Deployment & Christmas

This year around 7,500 British troops will be deployed over Christmas. For every soldier posted overseas there is a family missing them, it could be a husband, wife, children, boyfriend or girlfriend,mother and father, sister or brother…the list goes on. After spending 6 months apart from my husband this year I feel very grateful that he is around at the time of year when families get together and enjoy each other’s company.

A few years ago the military was more visible in the nations Christmas celebrations and coverage. We saw news snippets and stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops enjoying a Christmas lunch cooked in a field kitchen and opening care packages sent from all over the world. Now, with the changing nature of the U.K. military, we don’t see so much coverage of what our troops are up to.

I’ve realised in my almost 3 years as an army spouse that families play such a pivotal role in the health and well-being of our military personnel. This time last year we were gearing up to move from the Highlands of Scotland to the South West of the U.K ahead of my husbands deployment. There was a certain pressure to see people, make sure that we spent time with family, caught up with friends who we might not see together for a while. Amidst all of the socialising there’s a lot of planning, when do we move, how do we move, what about my job, do I actually want to live alone for 6 months or should I move in with my family etc, etc. Then you’re trying very hard not to argue with each other, conscious of the long months ahead you’ll spend a part you try to keep the equilibrium. On top of that I was acutely aware that my partner was heading off to a job and a country that could potentially be quite stressful, I wanted him to feel prepared and calm. I wanted to make sure we minimised the things he might worry about back home.

Preparing for deployment is stressful and emotional. Then once your partner is away you are flying solo, often trying to settling into a new community and location at the same time. Spouses left behind on deployments carry the responsibility of creating a stable environment for their children, trying to keep things going on an even keel, balance budgets and maintain a healthy relationship with their deployed spouse. This involves fractured phone calls as signal cuts in and out and thoughtful care packages, crossing fingers that when you pop it on the scale it will be light enough to be sent free of charge.

It’s a juggling act to say the least and it can be a lonely journey. I’ve always found the hardest comment to deal with (usually from those not within the military community) is: ‘you knew what you were getting into when you got married’.

It’s an insensitive comment and very misjudged because no-one, military or otherwise, knows what is heading their way when they get married. Life itself is an unpredictable journey and marriage is about learning to sail the voyage together. Being a military family means you are reminded more often of the unpredictability of your situation. How you fare in the journey depends on the strength of your relationship, the support of your family and community and the belief you have in yourself that you can make it through the long lonely months.

Midway through my partners deployment he sent me a photo, and this Christmas a family member had it framed for us for a Christmas present:

Gavin Williamson the Secretary Of State for Defence officially promoting my husband to Major. This photo means a lot because behind it is years of commitment from us both, hours of conversation discussing whether staying in the army is the right direction for us and moments of doubt where we wondered if we’d made the wrong decision. This photo also represents the moments you miss as a military couple, the achievements you hear about secondhand because you just can’t be there in person. So in this photo, which captures a fleeting moment, I see achievement of a goal that we’ve been aiming towards for a while and I feel so proud, I feel that in some ways the hard times are worth it.

So if my experience of deployment has taught me anything this year it’s that the disruption of deployment affects families long before, and long after, the duration of a deployment. So over Christmas I’m thinking of all the families who have a loved one deployed, all of those who have a deployment on the horizon and all of those who are grateful for the return of their loved one. You might feel uprooted at times but you can do it, and at some point I hope it feels worth it as it does for me when I look at this photo.

There’s an experience we share as a military community an appreciation that things don’t go to plan, in fact that having a plan is not always very helpful.

Yes – so be it

We are often over stretching ourselves, trying to cover all bases at work, keep the home ship sailing and feeling like we should fit in feeding our wellbeing through yoga, hygge or mindfulness.  We think we need to learn to say ‘no’ to plans which we can’t fit in, ‘no’ to things we think we might not enjoy in order to make more time for ourselves and our ‘main’ priorities.  Yet these main priorities are often not focusing truly on what we need.

Whilst my husband was deployed and time alone stood before me like a deserted plain I learned an important lesson.  To say ‘yes’ to things I felt I didn’t have time for.  I’m almost obsessive about time in a day.  When I was on my own I became more so, going to bed I could picture the next day in blocks of designated time, each piece of work, a task at home or a meal perfectly slotted in.  My problem the next day arises when those timings inevitably start to slip, leaving me feeling behind and chaotic.  Letting go of that mindset for me is difficult, but time and time again when I throw caution to the wind and accept a last minute coffee date which pushes my timescale out of sync I ALWAYS feel so much better.  It’s a strange thing, I’m actually very spontaneous and will do some pretty adventurous things, but I also like to be prepared.

