Pride because Sam values contributing to something larger than himself, yet he is so humble that all he can do is whisper thank you in response to their acknowledgment.
Irritation because we are both, by default, serving, what with the long separations and workdays, frequent moves, limited vacation time, and uncertainty about where we will be and what we will be doing next year. If anything, both of us should be thanked for our service.
Perplexity because “Thank you for your service” suggests to me that many people view military service as altogether different from other professions that enhance American lives. Why are teachers not thanked for their service when they whip out their educator discount cards at Barnes and Noble? What about the garbage men who appear every Wednesday morning to haul off the refuse of the tens of thousands of people in my urban neighborhood?
I believe that this message is borne of blind reverence for the military borne of the stark cultural divide between civilian and military families. It comes from civilians’ gratitude that they are not the ones who have to live this life or even understand what it entails.
Of course, military life is different and separate. Military housing, if families choose to live there, exists in separate developments. Bases are fenced in, barbed wire-lined structures that look like prisons but that have many of the things families need at discounted rates: banks, grocery stores, playgrounds, psychological counseling, even chapels. So that’s where much of military families’ daily lives take place. The number of events that military families are expected to attend together makes it difficult to imagine how they would build active social lives with civilian families in surrounding communities, were they to do everything that is asked of them—and many of them do. Then there are the constant warnings that if you reveal the tiniest thing about your service member spouse’s activities to the outside world, you will do something to compromise national security.
I like to imagine a world in which military social functions were open to anyone local who wished to attend, in which military sponsored childcare--what little there is--was part of larger community-based childcare facilities, and after school activities for military youth were simply subsidized programs that allowed kids in military families to easily afford things like summer camp and ballet lessons with other children.
When I speak to my coworkers and acquaintances who are not part of military families, I feel a bit like an oddball. The other day a neighbor stared at me with incredulity when I explained that Sam would be gone for another four months on deployment; that we cannot correspond with one another in any way during that time; that I’m not really sure when he is getting back; so no, we are not yet planning anything special, because if we get plane tickets to go to Europe, we might be wasting about a grand should his return be postponed. She said, “Oh my goodness, that sounds so hard. I can’t imagine. I don’t know how you do it.” And she shook her head back and forth. Her expression was meant to convey her empathy for how difficult it sounded to go through this and it is difficult. But the effect was one of reinforcing my “otherness.” It is saying that my life is unimaginable.
The opposite end of the spectrum is this insular incestuous feeling when I receive an e-mail from our spouse’s group announcing that we will be gathering soon to make care packages for “our guys,” which feels something like being part of a harem of strangers.
What I would like is for my acquaintances in the civilian world to know and understand what I am going through—namely, that life is difficult but doable. I want them to say things like “Kudos to you for making it all work,” rather than, “Oh gosh, I can’t imagine….” I want my supervisor to understand when I need to take vacation days at the spur of the moment to go visit Sam at a port call, and I want people to thank me for my service, whether they agree with what the military does or not, and whether or not they think that I do.
In the country where I spend a large portion of time for work, there is a draft. Everyone knows someone who has served, and they know it is not easy. They know what it is like to have family members whose lives are constantly in danger or who spend a large portion of their time as targets. They know what it is like to have the men they love owned by someone else and out of contact for long periods of time. When I tell them about Sam, they nod with understanding, and they say, “Good for you, for having the kind of relationship that survives distance and time”; or even “Must feel good when you get back together after a long separation.” They also have horror stories, of men who had their legs blown off or who came back from war so traumatized that no one, even their own spouses or children, really recognized them. But the point is that military service is something they are intimately familiar with and they do not treat me like a being apart.
In many ways, the thought of a draft frightens me. Yet there are things the military could do to make it easier for military families to feed less of their time and labor into supporting the troops and more time interacting with their wider communities.