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Four deployments in four years and what they taught me

There are plenty of deployment stories that focus on a military spouse’s resiliency. Stories that recount how spouses overcame everything that Murphy’s law threw their way during deployments, and then fast forward to the sparkly Homecoming photos. 

 

I’d like to tell a different kind of story. 

 

One that focuses on the muddled bits in between; the places where I adapted coping behaviors that seemed to help, but were not healthy for my family long-term. 

My husband and I got married in 2015, and he deployed two weeks later. We maneuvered the arrival of our first child around his deployment, which many military families do.

To ensure my husband was home for the birth, I spent the final six months of my pregnancy alone, working night shifts as a police dispatcher. I was always exhausted, and my mental health was barely even a blip on the radar.

Our new family of three PCS’d to San Diego when our son was six months old. Two months into our new duty station, my husband deployed again. He left a baby that was not yet crawling and returned to a toddler that explored hiking trails on his own two feet. 

He deployed again in the fall. And then again, weeks before my son’s third birthday. The shortest trip was four months; the longest was seven. But each time, the protective behaviors that I leaned on became more cemented; the wall I unintentionally built inched higher. 

 

At first, my focus during those absences was aimed more at protecting my husband.

 

I wanted him to feel connected to our son, and knew that it was difficult for him to miss so much. I did all I could to help them bond. I emailed more photos than my husband knew what to do with.  When we were able to video chat, my son was front and center; the camera was rarely ever aimed at me. 

That went on, and my own needs routinely limped across the finish line in last place. I thought that made me a “good” military spouse. That it proved I could shoulder back-to-back training trips, work-ups, and deployments, and not break stride. I thought that upholding the image of the strong, unruffled spouse would take the edge off for my husband. That he would feel better about having to leave if I always appeared to have everything under control.  

Worse than that, I had gotten used to the mantra that what I needed would simply have to wait. And maybe that would have been okay… for a short time.

The last two deployments were different. My focus switched towards protecting my son. His second birthday brought new horizons; it brought words, big feelings, and lots of questions. It brought the litany of “can Daddy come home yet?” before bed every night.

 

By this time, I had grown tired. Resentful, bitter, and tired. 

 

I was tired of bearing the weight. Sick of parenting alone. Frustrated by the support my husband struggled to provide during increasingly brief periods at home. It just didn’t measure up.

It didn’t even begin to balance the scales that I had been silently loading in the back of my head, stacking days, weeks, and months like precious gemstones. 

I clung to the idea that the tough exterior would make the best of each bad situation. That if I acted like it was fine, it would eventually be fine.

I didn’t often share the tough conversations that my son and I had; the questions that he would ask about why his dad wasn’t at home with us. There wasn’t anything we could do to change it, and my husband already felt enough guilt. When I didn’t share the weight of those moments, they began to feel heavy.

 

I realized that this lifestyle wasn’t something I could protect my son from. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. 

 

When my husband returned from the last deployment, my son was three and a half. Days after being reunited, we PCS’d again. In the rare times that my son wasn’t there to be a buffer between us, my husband and I butted heads, measuring each other like opponents in a fighting ring.

He didn’t like the way that I did some things and wanted to change them, while I viewed any critique towards how I’d managed to navigate our overwhelming circumstances as an ungrateful attack.

For four years, I had parented every single day, and he had parented for less than half that time. The scales I harbored in the back of my mind would never be equal.

Those days, weeks, and months would never be returned. 

 

Slowly, with grit (and stubbornness), we figured out how to be a unit again.

 

After Covid hit and travel was restricted, we had a significant break from training trips. For the first time in years, I could start healing from everything my family had been through.

Healing brought some clarity, and the passage of time some distance. Hindsight has illuminated some hard truths for me about that difficult season.

Being tough and capable is great. Military spouses need to be those things to be successful in this life for the long term. But they rest on a slippery slope. I took it too far, and wound up showing my husband, time after time, that it didn’t seem to matter to me whether he was home or not.

In trying to protect him, I’d hammered a wedge between us, and it took months of healing and a slower pace to finally pry that wedge free. 

I handled so much, for so long, that I had trouble relinquishing that control. I didn’t know how to share the burden. I could occasionally ask for help from my closest friends – most of whom were also military spouses – but felt absurd asking my husband. Asking for his help had somehow come to set off internal alarms, which blared that I wasn’t measuring up to the standard. 

The glossy shine of that capable, hardened exterior was hard to let go of. It felt like lowering a shield during battle, and exposing myself to a killing blow. 

 

But it taught me that vulnerability is a precursor to growth. 

 

Sitting with the uglier side of those days has been hard. There are things that I don’t want to look in the eye. That scale is one of them. The one that holds the tally of every birthday missed, every tearful bedtime, every night in a too-big bed. It still lingers in the back of my mind, though I find myself able to ignore it, most days.  

Someday, I will be free of it. 

 

Until then, I remind myself as often as needed that there is no “right” way to be a “good” military spouse.

 

We each make it through rough seasons in our own way. It can be tricky to identify which of those coping behaviors are helping in the long run, or potentially hurting. Growth is not always comfortable; deployments almost never are.

But growth is always worth striving for, and will help us to better navigate the joys, challenges, and triumphs that lie ahead. 

 

 

Editor’s Note: This is Kaci’s first piece as one of our Experience Bloggers. Her insight on the importance of military spouse mentors earned her a finalist spot in our recent blog contest. You can read her entry Here. We are thrilled she will be sharing more of her insight with us.

 



                       

                        

Author

  • Kaci Curtis

    Kaci Curtis is a Navy spouse and mom of two. Her family relocated to the tropical island of Guam over the summer. She now spends her time washing beach towels, rinsing snorkeling masks, and helping crabs get over curbs. When she’s able, she adds a dash of reading, writing, hiking, and lifting at the gym.Originally from Missouri, she has moved 5 times in the last decade, and she somehow made it through four deployments in a tumultuous four year period. Things slowed down a bit at their previous duty station (Mississippi), where the family enjoyed a farmhouse on 5 wooded acres. They raised chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, pigs, and also kept 2 goats, a cow, a donkey,and a Shetland pony. Naturally, they decided to add a second human child to the mix, and turned it loose into the barnyard as soon as possible. She considers herself lucky to have published several essays and short stories. You can find her writer page on FB (@KCurtisWriter)

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