Unless you’ve lived it.
“Unless you’ve lived it, you really can’t understand or appreciate it. But I’m going to paint a picture for you and hopefully help you to see, even just a glimpse, into the reality of this life we lead.
I’ve been married to a military man for 10 years now (well, 9 years, 10 months, and two weeks, but who’s counting). I can’t tell you how many times over the course of those years, someone has responded to any gripes about this military lifestyle with “but you knew what you were getting into when you married a military man”.
I don’t complain a whole lot, no more than the average human really. But I’m not going to lie, I have days where I cry for seemingly no reason at all. Sometimes I wake up, and the burden of the life I’ve chosen weighs so heavy on my heart it darkens my perspective and mood beyond recompense. Sometimes complaining is all I can do to make sense of the struggles we face, and embrace them. So when those complaints are met with statements like that above, I recoil inside, and bite back the snark remarks I’d like to reward them with.
Because no. I had no friggin clue what I was getting into when I married this military man. No idea how my chest would ache every time he left for months at a time. Or how my heart would break watching my kids say goodbye and struggle with his absence. No concept of sacrificing my own dreams for the “needs of the navy.” And even if I had, it wouldn’t have changed the course of my life. Had I known how hard this lifestyle would be, I still would have chosen to love and commit myself to the person who makes me whole, even when he’s gone.
I was 24 when I met my husband, young, naïve, freshly graduated from college, and full of hope for a bright and promising future. The night I met Brian, there was the kind of electric attraction common between two people destined for a whirlwind romance, and that is just what we experienced in those first few months. We got married by a justice of the peace on September 3, 2010. He received orders to a boat in Kings Bay, Georgia and would be stationed there until the summer of 2014. The idea of moving away from everything I knew to some forsaken southern town in the middle of nowhere terrified me. But he was to leave on his first deployment just 4 short weeks after we married, and two months in to that first deployment, I had found a job in Jacksonville, Florida, a house for us to rent sight-unseen, and moved what little we owned 1800 miles south with the help of my sisters and brother-in-law.
I saw that first move as a new adventure, the exciting start to our lives together, even though I was spending the first few months of it alone. My new home was a place I’d never been, where I knew no one, and the only place to see within a 30 mile radius was the local Walmart shopping strip. Brian had deployed on a submarine, which I learned quickly meant communication would be scarce if not non-existent for long periods of time. My friends and family did their best to support me, but none of them knew any more about submarines or the military than I did. Submarine deployments meant zero phone calls, zero facetime, and you were lucky if you got any emails for the duration of their absence. So much time passed before I received that first email from him that I had convinced myself something happened. Our lives quickly became a revolving door of deployments, homecomings, and a constant state of adjustment. That first four year tour at sea was filled with 7 separate deployments, Brian gone for 2-4 months at a time, and home for 2-3 in-between. Those years were so lonely.
When our first baby came along in October, 2011, my perspective changed on a lot of things. I had the same stark realization most new moms do, that my life was no longer my own. A reality that I had already unknowingly accepted when marrying my husband. For him, and his immediate family, the needs of the Navy determined everything we did, and everywhere we went. We were all at the mercy of the military. Brian deployed again shortly after Julia was born, and I learned quickly what it was like to parent solo. It was the hardest when those toddler days rolled around, and her wonderful, stubborn, willful nature tested everything I thought I knew about being a mother. With Brian gone, I’d wake up almost nightly to the sight of her little head peeping around my doorway, hesitant to climb in my bed, but too frightened to sleep soundly in her own. Every meal became a battle of wills, many ending in a splash of food against the dining wall behind her as she’d toss her plate or bowl away. Even potty training was a lost cause, when she started at 18 months and did so well, only to regress the day Brian would leave again on deployment. What would have easily been a 3 day victory, turned into a year long rollercoaster.
We had our first son, Noah, in June of 2014. I wrestled with severe post partum depression after his birth, in addition to the intense anxiety that comes with adjusting from a family of three, to a family of four, and facing yet another deployment just a few weeks after his arrival. I was on maternity leave from the secretary job I’d taken two years prior at the local Baptist church, and just days after Brian deployed, I packed up the toddler and newborn, and drove 18 hours up to New England, yearning for company, and desperate for sanity in the comfort of friends and family.
It took me nearly that whole first tour to learn the value and importance of establishing a village of like-minded military spouses around me for support. I’m naturally an introverted person, and making new friends has never been easy for me. But I began to realize that if I wanted to survive this lifestyle, and create a safe haven for my family in the absence of their father, I needed to learn how to push my boundaries. The loneliness of that first tour forced me out of my shell, and into FRG (family readiness group) meetings, where I could talk to other women who were experiencing the same struggles as me. I even ventured out to some of the group events with other spouses from my husband’s boat, and met several women I’ve stayed friends with to this day.
