Yesterday, I started talking a bit about my recent experience in Military Immersion Training. It was uncomfortable, unpleasant, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about this culture.
There were so many interesting components to this training that I could probably do a month of blogs just on my experiences over these 31 hours. I’m not planning on doing that, though you will be hearing more about it from time to time.
One of the most interesting and unexpected components of this training was hearing from the children of an active duty pilot, and the officers talking about their families. They said that no one thinks of the families, and it’s true. Many of the officers felt that their being away was harder on their families. Anyone who loves someone knows how hard it is to know that someone you love is in danger, often more difficult than being the one in danger yourself.
A pilot who had flown missions in Iraq brought her three children, ages 10, 8, and 6, in to speak to the group. They talked about how hard it was being home and worrying about their mother. They went on with their lives, going to school, fighting with one another, eating bad food cooked by dad, and talking with the school counselor. They knew, though, that something bad could happen to mom at any moment, and they wouldn’t even know until later. They said that they didn’t know any other children with parents in the military, and they were glad, because it was difficult enough to hear in the media about soldiers being killed, knowing it could be their mother at any time.
The children also spoke about being proud of their mother. She explained to them that she wanted to serve her country and why, what it meant to her. The children understood responsibility and accountability.
I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be a child growing up under those circumstances. I’ve worked with a lot of children over the years, and unless they’ve had something horrible happen to them, children don’t have much awareness of death. They don’t know that anything could happen to any one of us at any moment. A heart attack. A drunk driver. Cancer. A stray bullet. But children of parents in active duty understand, to the best of their ability, and they live with it.
One officer talked to us and said that she wasn’t sure she had done the right thing with her son by being candid and involving him as much as possible in her life in the National Guard. She said that he’s a sensitive child, always worried about wrongs to others. She wondered if she was too honest with him. Personally, I believe that we shouldn’t lie to children, even by omission. The world can be a cold, hard place. There’s beauty, generosity, and love, but there always has to be balance. There just can’t be right without wrong. So, while I don’t think we have to tell children everything, fill them in on all the gory details, they need to know as much as they need to know based on their reality.
One officer talked about his wife, and how when he came back from Iraq, he was short tempered and never bothered trying to understand what she had been through. He commanded troops and felt responsible for his men, but when he came home, it was hard for him to be as close to her emotionally as he had been to his troops. I can only imagine that being shot at together does form a bond that it’s difficult for many of us to understand. In a dangerous situation, it’s important to be able to react quickly, as well as be proactive. In situations that aren’t dangerous, this tendency to react could be a hinderance, and this officer said that it was a problem for him.
He said that his wife said that it was difficult for her to go on with her life, go to work, raise their children, all the while wondering if he was okay, if he was hurt, if he would come back whole, or at all. I didn’t think about how hard that is for families; it just never occurred to me.
It takes a special kind of bravery to be the family of someone in the military. They live with fear, and then often, they live with their loved one being changed when they return home. No, not every soldier comes home with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, or Anxiety. Some soldiers come home, and they’re fine. But being at war has to change a person on some level. It doesn’t have to be a level we can see or feel, but experience, day to day, changes us all. Usually, those changes are gradual. Extreme experience can change us, for better or worse, more quickly than time can.