By Susan Van Haitsma
The young woman and I talked into the night as we headed south on a Greyhound bus. Each minute of conversation carried us physically farther from but perhaps emotionally closer to the enlisted man she had married just three days prior. The wedding she had arranged and paid for in their home town had to be canceled because his leave was revoked at the last minute, so she had traveled across the country for a visit with him that included a quick civil ceremony at the courthouse nearest his base.
She described in almost comical terms their attempt at a honeymoon, braving subzero temperatures with bodies unused to a northern climate, with his close-shaven head and light sailor hat and her thin jeans, to walk downtown to see the sights. When she couldnâ€™t feel her legs anymore, she told him, â€œBaby, Iâ€™m sure this is a nice place. Send me some pictures. But, for now, get me out of here!â€
She said that they ate at the McDonaldâ€™s on base, â€œwhere their logo has a little anchor hanging on it â€“ itâ€™s kind of cute.â€ She didnâ€™t expect the food prices to be so high there, nor had she or her husband counted on other expenses of military life when they had decided jointly on his enlistment several months ago. This hadnâ€™t been her first trip to see him, and she hoped that she could go again by train in the coming weeks, bringing along her two children. But, she wondered if she could afford the travel, or even the purchase of winter clothing for her children. There were also the added costs of keeping up two households, as she put it â€“ â€œhis and ours.â€
She said that they had decided he should enlist in order to help support their family, but now she realized that the support they really needed was his presence at home.
Although I was a stranger, my seat-mate expressed her concerns with a frankness that had not yet been altered by the â€˜culture of silenceâ€™ that often engulfs military family members. With surprise rather than self-pity, she noted the ways her husband had already changed since basic training.
She described his new obsession with order, his habit of lining up his shoes and even his toothbrush and toothpaste in precise, parallel fashion. She said that he suggested she do the same. He was more acutely aware of the time, of the number of minutes necessary to accomplish daily tasks. He walked in front of her instead of by her side. In his sleep, he called out as though he was responding to orders. She explained that he used to show his affection for her liberally in public and private ways, but now he was aloof, turning away from her in bed even during their honeymoon weekend.
Another unexpected consequence of being a military spouse was the paper work she had been required to sign in the case of her husbandâ€™s death. She described feeling physically sick as she and her husband listened to an official explain the necessary procedures: the personal effects that would be sent to her, the body, the funeral. Because he was in the Navy rather than the Army, she hadnâ€™t foreseen such a discussion taking place in the first hours of their marriage. The death talk compounded her worry because he told her rumors had been circulating that his unit might soon be shipped to the Middle East.
I asked my seat-mate what reasons, beyond the financial security they had hoped for but that so far had proven illusory, had guided their decision about her husbandâ€™s enlistment. She said that he â€œhad a problem with authorityâ€ and had been fired from a series of jobs, so he felt that the military would help him achieve the discipline he needed.
I confided to my seat-mate that the â€œI need more disciplineâ€ motivation is one of the most perplexing reasons for enlistment that I hear, and I hear it frequently. Self-discipline and coercion are opposites. But, I didnâ€™t really need to explain that paradox to my seatmate, who already had described how the brand of discipline her husband was learning was leading to family separation rather than the family protection they were promised.
My heart aches when I think of the significant challenges this young couple faces, but I also am heartened by the fact that they are asking questions and discussing the discrepancies between what they know and what they are told. My valentine to them reads, â€œQuestion authority always.â€
That jealous lover, Uncle Sam, pointed his long finger and shot an arrow into the joined hearts of this couple and said, â€œI want you to be mine.â€ But, they had pledged their hearts to one another, not to him.