Late 2014 landed us back in New England, on Brian’s shore duty tour (where he would have a desk job, and didn’t have to deploy or go out to sea for 3 years). With Brian home more, I was able to go back to school and become a paralegal. We bought our second and what we thought would be our forever home in Preston, Connecticut, and in 2017 had our youngest child, Jake. He was born 3 months early, and spent nearly that long in the NICU at Women and Infant’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Those were defining months in our lives, after which I decided to leave the office job, and begin a business of my own as a portrait photographer which would allow me to create my own hours, and stay home more with the kids. Brian was working towards the end of his final sea tour, and preparing for a job in the civilian world. But as we’d grown accustomed to by that point, the Navy had other plans, and they didn’t even come close to aligning with ours.
The summer of 2019 brought new changes when Brian made chief, which meant his current orders would be revoked. We waited with bated breath for his new orders to be released. As a new chief, you have the option to submit a list of your preferred stations, and Groton Connecticut was Brian’s first pick, but the Navy sent him to Virginia instead. He put on chief in September, and the next month marked the start of yet another adventure in this military life for our family. He headed to Virginia to begin his job as a chief on the USS Montana, and the kids and I stayed behind in our home in Preston to finish out the school year, and keep my studio running with clients booked several months into 2020.
If you had asked me 10 years ago as that young naïve new navy wife if I’d ever see the day where my husband would go live in another state and I’d stay behind with the children for any reason, I would’ve swore left and right, up and down that that day would never come. That as long as I had a choice, I would never decide to live separately from him. I remember early on, hearing the older, more experienced military spouses talking about deployments as if they weren’t world-ending, gut-wrenching separations. Some I knew then had chosen to live in a separate state, as their spouses lived in the barracks wherever they were stationed. The thought appalled me. “I’d NEVER choose to live away from my husband” my arrogant younger self pledged. “They must not love their husbands as much as I love mine.” No other explanation made sense to me.
I had so much to learn. Nearly 10 years later, countless deployments and underways, and while it never gets easier, we’ve been seasoned. We’ve gone through so many ups and downs in our marriage and our careers, and have learned to be – albeit far from perfect – partners. While those first few years together were new, and exciting, and filled with longing and butterflies every time I saw him, I wouldn’t trade the relationship we have now for all the butterflies in the world. We’ve learned to tackle life as a team, and for a time, that meant sacrificing our companionship for the bigger picture. We made the decision to live apart for the following six months after he made chief so we could both pursue our careers, and our children could experience the stability of seeing the year through in the same school they’d grown to love. There were several who disagreed with our choice, even other military spouses would message me or ask me directly how I could do it: voluntarily live without my husband. And I won’t lie, it was hard. There were many days I doubted our decision. Especially as we headed into Spring of 2020. March rolled around, and we learned I was pregnant with our fourth baby. I had horrific morning sickness, lasting all day and struggled to even get off the couch. Not long after that began, my mother was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, and around that same week the Covid19 pandemic began wreaking havoc on our country. We were housebound. I was forced to close my studio temporarily with the shelter in place orders, and Brian was stuck in Virginia on a travel ban, no longer allowed to come home and visit. A month passed that felt longer than any deployment we’d ever faced up to that point, and Brian was finally granted liberty to come home on leave. Another month later, 13 weeks into the pregnancy, we lost the baby, and it was then that we decided we needed to reassess our situation and figure out a way to be together again as a family. Brian had just over a year left at his new station, so we decided to rent out our “forever” home in Connecticut for a year, which also meant either closing my home studio, or finding a new space for it. Being too stubborn to give up on my dream and all the progress I’d made busting my ass for the last 3 years to build that small business, I decided to go for the new space and book my clients so I could travel back and forth between Virginia and Connecticut biweekly. We’ve only just begun this chapter in our lives, but I’m sure we’ve much left yet to learn.
Some days I hate being a military spouse, and some days I’m acutely aware of how fortunate we are because of it. Because the truth is that this lifestyle has taught us nothing if it hasn’t shown us that there is so much strength to be gained in adversity, that resilience is a virtue to be cultivated with challenges and the endeavors we committed ourselves to as a military family. The price for the freedom we so cherish and so many take for granted obligates us to face those challenges head on, to make sacrifices many can’t understand in order to fulfill those obligations and raise our children to understand and appreciate that freedom isn’t free. That there is honor and glory in the sacrifice. Ten years into this journey, with only a vague idea of what the future holds for us, we continue to hang dearly to our love for each other and the support of the village we’ve built around us, because in the end, these are the most important and lasting things, and no matter what the future holds, I know all of this has been worth it.”
– Dacia Banda, Navy wife. Visit her online at: Daciavuphotography.com