The word ‘yes’, by the way, derives from Olde English when it meant something like ‘so be it’.

If I hadn’t said yes enough over these past few months I would never have discovered Cambridge Folk Festival after an invite from a good friend.  It was such an amazing opportunity to reconnect with the power of music, and the power of women.  I now have such vivid memories of the weekend.

One week I had been extremely busy, driving back and forth and spreading myself too thin.  When the weekend rolled around I had planned to keep Sunday totally free and watch the entire series of Killing Eve in one go.  8 hours of tv.  The dream.  Or so I thought.  A text from a friend looking for an adventure buddy on the weekend led me to exploring Marlborough and catching up on all things army wife life and beyond.  We spent a lovely afternoon pottering through a forest followed by a tasty lunch.  What I needed was fresh air and company, not 8 hours of nail biting tv.

On another occasion I waited until the very last minute to decide whether to head to London for the weekend.  I’d been invited to two different 30th birthday parties one on Friday and one on Saturday, all my best pals would be there.  But I was dog sitting for a friend and had two dogs to entertain. I thought it was too tricky to juggle the situation.  After finding a kennel for one dog and calling on my super dog walker for the other I set off for an incredible weekend in London.  Staying with my good friend and her partner I felt so happy for them, it was a while since I’d spent time with just the two of them and they are so in love.  I returned from London rich on the love from all my pals.  On Monday evening the friend I’d stayed with called me,  she was engaged and I was over the moon.  How special to spend time with them just before they take the next step on their life journey.

The picture for this blog post is a list of things that feature in my ‘perfect day’.  At a conference I attended recently one of the workshop sessions was a meditation session.  Usually I would bypass that for something more commercial,  but that day I said yes to the meditation.  As part of the session we were asked to write down what our perfect day looks like.  Note how 8 hours of tv is not featured.   Then we were told to make a star by all the things that fall to the wayside when we are stressed and feel ‘busy’.

When things get hectic I just about manage to walk my dog, because it would be unfair not to, and eat healthily, because otherwise I’ll run out of energy.  It’s scary how much I neglect, and how if I said yes to different things I’d be fulfilling my perfect day more regularly.  Even more scary…most of the things I do regularly like answer emails, check social media or watch a (guilty pleasure alert) show like Real Housewives of Somewhere are not on this list at all.  Yet they are what I do more of when I’m stressed and busy.  The mindfulness session ended with us working on fitting a small element of each of our ‘perfect day’ activities into our day or week.

I’m saying yes to following that through.

The hidden impact of deployment

I’m now a month into a 6 month deployment, and also only a month into living in a new location after moving hundreds of miles from the mountainous Scottish Highlands to a much flatter Shrivenham. We had plenty of notice for this deployment, around 5 months or so, and our relationship started at a distance. I used to work in humanitarian response and for a while lived in various location across central and west Africa at the time when my boyfriend (now husband) was posted to Afghanistan.We married two years ago, but our story is a long one. After meeting at university when I was 19 and my husband 20 we dated for a few years and travelled Europe together. At that time I was dead set on working for the UN and my husband, a guitar wielding long haired hippy of sorts started a career in publishing. Despite our close relationship at this age it felt important to ensure we were making decisions based on what we wanted to do in life, so when I was around 23 we broke up. At that point we thought we’d broken up for good. Fast forward to my late 20’s and we met again at a leaving do before he went on tour. We wrote to each other for months whilst based in various locations across the globe and rekindled a relationship.I never imagined I’d marry someone in the army, and in other relationships my fiercely independent streak led to relationships to break down. I was worried about becoming an army wife, people would tell me they ‘couldn’t imagine me as one’ which was relatively unhelpful. I felt the lifestyle might be restrictive and the lack of certainty around pretty much anything constantly stressful.Our marriage began in the best way possible, a 2 year posting to the Scottish Highlands. At the time of course I worried that I would be giving up a lot, my career, my friendships, my house which I’d just done up in Bath. But in reality I look back and realise I gained a lot instead. We fell in love with the wilderness the Highlands offers, exploring every weekend and the luxury of daily trips to the beach with our new member of the family, our fox red Labrador Ziggy. This move provided the timely opportunity to launch my own business in partnership with a good friend and colleague, an initiative which keeps growing and continues to inspire me. Most of all we had the luxury of building strong foundations to our marriage, learning how to live together, how to communicate lovingly and navigate the army life, and life in general, as a team.So the build up to this deployment was overwhelmingly positive. Positive because it’s what my husband wants in terms of a step in his career, I understand that having experienced the same during my humanitarian days and taking diverse opportunities now to enable my business to thrive. Before he went away I put lots of things in place to give me energy and momentum going into the tour – lots of weekend plans, lots of projects I never get round to doing, reconnecting with friends we didn’t see much during our time in Scotland.This preparation has been worthwhile, but what I didn’t expect is the hidden impact. The sudden drop in confidence which began with little niggles like:Is my dog barking waking up all the neighbours – what if they don’t tell me but talk about it to othersWill I make any friends since everyone else seems to have children and I’m not sure I’ll have anything interesting to shareWill I be ok going onto base for the first time on my own, it’s so big and I have no idea where I’m going surely someone is going to shout at me!This inner monologue surprised me, I wasn’t expecting it to rear it’s head so quickly. Thankfully some coaching I had a year or so ago has been so powerful in giving me tools to use to avoid repetitive negativity. So straight away I’m putting in place some positive steps, and so far so good. My general attitude is not to worry too much or wish away the days, even if I’d prefer my husband to be here with me. But I’m also slowly realising the importance of telling people how you really feel, too often we show a veneer that everything is ok only confiding to our husband or closest friends the reality. But when you can’t confide in your confidant then you need another outlet, otherwise the negative voice gets louder and louder eventually getting in the way – and getting you down.

