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"I Understand; My Husband's Gone on Business."

"Mama, I love Dada. Dada all gone.”

Meredith’s daughter was nearly two when she spoke those words. She was 10 months old when her father was deployed to Afghanistan. She coped pretty well, but late-night moments like that were hard for her mother to hear when Dad was away.

Several years ago, I interviewed five military wives whose husbands were deployed to Afghanistan. Their experiences differed, but they shared commonalities and challenges they wished those not in the military understood.

The interviews began as research for a magazine article aimed at showing what life on the homefront is like. I learned so much in the process, and felt so passionately about the topic that, I was driven to write an entire novel on it. The result is Band of Sisters, and the five women who were my source for all things deployment are the ones it is dedicated to.

I learned a lot of misconceptions about deployment, as well as some thing that the rest of us can do to help support military families.

“I Understand; My Husband’s Gone on Business”

The wives found that the most common misconception about deployment is that it’s essentially like being a single mother, or that women with busy husbands can relate.

Sarah admitted that she, too, assumed that’s what it would be like. But, “fixing a lawn mower or handling all the finances were not what was stressing me out,” she insisted. Instead, the stress came in not knowing where her husband was, if he was okay, or whether she’d ever see him again.

During the deployment, Meredith said, “It would help if people saw beyond the fact that my husband is away, to the fact that he is constantly in harm’s way.” During one phone call, an air raid siren sounded, and her heart nearly stopped. She was put on hold for ten minutes. She held her breath, not knowing if she’d ever hear her husband’s voice again. She discovered later it had only been a drill—not a typical business trip call home.

Bethany pointed out that when your soldier calls, you don’t know if it will be your last conversation. “You pray the last thing you do before you finally fall asleep—if you are fortunate enough to sleep that night.”

Daily Life

When asked about their regular schedules, the common thread was the never-ending burden of worry. “I have to keep reminding myself that I’m experiencing a normal response to a very abnormal situation,” Sarah said.

Bethany described her typical day simply as: “I wake up trying to leave my husband’s life in God’s hands.”

With the time difference, the wives greeted each morning wondering if she had an e-mail from her husband. Perhaps he was on-line and could chat. Maybe he was he in an area where he could call. Or was he dodging bullets right this moment? She’d check the computer regularly until lunch, wondering, worrying. She’d read the wires for news of bombings or casualties. Would the doorbell ring, with two soldiers bearing the worst news of her life?

Eventually she’d let her mind rest somewhat around lunch time because her soldier was in bed. In Sharissa’s husband’s case, “bed” consisted of old boxes embedded in sand, a Humvee hit by an RPG, where the vehicle burned as her husband tried to radio for air support. And it was a tent where he was so covered by tick bites he prayed for relief from the itching so he could sleep.

Whenever a soldier is killed, all communication lines are closed down, and a wife will wring her hands until she knows whether the soldier was hers.

If she doesn’t hear from by lunch, she’ll recheck e-mail and wait for the phone to ring again in the evening, because that's the time he’ll be waking up for his new day. When the kids go to bed, she’ll collapse in front of the television in the dark and fight the loneliness.

Reaching Out

So what can the rest of us do to help? The wives agreed that the simplest acts of service make all the difference—acknowledgment that they’re going through something difficult, something others can’t really understand.

“For me,” Sarah said, “the acts of kindness that have meant the most are the ones where people see a need and step in without me needing to ask,” including something as simple as a mother sending her daughter to help with children during a difficult sacrament meeting.

A welcome service is a listening ear if a wife wants to talk—but not to expect an outpouring. Talk to them as if they’re still the same person as before. “We have our bad days when we need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to listen to us,” Liz told me. “And then we have our good days, but it still doesn’t mean we’re really okay.”

Other suggestions:

—Give any service at all. Look for things that her husband used to do.

—Provide child care, so the mother can have time to herself—especially to attend the temple.

—Sympathize, don’t judge. “I had someone tell me to stop whining, that this experience would make me stronger,” Liz says. “I already knew that, and I didn’t need anyone to say it.”

—Pray for the military family. The wives have been touched and uplifted upon hearing, “I don’t know what to do, but my family has been praying for you,” and Meredith insisted, “If anyone wishes they could do more, but they can only pray, they have done enough!”

And now, ANOTHER way to help:

I’ve been working with the Flat Daddy® organization to support families with a deployed parent. Flat Daddies (or Mommies) are life-size photos of the deployed parent from the waist up. Families mount them and then carry their Flat Daddy around with them, whether it’s to a birthday party, a field trip, trick-or-treating, or simply to the store or a soccer game.

In a powerful way, these cut-outs give a measure of comfort to families and especially to young children. Babies have been known to go straight to their parent off the plane because they recognize Mom or Dad.

In the past, donors could pay for an entire Flat Daddy® (about $49.50, not an amount I can throw around any day of the week), but now you can donate any amount you can afford, whether it’s $5 or $500 or anywhere in between. You can donate $5 every week, for that matter.

You can also buy a Flat Daddy for a specific family if you have their e-mail address. After you pay for it, a code is e-mailed to the family so they can claim their Flat Daddy online.

Learn more about the Flat Daddy® Project and read the first three chapters of Band of Sisters, click HERE.

Annette Lyon has been writing ever since second grade, when she piled pillows on a chair to reach her mother's typewriter. She originally wrote stories about mice and hamsters but eventually moved beyond rodents and has since published seven best-selling LDS novels, including four about the old Utah temples. In 2007 she was awarded Utah's Best of State medal for fiction. Spires of Stone, her fifth novel, was a 2007 Whitney Award finalist for Best Historical Novel. She loves chocolate and knitting, and she's known for talking too fast.

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