- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

Strong as steel, tender as an angel. Witness the military wife keeper of flame, flier of flag, payer of bills, mother, lover, partner, fixer. Her life includes the magnificent and the mundane, the noble and the frustrating. There are beautiful reunions, long waits, mad romance and moments when the reality of her husband's profession becomes unthinkably clear.
"One day, weeks after he had left, we got an e-mail message," said Rena Tumbleson, whose husband, Maj. Daryll Tumbleson, has been in Afghanistan for the past four months with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division.
"My husband told us that when we started feeling sad, to remember he was there for a just cause. And to remember those who have been lost, who didn't make it," she said. "That helped me, it helped our daughter, Shelby. I know we're going to make it through this, and we pray for those who didn't."
One popular parable about military wives has circulated in-house for years: The good Lord, it seems, was on overtime trying to create the very first military wife. The standard wife just wouldn't do.
This military wife would be independent, cheerful, have the heart of a lion, a generous spirit, run on black coffee, move her home 10 times in 17 years and have six pairs of hands, the Lord reasoned.
And the small tear on her cheek, the Lord said, was for the joy, sadness, pain, disappointment, loneliness, pride and dedication to the values she and her husband hold dear.
The wives themselves present a united front.
"We are a true sisterhood," Mrs. Tumbleson said. "Regardless of what service our husbands are in, we stick together, and we're proud of who we are. I wouldn't trade this life for anything."
September 11 has touched the hearts of every one of them.
"After 9/11, how can I complain if my husband must be away? My husband is eventually going to come home. Some people are not that fortunate. And he's doing something for his country," said Heather Welch of Norfolk, wife of Navy Lt. j.g. Bill Welch, who is currently serving in the Atlantic aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan.
This is her first deployment.
"What makes a strong military wife? You can't be selfish. When it comes to your husband's job, it can't be about you," Mrs. Welch said. "You have to be strong and accept what's happening."
The Navy, she said, has gone to great lengths to keep husbands and wives in contact with one another. She has received e-mails and a phone call every two weeks during her husband's six months at sea.
"I think September 11 has helped explain to my two children what their dad does," Mrs. Welch said. "They are proud to tell people about their father, and where he is."

Life without a husband
Military wives slowly learn to live with their husbands' absences. Life's major events continue to unfold: babies are born, first steps taken, holidays come and go. The wives reach out to each other, sharing the common joys and woes of those left behind.
At one of the many busy Internet Web sites (www.militarywives.com) for these women, husbands are depicted as heroes. Unabashedly proud and affectionate wives swap stories about "my sailor" or "my Marine," and their plans for a happy reunion. One young woman who married her husband just 9 hours before he was sent overseas was already planning his homecoming, which included champagne and Oreo cookies "his favorite."
Wives take care of each other, said Jeanette Frick, wife of Marine Col. Andrew P. Frick, who will soon return to their home in Camp Lejeune, N.C., after a nine-month rotation in the Arabian Sea.
"A Marine wife knows her husband is always deployable, so you can't be upset over things which you have no control," Mrs. Frick said. "You don't sit around and feel sorry for yourself. You learn how to survive. I encourage our wives not to dwell on the negative. If she gets depressed and vents to her husband and he gets distracted, it could jeopardize his safety."
Military wives are generous with their support.
"We're behind them 110 percent," Mrs. Tumbleson said. "And that extends to our single guys. If they have no family, no wife we make sure they know we're rooting for them, too."
But with all the pride, patriotism and can-do spirit, the visceral and often unspoken concern for her husband's safety and well-being is a constant for every wife.
"How will I know if my husband has left the area?" was a question posed in a matter-of-fact question/answer advisory for new Army wives at Fort Benning, Ga.
"Wives are notified of deployment by the Battalion Rear Detachment as soon as the information can be released. If you have not heard from your husband for several days and rumors lead you to suspect that he may have been deployed elsewhere, you may call the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge at Battalion Headquarters … don't panic," the advisory states.
"It is Army policy to notify the listed next of kin of injury or death as soon as possible," it continues. "Official notification of death during a deployment or other military exercise will always be made to the family by a uniformed member of the United States Army."

Closing ranks
In the most dire moments, the military closes ranks and guards its own, a quality brought home for the family of Army Ranger Cpl. Matthew A. Commons. The 21-year-old was the youngest of seven U.S. servicemen killed March 4 while fighting al Qaeda forces in eastern Afghanistan.
Fellow Rangers in full uniform gathered to sing "God Bless America" in the fallen soldier's Alexandria neighborhood during a candlelight vigil a week later. Another 25 arrived from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga., for his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Members of the Air Force and Marines attended, all of them in uniform.
It is all part of the experience.
"Marrying a service member means more than marrying the man it means marrying into the military family and its way of life," writes Lydia Sloane Cline in the 1998 book, "Today's Military Wife: Meeting the Challenges of Service Life," one of several dozen contemporary books on the art and science of military life.
"The military recruits soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines but it retains families. If the spouse is not happy, that service member may leave the service," said Lillie Cannon of the National Military Family Association (NMFA), a Virginia-based, primarily volunteer group originally founded as the National Military Wives Association in 1969.
But the wives have moved away from "the white glove" era with its strict pecking orders among senior and junior wives, Mrs. Cannon said. The emphasis for both enlisted and officer's wives is on the individual woman, who can work if she chooses. And most do: 63 percent of all military spouses are in the labor force, according to the NMFA, including 87 percent of junior enlisted spouses.
Overall, spouses are more educated and "not so satisfied with the 'me Tarzan, you Jane' approach to things. They see themselves more as a partner in a military which has become more family friendly," she said.
"My husband and I are a team," agrees Mrs. Tumbleson. "He can count on me to take care of things at home and focus on what he needs to focus on."

