America has roughly 1.1 million military spouses.
Alison Buckholtz is one of them. Twice in recent weeks, breaking news left the self-described Navy wife reeling.
First, she heard that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, on his fourth deployment, had been accused of opening fire on Afghan villagers, killing 16.
Then, days later, she looked at the front page of The New York Times and saw excerpts from a family blog by Bales’ wife, Karilyn.
“My heart stopped,” Buckholtz said. “I don’t know her at all, but I’ve written about military spouses’ blogs, and I know a lot of them. I was scared that this exposure would keep them from writing about their experiences, that we’d lose this historical record that documents the cost of war.”
In 2010, Buckholtz wrote a monthly “deployment diary” for Slate during her husband’s 14-month deployment. She also has written a book, “Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War.” She understands why some military wives write blogs about their lives and why so many other wives read them.
“Military spouse blogs started because we needed to create a community,” she said. “ They became a part of the larger conversation about the cost of war. I often wonder, What if the ‘greatest generation’s’ wives had been able to blog? I feel they had so much to teach women like me. Instead, you look at histories of war, and there’s nothing from the women, no sense of what was happening on the home front.”
Deployed men — and increasingly women — cherish letters from home, she explained, but they can’t keep them. They must travel light, so correspondence from home is yet another casualty of war.
Babette Maxwell, founder and executive editor of Military Spouse magazine, said military wives started blogging to fill a void.
“For years, spouses — especially those in the Guard and reserves — were at a loss to express themselves and get mental health care without it having a negative impact on their husbands’ careers,” she said. Blogging offered a safe place to vent and find support.
All good marriages involve compromise and sacrifice, but in military families, upheaval is constant, and the pace is determined by forces beyond their control.
In one of her blog posts, Karilyn Bales described giving birth, without her husband by her side, to their first daughter: “As she was getting clean my cellphone rang, it was Bob calling from the airport in Kuwait!! It was so good to hear his voice. I told him how the birth went and he got to hear Quincy squeaking in the background. He would be home in two days!! Woohoo! I was so excited.”
In another post, she explained why she wanted to write about their lives.
“Who knows,” she wrote. “Since this is such an unknown path for us, I am hoping to blog about it and look back in a year to see how far we have come from right now. … I hope Q. and B. enjoy reading about the decisions that Mom and Dad went though during their lives.”
Maxwell said Bales’ blog is notable to other military wives only in that it feels so familiar.
“We read her excerpts and see nothing extraordinary. Worry about a husband’s promotion, having to rent houses on short notice and moving every two years, relief that a husband hasn’t made rank, because he won’t be deployed — this is what military families go through. All it underscored for me is they have a normal life.”
Maxwell worries that mining Bales’ blog for clues into her husband’s state of mind will have a chilling effect on other military spouses’ blogs.
“I’m afraid now they’ll keep it all to themselves. Where do you draw the line? Is a commanding officer going to access a wife’s blog to determine if her husband is a candidate for promotion?”
She also cautions against blaming Robert Bales’ family life for the tragedy in Afghanistan. “He didn’t get the mental health care he needed and deserved,” she said. “I understand he must be held accountable, but somebody in the government failed this man.”
Buckholtz stresses that military wives defy stereotypes.
“I learn something from every military spouse I meet,” she said, “ from the really cheerful one to the woman with the sheriff ’s foreclosure notice on her door to the woman who got pregnant right after giving birth. There is no one type of military spouse.”
Her voice broke when I asked how the general public could show support.
“Just say ‘thank you,’” she said, apologizing for her tears. “Really, it makes such a difference when you take the time and just thank military spouses for their service.”
How sad that she had to ask.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.
© 2012 Creators