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.