Deployment goals

My husband will now be away for 6 months, and I could feel really sad about this.  However I’m a strong believer in making the most of things and I intend to enjoy the next 6 months and make some lovely memories with friends, family and, of course, my dog.  I decided for this deployment to have some goals which are all about me, it’s helping me to fill my free time with things I enjoy doing.  I’ve kept these goals straightforward and easy to achieve.  Here they are:

#Goal1 – Dog training 

As you can probably tell I’m wildly in love with my fox red labrador Ziggy.  He’s a loyal companion and running buddy who’ll set the pace for miles.  Due to my obsession it’s fair to say I’ve let him get away with a fair bit.  He’s a pretty cheeky character who, if given the chance, will run round the house with a toilet brush clamped in his mouth and avoid capture for a good half an hour.

Since he’s a super smart dog (bias? Yes!) I think it’s time we put that brain to good use and start some dog training.  We’ll be kicking off 4 one-to-one sessions in May and I can’t wait.  My overall goal is to get into gun-dog training, but we’ll take this paw by paw

#Goal2 – Write my grandad’s memoirs

My amazing Grandad turns 92 this year, he’s still playing golf and is one of the biggest inspirations to me.  Every time I see him he tells me a different story about his life and I’m always blown away by his memories and adventures.  This year I’m going to start documenting his memories and I can’t wait to discover aspects of his life I’ve not yet heard about.

#Goal3 – Get creative 

I’m a somewhat closet creative, I enjoy making things and doing things but they usually turn into things which aren’t very useful so it sometimes it feels like a waste of time.  I’ve decided to try a few creative activities and see if I’m secretly really good at something.  So far I’ve started knitting and I’ll be attending my first pottery class (I’m imagining Ghost of course) next week.  Would love any tips on creative activities I could try out!

#Goal4 – Get outside

Living in the Highlands meant we were outside more than we were inside.  Now we’ve moved away from the mountains and the beach I need more motivation to get outside.  I’ve started exploring the Cotswold countryside around where we live and hope to start documenting what we find on our travels.

#Goal5 – Makeup

Literally makeup.  This is a random goal, but I’ve been doing my makeup the same way since I was 16.  So it’s time for a makeup lesson so I can act my age (but hopefully look younger).  My hair is going grey and I’m severely allergic to hair dye, so it’s time to up my makeup game and embrace the grey.

 

 

Planning

I find that there’s a balance to strike when it comes to planning.  Generally I’m a bit of a free-spirit, fly by the seat of my pants kind of gal.  This lends itself well to being an army wife…at times.

Sometimes however a bit of planning is necessary and as you might imagine my other half likes to plan, it’s in his army DNA.  Over time I’ve learnt to put some time and effort into planning, so that we can maximise the time we have together and make sure my work, home and army wife life don’t descend into chaos.

My husband is deploying soon and we’ve got a housemove on the cards so I’ll be posting lots about planning.  To start with here’s my general top tips:

  1. Have a shared calendar with your other half, this makes sure you don’t double book and allows you to visualise how busy you are (so you can remove some commitments if it’s getting too much!).
  2. Go on a date, and take your diary.  Often we’ll put time in the diary, to look at our diaries.  Sounds geeky but it always involves wine and sometimes requires gin.
  3. Plan in fun.  Don’t over do-it with an hour by hour plan of what you’re going to do on a Saturday afternoon but make sure you’ve got enough to look forward to in your diary.  If your husband is away fill that time with friends and family.  This is important as it takes keeps a good balance of practical logistics with the added sparkle of excitement.