charge of the support for all those families. When I asked her what happens when she gets that call, she spoke about the experience for about 10 minutes. These are her words.
"When the phone rings at three o'clock or five o'clock, you know what it is. And you know it's not your guy. Because it's never a call if it's your guy. They're going to come to your door. And so when the phone rings, you immediately know someone's seriously injured — meaning amputees — or someone's dead. So you know. And this is something that I recognize through talking to the video cam and them asking me questions, 'How do you do it?' I immediately compartmentalize.
"I go into, when I'm talking to my husband, I'm support. 'Are you OK, babe? Is everything OK?' I'm listening to his voice. Seeing how he's doing, that sort of thing. In one particular instance, we had a KIA [killed in action] and I said, 'Are you OK, babe?' because I could hear the strain in his voice. And he said, 'I'm fine. I'm Spartan 6.' And Spartan 6 is his, like, call sign, as the commander. And so I immediately said, 'I know you're Spartan 6, but you're my husband. Are you OK?' And he said, 'Yeah. Yeah,' and I could hear his voice kind of catch, and he said 'yeah, yeah.' So that's my No. 1 — my first role. 'Are you OK?' ...
"And then when I get off the phone, I pray. And that's ... what I do. That's really what I do. Because I know what's coming, generally within 24 hours, for somebody's mother. Children. You know, spouse. Friend. And I pray. And I ... pray. I probably talk to God more than I ever have, you know? Just, 'Help 'em, Lord.' I pray.
"And then — this has been very helpful for me — I talk to my video camera. Because I'm home by myself for the first time in 20 years, and so there's no ... I talk to God, and then I'm like, 'OK,' I talk to my video camera. In most cases, I was able to tell what happened, IED, attack on the — whatever the circumstance was.
"And by that time, I have to call the battalion senior adviser. So now I'm listening to her voice: Is she OK? Because she's got to compartmentalize, because she's got these — if it's a soldier and his spouse is there at Fort Rich, which we didn't have that in any of the circumstances, that would be most difficult. Your next-door neighbor, or a wife that you know. And it's always difficult, but you have a relationship with her. And you know her, and you know she likes pink flowers, you know her anniversary is — you know, and you know he's gone. That would make it more difficult. And so I'm listening to her voice now: Is she OK?
"And then usually — well, always, after 24 hours, and it could be longer, depending on how long the notification process — and when I say notification, that's when two uniformed officers, and it's someone of equal or higher rank, they're in their dress blues, you know, the crisp uniform. And always a chaplain comes to your door. And when you see that, you know. It just — no one's going to come to your door in a uniform of that nature unless your guy is gone. Or your girl is gone.
"And so once that is complete, with his primary and secondary next of kin ... always the wife, if he's married. Then 24 hours after that, you have to have what's called a town hall meeting. And that's when we pull in all the ladies, and it's organic to the company, or it could be we pull in everybody in that battalion. But it's open to everybody in the brigade. But generally speaking, [it's] the company, which is smaller than a battalion. The senior adviser of that battalion makes that call, along with their Rear D command, you know, what they think — and it just depends on circumstances. Sometimes it's three guys, you know, within a battalion — OK, let's just pull in everybody. Sometimes it's just one guy in a company, and they, that's their call. I'm just the grandma. They're the mom. So they make that decision.
"And so [suppose] I went to all the town hall meetings. And now I'm different, because OK, I'm at home. When I think about it, I'm able to cry, I'm able to release it; you know, yes, I scream; you know, all of those things. All of this — 'God, this is hard,' all of that.
"And then when I leave my house, now I'm Mrs. Goins. I'm no longer Yolanda, I'm Mrs. Goins. So I put on what I call my game face. I'm this — and it's probably self-imposed — but in my mind, I'm strong. The ladies know they can come to me. I'm there to comfort them if they need it. I'm there for the senior adviser. And [at] the town hall meeting, the Rear D commander gets up, and he says, you know, what happened; they release the information, the name; most times they can release the name, sometimes they can't, depending on circumstances. The name, what happened, as much detail as they can go in. They tell them notification has been complete. The senior adviser in most cases has a card. If they cannot release the name of the soldier, it'll say, 'This is the card for the fallen.' 'This is the card for the wounded.' If they can, the names are on them, you know, etc.
"And you know, I have never cried publicly. The first time I did was Mother's Day. At that town hall meeting. And I do know why — because I'm a mother. And one of the ladies [whose husband was killed] is expecting a baby. And that just sucker-punched me in the stomach. First child. And it's Mother's Day when she receives the notification. Because they have guidelines — if it falls on Mother's Day, it's Mother's Day. If it falls on, you know, Christmas ... they have so many hours that they have to do it, within a time period. So she got that notification on Mother's Day. Expecting a baby. And that just floored me.
"So I'm at the town hall meeting, and I never, never — I used to never cry publicly in front of my ladies. That was like ... and I just couldn't hold it in. ... It was good, because they saw — and it just is. They think you're this superhuman, 'The major's wife is here,' 'the general's wife,' you know, 'the commander's wife.' That's just the way it is. So they saw — 'She's human.' Which was really good. And it was good for me, because you know what? You're not superwoman. You're really not. And it's OK.