Importance of family
The all-volunteer military has had a profound shift in demographics in the last few decades. The majority of service members are married rather than single. The Department of Defense (DOD) has responded in turn, officially adding family satisfaction to the list of "intangibles" that can enhance or detract from military readiness.
According to DOD figures, there are about 1.3 million people on active duty with close to 2 million dependents; 55 percent are married and 45 percent have children. Almost 1 million of these children are younger than 11. The average military family moves about every three years, or twice the civilian average.
Since the 1991 Gulf war, DOD has made a concerted effort to embrace its families without blunting its edge, or its mission. Families, in fact, have become very much a part of the mission.
All branches of the armed services offer their own interpretation of "Family Readiness" programs, where the overall goal is "empowered families" or "self-reliant families" during times of deployments and hazardous duty.
"It is no longer rhetoric. Defense officials recognize the vital role that families play in supporting family readiness," noted one recent DOD advisory. In addition, a study undertaken after the Gulf war by the Rand Corp., an independent think tank, directly linked family contentment with re-enlistment.
The real-life woes of those who have slipped through the cracks has not gone unnoticed.
Troubled by the story of a bankrupt, young enlisted man who lived in a rundown trailer 20 miles off-base with his wife and three children, officials in DOD's Office of Family Policy have adopted a six-year, servicewide "holistic approach" to improving the military family life cycle: recruitment, training, deployment and retention.
The office was determined to add flexibility and diversity to new as well as existing programs. Base and post commanders were freed up to create their own outreach solutions for troubled marriages, complicated relocations, financial woes or special-needs children. "These programs significantly impact military readiness and retention," a later analysis noted.

Dealing with the stress
The stress of this lifestyle on marriage and families is very real.
An Army study conducted after the Gulf war found that divorce rates rose to 56 percent at three bases that had deployed personnel overseas. And while alcohol use has declined militarywide in the past two decades, a recent DOD survey of more than 17,000 active duty members found that one in six considered their use of alcohol to be "heavy."
Methods to counter these problems vary.
All branches offer young spouses classes on family finances, employment skills and home repairs, among other things. The U.S. Air Force currently offers extensive 80-page deployment guides to families left behind, complete with specific "coping tools" for the separation as well as the reunion. The Navy provides "reunion teams" to help sailors and their wives bond with one another after long absences.
Last year, the Army authorized a complex study on the challenges of family loneliness, with the distinctly un-Army sounding title, "The Emotional Cycle of Deployment."
Civilians may not understand the complex financial challenges of their military counterparts, who receive basic pay, plus various housing, clothing and subsistence allowances. There can also be specialty pay for hazardous duty, including flight deck, flying, submarine, air weapons, parachute, demolition, diving, hardship or sea duty.
But hazards don't translate to big bucks. "Imminent danger/hostile fire" pay is up $150 a month for both officer and enlisted members, according to current DOD figures. Monthly flight pay ranges from $150 to $250 a month. Those faced with hazardous duty, including "experimental stress," only receive an extra $150 a month.
Things can be very tough, say, for an E-1, the lowest pay grade of all. Effective January 1 this year, their basic pay is $1,022.70 per month, with an extra monthly $241.60 subsistence and $429.60 housing allowances even with dependents.
However, thanks to measures passed by Congress last year, there will be some infusion of hard cash for the military.
Improvements include an across-the-board pay raise, increases for housing and moving reimbursements, improved women's health care, increased educational and employment opportunities for military spouses and $30 million in supplemental funding for civilian schools serving military children.
Challenging as military family life can be, it has produced smarter children, however. According to the National Education Goals Panel, a consortium of federal and state agencies that monitors schools, children in DOD schools outscored their civilian counterparts in public schools in three national standardized tests regardless of race, family income or parents' incomes.
In eighth-grade writing, for example, 38 percent of the DOD students read at their grade or above. The national average is 24 percent.
"While the family readiness concept is great, there is more that can be done," said the NMFA's Mrs. Cannon, who is herself an Army wife. She suggested more basic, local, social-outreach programs for both active and reserve personnel because such thinking is "the first line of defense for the family."
And she also frets about the young.
"Schools with military children need to be more sensitive to the needs of these children. What does it mean to be 'deployed?' Who is helping them understand?" Mrs. Cannon asked.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide