• April 17, 2014

Married To It

Gail Dillon
  • Gail Dillon
  • Gail Dillon, an Army spouse, writes about life at Fort Hood from a spouse’s perspective. She has been married to her soldier for 14 years and lives on Fort Hood with him, their two zany sons and a Goldendoodle named Murphy.
Sunday 04/06/2014
A very bad night

When the emergency siren went off, I was making spaghetti sauce. I instantly assumed  it was a tornado warning. My boys were outside on their scooters and though I was a little concerned, I periodically glanced outside assessing the sky and the wind, figuring a weather disaster wasn’t too imminent. As the siren continued to blare, Murphy began to bark incessantly. To my relief, Ryan and Andrew returned and after finally really listening to the siren’s robotic voice, I realized this was not about a tornado.

The voice impersonally instructed us to “take shelter” in the house and lock all doors and windows. Just a few minutes earlier, my husband had called.  He told me that he was heading to the Military Police Station to deal with something serious and to please not go anywhere with the kids. Wednesday evenings are when I take them to “Religious Education” classes on-post. We would not be going that night. 

Now I was starting to get edgy. The doorbell rang and it was my friend’s 11-year-old son Aiden, who lives a few streets over. He was upset and his voice shook. He said his mom and sister had gone off-post to run an errand and he heard the siren and got scared. He was having trouble reaching his mother on her cell phone. I directed him and my boys to stay in Ryan’s room with the door closed as we all puzzled over what was happening. Meanwhile, Aiden got a hold of his mom (who could not get back on post now) and I turned on the local news. A somber reporter spoke of an active shooter on Fort Hood who was still at large. There was speculation that there might be two shooters. There was talk of this being an act of terrorism. There was more discussion over whether the victims were targeted or random. My stomach lurched. I checked on the boys and went online, learning where the shooter had allegedly done this heinous deed. The post was on complete lockdown and an eerie silence descended over our neighborhood. Except Murphy wouldn’t stop barking.

My friend’s husband arrived to pick up Aiden. The boys and I hunkered down with shades pulled and watched the news, growing more and more horrified. The boys alternated between outright fear and a nervous giddiness. I turned off the burner where my spaghetti sauce was simmering and forgot about it. No one was hungry anyway.

Soon the phone calls, texts and emails began, ringing and pinging like an old pinball game. I checked my Facebook page and there were numerous messages from friends and relatives expressing their concern for us and asking if we were OK. I got busy answering them, clicking from one phone call to the next and reassuring loved ones that we were fine…we were among the lucky ones. My husband occasionally texted saying terse things like, “it’s gonna be a long night” and “don’t wait up for me.”

Only five years ago, of course, there was another shooting situation that left 13 dead and more than 30 wounded. For many of those affected, the scars (physical and emotional) are still fresh and far from healed.    

My heart was breaking for the victims and their families and even for the shooter’s family. This same heart was also full of gratitude for the caring, loving people who “swooped in” (albeit electronically) to check in with one another and exchange supportive words. The Army family is amazing that way. No matter how many hundreds or thousands of miles separate us, there is the sense that we are in this together. If nothing else positive came of this awful evening, there was that.

As the night wore on and the lockdown continued, I let the boys stay up later than usual to watch something silly on TV in the hopes that it would distract them from the drumbeat of tension. We eventually ate the spaghetti, though it felt like we were just going through the motions. 

After the siren sounded the all-clear, my next-door neighbor and I got our dogs together in my backyard to let them run off some steam. We talked about the shootings and what our husbands were doing and how surreal this all felt. We talked about what everyone else was talking about, stunned and saddened that unpredictable, horrific events like this are becoming the “new normal.” What will my boys remember about this night and how many of these incidents will they experience in their lifetimes? Will they—will we—ever really feel safe again?

Over the coming weeks, months and years, there will be endless discussion about what triggered this soldier to allegedly do what he did. We will debate gun control laws, mental illness, and how to best tighten up security on a military installation. We will argue about whose fault it was and how we could have seen this coming. We will mourn those who lost their lives and pray for those still recovering. We will do our best to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Posted in Married to it on Sunday, April 6, 2014 12:06 pm. | Tags: Fort Hood , Civil Defense Siren , Military Police Station , Army , Family , Fort Hood Shooting , Gun Control Comments (0)

Tuesday 03/25/2014
I heart senior spouses!

It is often with a small jolt of surprise that I remember I am a “senior spouse.” When I was a soldier back in the early 1990s, this term conjured images of a coiffed, middle-aged woman clad in tasteful Sag Harbor separates. She was the epitome of poise, good judgment and wisdom. Not to mention a paragon of correct etiquette and graciousness. In other words, not me. And quite frankly, not anyone I knew.    

Here we are, 20 years later, and thankfully, senior spouses are part of a diverse group that now includes men. The lifestyles of senior spouses in today’s Army are as varied and interesting as snowflakes—you’d be hard-pressed to find any two that are the same.

First of all, what makes someone a senior spouse? Most sources indicate that he or she is loosely defined as the husband or wife of an E-7 (Sergeant First Class) and above, in the non-commissioned officer ranks, and an O-5 (Lt. Col.) and above for officers. 

Despite the ubiquitous title of “ma’am,” senior spouses today can run the age-range gamut. Some are second wives and just beginning to have children while others are empty-nesters or raising teenagers.  They defy the tired stereotypes of yesteryear, (such as the spouses who volunteered purely to advance their husbands’ careers.)

Being a senior spouse in the 2014 Army means volunteering for anything that interests you, or not volunteering at all. It means working a traditional job at an office or working from home or perhaps being a stay-at-home mom. It can involve having children or not. Some senior spouses are caring for elderly parents as well as their own offspring.  Many are pursuing degrees and have creative hobbies on the side.

For a long time, I held fast to an antiquated idea of what a senior spouse “should” be (at least as it pertains to me.) This mythical creature could recite Army regulations verbatim, host effortlessly chic dinner parties and didn’t suffer a moment of insecurity. Her house and children were impeccable. And bad hair days? What were those? Of course I realize how ridiculous this is, especially now that “we have become they,” as my husband and I joke.

I have come to accept that not knowing everything about the Army or its rules of etiquette doesn’t mean that I’m a failure at this senior spouse gig. I can acknowledge that not knowing is OK but being willing to find the answers when necessary is what’s really important. 

I’ve learned that my real purpose in this role is not to set the perfect table or know how to write a proper party invitation but to be a conduit of information and assistance to the other spouses in my husband’s unit should they need it. If I can help another wife locate a good counselor for her son or point someone to appropriate money-management classes when the bills start piling up, then I feel like a tremendous success. Or maybe I will be called upon to make a meal for a family with a deployed soldier. If I’m really lucky, I get the opportunity to simply listen to someone who needs to vent.  For truly, the Army is about people—it’s that simple.

Senior spouses can make waves in ways that younger wives may not have the confidence or know-how to do. Let’s face it—there are myriad small injustices that go on in an organization as large and unwieldy as the U.S. Army. If I am dealing with a problem, I can pretty much guarantee that others are as well. 

The senior spouses I am privileged to know and call friends are a fascinating bunch with a wide range of skills and life experiences. They each give to the Army in their own special ways and never cease to amaze me with their creativity, strength and resilience. Does this mean they never doubt themselves or make mistakes? Of course not, and thank goodness for it. Studies show that while we all crave some version of perfection in ourselves, we are most drawn to people who are flawed and “real.”

I am humbled to be a part of this group of women and men who have so much to offer. When we senior spouses get together, we can accomplish just about anything. Long live the senior spouse!

Posted in Married to it on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 5:45 pm. | Tags: Army , Spouse , Wife , Husband , Officer , Family , Fort Hood , Senior Spouses Comments (0)

Tuesday 03/18/2014
Meet James Alan Schwartz

My dad has the coolest birthday ever—March 17.  This is particularly appropriate because he is a quarter Irish.  As kids, my sisters and I loved celebrating dad’s special day because it always involved the extra zing of St. Patrick’s Day. There would be a chocolate cake piled with green frosting, a few beers for the adults and, often times, at least one or two of my parents’ friends joining in the fun.

Like his birthday, my dad has always had that extra-special something about him. He is a study in contrasts: hilariously funny but deeply serious, sensitive inside but tough-seeming outside, a man who both rebels against the “establishment,” yet usually follows the rules. He can be sociable and the life of the party, and he can be a loner, content to read a novel in the bedroom for hours at a time. 

Dad is and always has been a writer and is probably the main inspiration for my own literary pursuits. As a young man, he wrote for good-quality newspapers when newspapers were in their heyday—The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Minneapolis Tribune, Louisville Times and, later, the Sunday Louisville Courier- Journal, among others. He loved reporting and was good at it. Eventually he turned his communications skills toward teaching journalism, then directing media relations for Western Washington University and later handling press relations for the Butte-based Montana Power Company. When my parents moved to Wisconsin, he did development and fund-raising work at Northland College in Ashland, WI. As you can see, we moved around a lot.  Restlessness is another key hallmark of my dad.

His last “real” job was director of development for a beautiful and bucolic monastery outside of Eau Claire. Since then he has more or less retired, although he stays active by volunteering as a literacy tutor and continues a regular shift at a local hospital in Eau Claire, where my parents live, as well as other projects.

I have often urged my dad to write a book. The man reads more voraciously than anyone I’ve ever known and retains much of what he reads. This combined with his already-prodigious gift for writing would make him a natural author, or so his family says. Dad will usually joke that he doesn’t have anything new to say but we know better. 

My dad grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio as the youngest son of three children. His father was a WWI veteran who had a serious problem with alcohol. Because of this, I don’t think dad got the fathering he deserved. But in spite of that, he had a happy childhood under his loving mother’s guidance and with his many boyhood friends. I relished listening to dad’s stories of mayhem and mischief when kids ran freer than they do today. He would tell about going out in the woods behind their home with a BB gun and the whole day ahead of him. Inevitably, the story would end with him and his buddies running away from someone or falling off a roof and just barely escaping punishment from some humorless authority figure.

He joined the Army in 1957 and attended the Army Language School at the Presidio of Monterey in California.  His Army adventures even took him right here to Fort Hood where he got involved in “special services,” basically playing sports for the Army as a full-time job. He also worked in a message center in Korea as well as a variety of other jobs, including battalion mail clerk (a position I smile at because to this day, he loves receiving mail).

His favorite sports memory was struggling to score against Green Bay Packer Ray Nitzke in a basketball game.

After he and mother got engaged and he had already left the service, he was recalled for the Berlin Crisis in 1961. At that time he was trying to finish his bachelor’s degree at Miami University and the interruption—as well as the unexpected separation from my Mom—devastated him. But luckily, the redeployment was short-lived and my folks were married in 1962.

My father had a unique parenting style. When my sisters and I were young, he was sometimes gruff and impatient with us—he would jokingly call us “men” and use Army terminology and lots of humor to get his points across. I can still recite colorful “limericks” (not printable here) dad would share with us, while my mom would mock-gasp and try to shush him.  Although he was by no means the kind of father who called his girls “princesses,” we never doubted his love for us or his protectiveness. He made us laugh and instilled the importance of reading, critical thinking and problem-solving. I recall being at the dinner table and waiting for him to abruptly ask:  “Learn anything?” to which my sister and I would struggle to come up with some interesting nugget from our school-day.      

Dad has had a long love-affair with standard poodles. Currently he and my mom are on poodle number five, a black, rambunctious and thoroughly loveable 1-year-old named “Pete.” Before that was Dusty, Buff, Mandy and Della—each unique and wonderful in their own ways.  At times, I think my father has related better to his dogs than to humans.  (A phenomenon that I can truly understand, now that we have our dog Murphy).

Trying to pin my dad down in any particular way has always been difficult.  He is a study in contrasts and as mercurial as the weather here in Texas. He is complex and he is simple. He is like nobody else's dad I know and I’m grateful for that...and love him dearly.  Happy (belated) Birthday Dad!      

   

Posted in Married to it on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 2:00 pm. Comments (0)

Wednesday 03/12/2014
My Lenten challenge

So I am giving up alcohol for Lent. This was not a decision I made lightly. I am not a heavy drinker but I suspect I’m a habitual one. Meaning three or four times a week, I like a glass of wine or a beer while making dinner, and sometimes another one with dinner. My husband and I enjoy the winding-down, end-of-the-work-day ritual of a libation together and I tell myself there is nothing wrong with that. However, I’ve noticed that this evening routine has become more important to me than it perhaps should. And I wonder if I might have a problem.

Alcoholism runs in both sides of our families. My dad’s dad was an alcoholic and years ago I recall my father telling me that whenever he felt the need for a drink, that’s when he deliberately chose not to pour one. That stuck with me.

There is no doubt that alcohol plays a huge role in our society. The first thing a waiter or waitress will ask when you are seated in a restaurant is what would you like to drink? And if it’s dinner time, there will usually be a wine or beer menu placed prominently in front of you. Of course, alcohol is the great social lubricant at most events. I love getting together with our neighbors for an impromptu Friday night cocktail or other grownup beverage. And drinking wine with other military wives-- while playing Bunco, at a farewell or welcome party, or simply because you enjoy the company-- is a time-honored tradition. There is nothing wrong with that.  And yet…

Motherhood changes the game a bit. Like all kids, my sons are pretty observant and pick up on things you think they barely notice. They watch us having wine at dinner and have made comments. Our 7-year-old recently asked me why we like wine so much. (Cringe!) While modeling responsible alcohol behavior is a plus (we don’t get “drunk” or belligerent when we drink,) I’m not thrilled with the prospect of the kids seeing Mom and Dad with a glass in their hand on a regular basis.

Though I feel we use moderation when we imbibe, I would say there are still repercussions. Such as, that the relaxation qualities of alcohol sometimes make it more challenging to read my little guy a book before bed. Or that I occasionally fall asleep much earlier than planned. And if I’m truly being honest here, sometimes I get irritable after a glass of something. (Of course, it should be pointed out that I can also get quite irritable without it!)

(Note to Reader:  If I’m starting to sound like a party-pooper or—God forbid—a self-righteous, card-carrying teetotaler, please forgive me.)

Of course I’ve abstained from the sauce before - during both my pregnancies, while on deployments and times when I was “de-toxing” or just not in the mood to drink.   

From a health perspective, as I’ve gotten older, I find I’m getting more frequent headaches after even just one glass of wine. It’s a no-brainer to state that our livers take a beating with frequent drinking, though of course every individual processes alcohol differently. But we women need to be careful—our generally smaller sizes dictate that we can’t keep up with men in the drinking department.

Lent is a time of purification, self-reflection, sacrifice and re-evaluation. It is a time for entering the “wilderness” and finding out what we’re really made of. Maybe giving up alcohol is a small thing, but I think it will test my mettle in ways beyond the obvious. When my husband is pouring himself a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio on a sultry Texas evening, I know I will want one, too. When St. Patrick’s Day arrives and we’re at a lively gathering with all hands clutching cold beers, it’s a safe bet I’ll be feeling sorry for myself as I sip my glass of water. And when the novelty of my Lenten sacrifice wears off and dinner time inevitably rolls around and the kids are bickering and I realize I forgot to defrost the chicken, I know I will probably want something to take the edge off a little bit.

I worry this means I have alcoholic tendencies. Or maybe I’ve simply grown a little too accustomed to what began as a harmless ritual.

It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to point out that sometimes a glass of wine can be desirable, merely because of what it represents. Having a cocktail is a nice transition to the evening and a way to connect with one’s Significant Other. It can smooth out the rough edges, fill in the lonely or uncomfortable gaps and bridge that restless time from early evening to night. All in moderation, naturally.

I’m curious to discover how the next six weeks will go and how I’ll cope. I wonder if I’ll be able to stay strong when temptation strikes? And what will taking away this familiar crutch ultimately do for me and my family? Maybe I won’t have any dramatic epiphanies when Easter arrives and Lent is over, but I suspect there will be some quiet lessons.

As Jesus discovered during his 40 days of wandering, he was stronger than the devil and all the temptations he threw at him. I can only hope to be as victorious during my much-humbler Lenten challenge.

I wish you peace, strength and joy during this beautiful season. And just so you know, I’m toasting you with a glass of flavored water!

Posted in Married to it on Wednesday, March 12, 2014 10:59 am. | Tags: Lent , Alcoholic Beverage , Alcohol , Alcoholism , Grownup Beverage , Easter , Fort Hood , Wine , Beer , Parenting , Motherhood Comments (1)

Tuesday 03/04/2014
An Ode to 'Jane'

Friendships between military wives can run the gamut. Some are formed chiefly because the children are the same age and the women live nearby. Others are deeper and less definable. The reasons two military spouses continue to seek each other out can be complex and intense and very personal. My friendship with “Jane” would fall into this category.

Jane passed away back in June 2012 and I just found out about it. You may be wondering how good a friend she really was if I didn’t know of her death. I can tell you she was a “give-the-shirt-off-her-back” kind of friend. She was funny and self-deprecating and often pessimistic, in an endearing “Eyore” sort of way.  She was kind and deeply sensitive and much too hard on herself.  And like “The Catcher In the Rye” narrator, Holden Caufield, she could spot a phony a mile away. 

I met Jane while living in Mannheim, Germany, from 2003 to 2005. We lived in the same neighborhood and hit it off immediately. Jane had two young children, a little girl about my son Ryan’s age and a toddler boy. 

We got together in the usual way of military spouses. We would meet at local parks and playgrounds with snacks in tow. We sometimes went to one of our houses for coffee and distracted conversation while the kids played loudly, (usually someone was crying.) Once in a rare while, we met at a favorite restaurant for lunch. 

Jane was a big lady with an even bigger heart. It seemed to me that her larger size caused her to take on a slightly apologetic stance, especially around other military wives who she perceived to “have it all together.” I often reminded her that appearances can be deceiving and that everyone is dealing with something.

Although Jane was an excellent mother, she often seemed unfulfilled in the role. Prior to marriage, she had held various administrative positions in hospital settings, and I suspected, as smart and organized as she was, that she was good at her work. I recall us talking about our careers prior to starting families and we were both often wistful. Having children was what each of us wanted, make no mistake. But it was still tough some days doing the daily grind, particularly in a foreign country without extended family members to pitch in. Maybe it sounds ungrateful or whiney of us—we had both waited longer than the average bear to have our kids—but it’s the truth.

I say these things because Jane was the kind of friend you didn’t have to pretend around.

When we moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, in summer of 2005, Jane and I had every intention of keeping in touch. We wrote emails back and forth and the occasional snail-mail card or letter. Once she sent me a lovely blue plate from Denmark—the country of her family’s origin and the place she loved to visit most of all.

After having my younger son Andrew in 2006, things understandably got busier. This is not an excuse, merely a fact of my life. I think this is about when Jane and I stopped communicating. I thought of her often but by then both our lives had changed to accommodate our new duty assignments and all the people and activities that entails. 

A few years after that, we became Facebook “friends.” At some point, I recall seeing her postings and realizing she was sick. I didn’t realize how sick, exactly, but knew she had cancer.

I know I wrote a few Facebook messages to her but she was in an epic battle for her life and probably had neither the time nor the energy to catch me up on all that she was dealing with. I only wish I had made a greater effort to talk with her personally. I can’t imagine how scared and overwhelmed she must have been. But I know her loving husband was by her side, as well as her children and other family members and, of course, her friends.

Learning of Jane’s death (which I got wind of only recently) was a shock to me, although I think I must’ve known on some level. I’d assumed she had “un-friended” me on Facebook when her name dropped off. But cowardly me didn’t check. I didn’t call to see how she was doing and feeling. And in the back of my mind, I figured I’d catch up with her eventually. Yes, denial is more than a river in Egypt.

Perhaps my point with this story is that life is short and unpredictable and we never know what the Big Guy has in store for any of us. I knew all this intellectually but think that lesson really kicked me in the gut this past week. The friendship Jane and I  shared—though brief—was the real deal and I will always regret not making more of an effort to maintain it. At the same time, I have learned that military friendships can be brightly burning flames for a while, but after one or both of the friends move, it’s difficult to maintain that intensity despite the best of intentions. I feel privileged to have known Jane during those Mannheim years, no matter the duration.

I hope Jane knows how sorry I am and how much I appreciated her friendship. I bet she’s having a ball “up there” and cracking everyone up with her dry humor. I hope when I get there, we can laugh again together.

Posted in Married to it on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 4:37 pm. | Tags: Mannheim , Facebook , Denmark , Germany , Friendship , Family , Cancer , Military Wife Comments (0)

Monday 02/24/2014
Russian for Dummies

Sadly, the Olympics are over, with all their decadent pageantry and amazing athletic feats. I enjoyed all of this, particularly the figure skating and ice dancing competitions. However, I think I was most fascinated by the host country, chiefly, its language.

Watching the Olympics takes me back to 1990 when I was lucky enough to attend a year of Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. I was a specialist in the Army and had scored fairly high on the D-Lab, the exam given to military members interested in learning a foreign tongue. The test not only determines your potential for absorbing a new language quickly but also steers you toward a particular category, based on your score.  Back then, Russian was considered a Category 2 language while Spanish was a 1 and Arabic was a 3. I have no idea if those are still accurate ratings.  

My father had attended DLI for Russian in 1957 and when I was growing up, he would talk fondly about his time in Monterey. I also remember struggling through “War and Peace” as a 12-year-old (mostly to impress my dad), which made me even more intrigued with Russia.   

Although I tested well, the reality was a little different.  I quickly discovered that I was not a “natural” at languages…at least not this one.  I struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet that was so, well, foreign. The verb and noun placement, the many tenses and tricky pronunciation were challenging, to say the least. There was always plenty of homework each evening and no shortage of pressure. I didn’t want to wash out of DLI, as some ended up doing, so forced myself to study and focus…most of the time.

Living in Monterey was a mixed blessing. It was wonderful because I couldn’t imagine affording the Northern California lifestyle any other way at that point in my career. Monterey was (and is) a gorgeous and desirable locale and its proximity to other lovely cities like San Francisco and Carmel made it ideal. Of course it was also terrible because it was such a distraction. Many a time, I’d have reams of vocabulary to memorize and the siren song of the beach would call to me…or a group of soldier friends would be heading out to a local restaurant.  Didn’t I want to come along?  Despite the 20 yet-untranslated sentences sitting on my desk? Of course I did! 

The instructors ran the gamut from very strict to more relaxed but most of them seemed kind and displayed remarkable patience with our butchered pronunciations and grammatical mistakes. I often wondered how they were selected to teach there and if for them, it was considered a dream assignment, a punishment or something in between.

Watching the Olympics has brought some of this anxiety and fascination back to me. I strained to understand the Russian athletes when they spoke and felt vindicated when the odd word or sentence made sense.  Native Russians tend to speak very quickly and I realized all over again what a melodic language it can be when spoken correctly.      

The final tests before graduating from DLI required a written and oral test. I recall doing above average on the written exam but barely squeaking past the oral portion. My examiner was a burly Russian stereotype of a man with a bushy beard and no apparent sense of humor. My friends suggested that I drink some vodka prior to taking the test, as it would help “loosen me up.” Instead my head hurt and I went blank on several occasions, fumbling madly for coherent phrases that would convince this unsmiling bear of a man that I knew anything at all about his language. I don’t think he bought it but somehow, I passed. (It probably didn’t help my case that the student who tested before me was one of the best in our entire class and most likely dreamed in Russian). 

Despite the trauma of the final exams, my memories of DLI are rosy.  I was given a unique opportunity that few people receive.  Besides the language training, friendships and chance to explore Northern California, I also ran on the “Charlie Company” female track team and recall many local races and scenic runs on the beach just down the steep hill from our classrooms.  I still recall how lucky I felt striding across the sand, watching the sun sparkle on Monterey Bay, seals barking in the distance. 

I kept all of my old textbooks and tapes (yes, tapes) which I had planned to study over the years.  They’ve been moldering away in a box in our shed…but I still don’t have the heart to toss them.   

 As for Russia, I have not yet had the opportunity to visit but hope to someday.  Not only do I want to explore this intriguing country but would also welcome the chance to start fresh at learning its language.  Thanks to the Olympics for letting me re-visit this special time in my life.  “Bal’shoye  Spasiba!”  

Posted in Married to it on Monday, February 24, 2014 11:31 am. | Tags: Monterey California , Defense Language Institute , Russia , The Olympics , Education , Russian , Army Comments (0)

Thursday 02/13/2014
Guilty as charged

Is it possible to feel guilty about feeling guilty?  If so, then I’m guilty.  OK—I’ll give it a rest.  But in all seriousness, guilt is a topic that interests me because, well, it’s a biggie in the lives of mothers and most women I know.

The things that can trigger my ultra-sensitive guilt reflex are numerous.  With my two boys, this reflex seems to know no bounds. I feel it when they eat junk food or drink soda, when I yell at them (sometimes even when it’s very much justified), and especially when I make promises I can’t keep. For example, telling my 7-year-old that I’ll read him a bedtime book “in a minute” and half an hour later, finding him fast asleep clutching said book. Ouch. Another kid-caused guilt scenario involves my own unkind thoughts.  Such as silently wishing my Chatty Cathy youngest would please STOP TALKING incessantly and my laconic oldest would SAY something already.

Then there’s the “other mom” guilt that hits when I hear about such enviable women doing intricate crafts or art projects with their children while mine are zoning out on the X-Box.

Even if you take away Mom-Guilt, I am not free of it.  I often feel guilty for taking a nap (but do it anyway), for having that second glass of wine (justification: “hey, at least it’s red so it has heart-healthy benefits”), for snapping at my poor unsuspecting husband because I’m hormonal or for reading the latest best-seller when my to-do list is a mile long. There is also TV guilt (“Dancing With the Stars," anyone?) and calling-your-mother guilt.

Growing up Catholic can definitely add to one’s guilt quotient. But that’s a topic for another discussion.  As you can see, me and guilt have a close, personal relationship.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, guilt is defined as “feelings of culpability, especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy.” Hmmm.  Sounds about right. But another theory could simply be that my expectations for myself are out of whack. As Bill Murray famously tells another recruit in the hilarious Army movie “Stripes":  “Lighten up Francis!”

Experts have some positive things to say about guilt.  Turns out a little guilt is a good thing but too much is, well, not.  It’s finding the balance between going through life like a sociopath and flogging yourself over every perceived infraction.

There is a vast well of guilt to be tapped into when it comes to women who work and those who don’t. For years working women have been lambasted for following their dreams, being “ambitious” and “selfish” and leaving their kids in daycare, just to name a few. Then again, we stay-at-home women have our share of guilt too. For me, it manifests itself in failing to show my kids that I am an independent, self-sufficient woman. I also feel a little guilty for not bringing in a paycheck (though to his immense credit, my husband never makes me feel badly about this). 

Guilt certainly has its place in the human psyche. When used appropriately, it can act as a moral compass guiding us to do the right thing. There are times when one SHOULD feel guilty because that feeling will hopefully precipitate some sort of action to help right whatever went wrong, and caused the guilt in the first place.  For me, a few of those would include hurting a friend or family member’s feelings, taking my bad mood out on loved ones or, God Forbid, jeopardizing my kids’ safety in some way.  Too much guilt can make one a hand-wringing mess but too little isn’t optimal either.  People who say they never feel guilty scare me a bit.

I think self acceptance is the first step to curing the excessive “guilts.”  I will never be a perfect or even near-perfect mom, and that has to be OK.  Ditto for my role as wife, friend, sister, and daughter.  Accepting these facts mean being alright with serving frozen waffles for dinner, sleeping in instead of racing to yoga class, and the fact that raising my voice at my boys once in a while won’t scar them for life. Punishing myself mentally for weeks afterward will scar me, though. 

On that note, I think I’ll go call my mom…

Posted in Married to it on Thursday, February 13, 2014 9:00 pm. | Tags: Guilt , Bill Murray , Behavior , Chatty Cathy , Dancing With The Stars , Junk Food , Morality , Mother , Parent , Parenting , Children Comments (0)

Tuesday 02/04/2014
Reflections on war

Last week I had the privilege of attending a yelow-ribbon ceremony honoring Fort Hood soldiers and their families.  The ceremony was sponsored by the Harker Heights Military Affairs Committee (MAC) and “warm and fuzzy” is the best way I can describe it.  Jeanne Isdale, one of the co-chairs for the MAC, had some wonderful things to say about our military members, as did other community leaders who were there.  It is clear that Killeen, Harker Heights, Copperas Cove, and the other communities that surround Fort Hood value the Armed Services and—as Ms. Isdale said so well—“have our backs.” 

But what about the rest of this country? With the Afghanistan war—“Operation Enduring Freedom”—winding down, many of us are reflecting on what the last 10-plus years have meant for us and for our military. Initially full of patriotism and a shared sense of horror and sadness after 9/11, we were a country united. Then it was March 2003 and we were at war, first in Iraq and subsequently Afghanistan. The losses have been staggering by our modern standards—nearly 7,000 military members have died and hundreds of thousands have been injured, some grievously. In addition, thousands of coalition troops, contractors, innocent civilians and NGO workers have been killed or wounded. Contemplating all this loss is heartbreaking. Wondering if the average American citizen understands our military’s mission, or—pardon my bluntness—truly cares—makes it doubly so.

Unlike previous wars, these two conflicts have not involved much sacrifice on the home front. World War II was known for the way everyday Americans got involved in the war effort. Food rationing, buying War Bonds, kids collecting scrap metal to be recycled and re-used, and people growing “Victory Gardens” all spring to mind.  There was a sense of everyone being in it together because they were.  By contrast, this past decade-plus of wars has felt very different. Yes, wars are being fought but they are not terribly “personal” to the vast majority. During WWII, it was rare to find a citizen who did not have a male relative in the war. Nowadays, our armed forces make up less than 1 percent of the population. 

It’s not even necessarily a matter of your political leanings—more of a general state of malaise that has fallen over the country. I recall then-president George W. Bush encouraging Americans to “go shopping” to keep the economy robust during the height of the Iraq War. When my husband, Rob, was deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, I took my older son to Eau Claire, Wisc., to visit my parents. At some point, we were chatting with a neighbor and I mentioned my husband was deployed for a year. There was an uncomfortable silence followed by her saying, “Really? I didn’t know the military was going over there for that long.” It was an awkward and lonely moment for me.

How many civilians in this country know that our men and women in uniform were (and still are) risking their lives for months at a time?  I have since asked myself, what kinds of sacrifice SHOULD the average American have to make? I often wonder if I have made enough sacrifices. Rob’s brother Matt made the ultimate sacrifice.  He was killed in Iraq in December, 2006. Matt was a 25-year-old Marine with everything to live for. Except that he didn’t…nor did thousands of other promising young men and women like him. 

It is easy to flip the channel on war coverage during the television news when you have no point of reference. The Vietnam War Memorial, with more than 58,000 names inscribed upon it is sobering, but when you can point to a father’s, an uncle’s or even a brother’s name, then it is truly meaningful. I know that losing his brother has made this painfully true for my husband, his parents, and other family members. And I certainly don’t wish this kind of loss for others. But I do believe the American people need to be just as invested in our conflicts overseas as the 1 percent is.

I struggle with conflicting emotions over our troops still deploying to Afghanistan. It’s been said many times before by people far wiser than myself but our two cultures are as different as Venus and Mars. Call me crazy but it seems that without a thorough understanding of another country’s history, government, language and culture, effecting permanent change is, well, futile. And few of our military members have this deep understanding, through no fault of their own. It is no secret that Afghanistan has a bottomless well of problems and there doesn’t seem to be enough time, money or troops to fix them. At the same time, I want to believe we--our military and many others who continue to put their lives on the line there—are still making a positive difference, albeit in small ways. Matt’s death is a part of this rationalization, of course—how could it not be?

The point of the yellow ribbon ceremony in Harker Heights was to show the soon-to—be-redeploying III Corps soldiers that they have been missed and will be welcomed home with open arms. I hope other communities across this great country are still using this simple yet beautiful symbol to tell military members that they are not alone and that “we have their backs.”

Posted in Married to it on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 6:30 pm. | Tags: Afghanistan , Fort Hood , Jeanne Isdale , Harker Heights , Iraq , Iraq War , Harker Heights Military Affairs Committee , World War Ii , Vietnam War Memorial Comments (0)

Monday 01/27/2014
Leisurely courtship - lasting marriage

Recently, I was leafing through the February issue of Military Spouse magazine. The article that caught my attention was one about real-life military love stories. What struck me was that almost all the couples interviewed in the stories met when they were very young—in high school or college, typically. These were lovely, but I would’ve liked to have seen one or two tales about people who got together later in life, such as my husband Rob and me.

We met in October 1997 at a joint simulation military exercise called “Unified Endeavor” held in Suffolk, VA.  (The joint part is important because that is why I, a lieutenant in the Air Force, and Rob, an Army Captain, ended up there at the same time).

I was 33 years old and tired. Tired of dating, weary of romantic relationships that were close but never quite right. And meeting someone at this exercise was truly the last thing on my mind. Of course. 

Meanwhile, Rob had just ended a marriage. They had wed right out of college and, sadly, discovered they weren’t particularly compatible.  There were no children. I think Rob was tired, too, but anxious to find a partner who shared his interests and appreciated his many loveable qualities. 

At the exercise, I was working in the Public Affairs section, which just happened to be next to the Military Police cubicle. I noticed Rob immediately. He was a Paratrooper and his uniform reflected this status—ironed impeccably with mirror-shiny boots. This is not to say I didn’t also notice his thousand-watt smile. It should be further noted that he had excellent dental hygiene. I know this because he would brush his teeth every day after lunch at a large communal sink in the building where we worked.

It was evident that Rob was shy, frequently avoiding the silly banter that the rest of us participated in. He would busy himself with reading or paperwork instead. “What’s with this guy?” I thought to myself.

On Halloween, I loudly asked if anyone had a piece of gum. Before I knew it, Rob was handing me a stick of Juicy Fruit with a note wrapped around it. Intrigued (and suddenly feeling like a seventh-grader) I unwrapped the note. It was an invitation to accompany him into downtown Hampton and listen to live music at a bar he liked. In Rob’s tiny block print, he stated that Halloween costumes were not a prerequisite, but that as a native of the Virginia Tidewater area, he would like to take me somewhere that night.

Later, when he called my hotel room to make plans, I waffled a bit.  Going out with anyone seemed like a tremendous effort. In retrospect, I think I was simply burnt out and didn’t feel I had anything left to offer anyone. Also, Rob’s straightforward, guileless approach made me a little suspicious. Yes, I was a cynical gal

To make a long story short, I did go listen to music at a local bar with Rob that night and it was pleasant, though I’d be lying if I said we fell in love or even serious “like.” As with all first dates, there were plenty of awkward moments. Such as at the end of the night when he tried to kiss me on the cheek but I accidentally turned my head and the kiss landed partially on my mouth (which was open). Yes, awkward. 

We dated a couple more times that week in Suffolk and slowly got to know one another. Apparently I did not make it easy. (Rob later told me—with much amusement-- that I definitely had “an attitude” back then).

After the exercise ended, we took turns driving to each others military posts on the weekends—I was assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina while he was an hour away at Fort Bragg. Our romance unfolded slowly and rather chivalrously. The visiting person even made arrangements to stay overnight in Army and Air Force lodging during those weekends. Quite simply, we were on our best behavior. 

We spent a lot of our together-time hiking, camping and exploring different cities, staying at quaint bed and breakfast places and splurging on pricey restaurants for dinner. I look back wistfully and marvel at how much free time we seemed to have. Not to mention disposable income.

Our lives have a markedly different emphasis now.  Having kids in our 30s has delayed our “empty nest” days significantly, while many of our peers are just beginning to enjoy their much-deserved freedom.

Like all married couples, Rob and I are not without our glitches. Our politics sometimes clash, we have a tendency to be maudlin at the same time, and the decadent weekends at the B & Bs have been replaced with “romantic” activities like walking the dog together. But that Virginia gentleman still charms me on a daily basis.

Looking back, I think meeting later was good for us. Through serial dating (and in Rob’s case, marrying young) we had significantly narrowed our priorities in a potential mate. We were not remotely interested in games or drama anymore and this maturity benefited our relationship. But there have been times when we wish we had been a part of one another's formative years. I only know about Rob’s childhood, teen and college years from what he’s told me and vice versa. I missed the first eight years of his Army career, and he missed a big chunk of my life.  Another issue for us “older couples”:  Being in our 30s, we felt that we needed to get started on having children right away.  It would have been nice to just be a couple for a little while longer. 

That said, whatever the pros and cons, this was our story and I believe it was meant to unfold exactly the way it did.

Everyone’s story is unique and special.  I love “how we met” stories so please share yours and I’ll feature it in a Feb. 14 edition of my blog!           

Posted in Married to it on Monday, January 27, 2014 9:24 am. | Tags: Fort Bragg , Air Force , Virginia , North Carolina , Marriage , Suffolk Virginia , Seymour Johnson Air Force Base , Military Police , Family , Children , Dating , Courtship Comments (0)

Monday 01/20/2014
Are our kids resilient?

It seems that each generation regards successive generations as “softer” than their own. Remember the “I walked six miles to school in the snow” stories our parents and grandparents told us? As a mother of a sixth-grader, I’ve personally noticed certain traits about my son and other kids his age. They seem more sure of themselves and their place in the world in a way than I was then. Although some of this can be chalked up to adolescent bravado, I believe that, in general, today’s children are more savvy and sophisticated than we were. Many possess a kind of confidence that life is going to go their way and that good things are their due. These are actually positive qualities. I worry, however, whether my son has the ability to bounce back from hardship.  Can he take constructive criticism? And will he be able to handle crushing disappointments when they come?     

Many of the young soldiers in today’s Army also seem to have this sense of surety, and—dare I say it?—entitlement.  At the same time, I think there is a fragility about them that leaves them terribly vulnerable in times of trouble. The news is rife with stories about the increase in military suicides over the past several years and I wonder if young people are less resilient than previous generations. (Of course, the Army is merely a microcosm of society, reflecting the same strengths and weaknesses that the United States as a whole is dealing with.)  The common media theme is that suicides in the Army are at an all-time high because of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), caused by deployment-related injuries and stress. The truth of the matter is that many of the soldiers who attempt suicide have never deployed and many are on their first enlistment. This is not to imply that there are not legitimate situations in which deployment-related PTSD and subsequent suicidal ideations do occur. 

In light of the two wars soldiers have been fighting for over a decade now and all the resulting stress on active-duty members and their families, the Army now has a “Ready and Resilient Campaign” to help strengthen coping skills. The Army defines resiliency as  “the mental, physical, emotional and behavioral ability to face and cope with adversity, adapt to change, recover and learn and grow from setbacks.” Here at Fort Hood, there is a huge and impressive “Resiliency Campus” consisting of a myriad of programs to strengthen resiliency, from spiritual to physical fitness. It opened in 2009 and became the model for the Army to follow. I applaud this development.

But if combat stress is taken out of the equation, let’s return to my fragility hypothesis.  Are kids being raised without sufficient coping skills when challenges arise? Is technology—which is part of a kid’s life now from babyhood on—creating generations of young adults who are ill-equipped to reach out to others when they need help? And perhaps the more important question:  How do we recognize and identify people who might need help before it’s too late? 

Allow me to offer up some opinions about this phenomenon.  The “Everyone’s A Winner” philosophy and the much-publicized “Helicopter Parenting” might be factors in this trend of outwardly confident, yet emotionally fragile people. (First, let me state for the record that I have been and continue to be guilty of both these parenting styles.) 

The “Everyone’s A Winner” syndrome is rampant in sports and schools, just to name a few areas.  Fearful of branding some children as “winners” and others as “losers,” we have homogenized the playing field, handing out awards and certificates to all kids regardless of performance-level or achievement. I believe this trend began as a well-meaning way to minimize children’s disappointment and raise self esteem. However, I think we’ve taken it too far and it’s starting to backfire. What’s wrong with a little disappointment? And why is not OK to recognize and applaud the best players on a soccer team, for example? The thing is, kids aren’t dumb. They know when they’re being patronized and when grown-ups are being genuine. 

“Helicopter Parenting” refers to our hovering over and around our offspring to a fault. These are the parents who fill out their kids’ college applications for them, type their English papers and continue to do their teenagers laundry for them. All done in the name of love and good intentions, of course. Again, guilty as charged. It’s not easy watching your kid struggle. But it is absolutely crucial for their development toward becoming self-sufficient and, yes, resilient adults. 

Dealing with disappointment and “failure” must not be viewed as a catastrophe. By shielding our children from all unpleasantness and difficulty, we are setting them up for tough times ahead. Suicide attempts are clearly the extreme, and sadly, there are no easy answers. I hope and pray that the Army and the military as a whole can get to the bottom of this national crisis.            

Posted in Married to it on Monday, January 20, 2014 9:42 am. | Tags: Army , Social Issues , Posttraumatic Stress Disorder , Fort Hood , Ptsd , Coping Psychology , Resilience , Parenting , Helicopter Parenting , Suicide Comments (0)

Tuesday 01/14/2014
Happy birthday Mom!

My mother’s birthday is today ... Jan. 14. In honor of that special day, I thought I’d dedicate a few heartfelt words to her.

Mom grew up in a lively Catholic family of nine children in Cincinnati, Ohio. She fell somewhere in the middle of the pack, and seems to possess many of the qualities of the classic “Middle Child.”  She used to say she didn’t even talk until she was 4 years old—didn’t have to with all the older kids talking for her! I used to love to hear her family stories about her and her sisters and brothers doing ordinary things. It all sounded so foreign to me and terribly fun.

As a young woman, my mom was a beautiful sorority girl with creamy skin, short dark hair and a shapely little figure. She was, in short, a “dish.” I recall poring over photos of her with my sister when we were young, wondering if we would ever look like that. (The answer, in case you were wondering, is a resounding “no!”)  And yes, she is still a very pretty lady.

Mom had many suitors and attended a slew of social events (as evidenced by her college diary, which I was allowed to read from time to time.) Her social schedule was a literal whirlwind of parties, dates and, of course, school and a part-time job. I wondered when she ever slept.  My mother eventually fell in love with “the boy next door,” who would often come over to play basketball with her older brothers. They had known each other since grade school. Mom graduated from University of Cincinnati with a degree in fine arts and she and Dad were married in 1962.

Although my mom was not a military wife, in some ways, she lived like one. My father was a journalist and a young, ambitious man. That combination, mixed with his feisty Irish-German temperament and a yearning to travel, made my Dad a pretty restless guy. He was (and still is) a talented writer, reporter and editor and was eager to prove himself in different venues. Because of that, we moved an awful lot. But unlike our Army moves where packers, loaders, movers and trucks are provided, my mom did almost all of that herself. I remember her painstakingly rolling lamps and clocks in paper and carefully placing them in boxes. She would often do the moving, more or less on her own, while my dad house-hunted at the new location and began his new job. I still wince and cringe at how little my sisters and I helped out. 

Whatever Mom’s personal opinions about a move, I don’t remember her ever feeling sorry for herself or complaining. This probably sounds uber- corny, but her love and commitment to my dad simply overrode anything else. She would quickly set about making each new house a home and that was that. (Hmmmm….a good, early lesson for her daughter who is not always so cheerful about her own moves.)

Besides being a gifted artist—she could draw, sketch and paint beautifully—Mom was also an excellent seamstress, like her own mother. She sewed Halloween costumes for us, (I fondly recall being a nurse one year when I was about 4 while my sister was “Little Red Riding Hood.” We also had adorable “Holly Hobby” doll dresses,) regular clothes and prom dresses. There was many a time she would be whirring into the night on her sewing machine, finishing up a “Gunne Sax”-style gown for someone’s dance the next night. And she always finished it.

As for food, Mom makes a lot of tasty things to eat but one of my favorites is her granola. This honey-and-oil drenched delicacy can rival anything in the grocery stores and is so, so satisfying. 

My parents live in Wisconsin now—they’ve been there since 1986 and though the topic of moving comes up from time to time, it remains to be seen whether they will re-locate again. The harsh Midwestern winters they continually endure are worrisome for me and my two sisters and I wish we were closer. I just went home for a few days after Christmas and got to be a kid again, eating my mom’s home-cooked meals and sleeping in a double bed with my sister like we were teenagers. We all shared some laughs, got cabin-fever, and talked about how cold it was.

Mom’s latest “kid” is a frisky, black standard poodle named “Pete” who stares at her with adoring eyes and follows her around. Dogs definitely know a good thing when they see it.

Happy birthday Mom—I love you!        

Posted in Married to it on Tuesday, January 14, 2014 1:34 pm. | Tags: Mother , Father , Cincinnati , Gunne Sax , Holly Hobby , University Of Cincinnati , Ohio , Family , Home , Journalist , Parent , Army , Wisconsin Comments (0)

Thursday 01/09/2014
My last New Year's resolution

The New Year has been officially rung in and resolutions have been made…or not.  Let me tell you a story explaining why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore. 

I used to have an eating disorder—bulimia, to be precise.  I make this still-painful confession because for many years, my New Year’s resolution was to stop binging and purging.  As a card-carrying member of the “Late Bloomer’s” club, I didn’t become bulimic until my early 20s.  Why I succumbed to this dangerous and addictive behavior isn’t all that interesting or unusual:  I thought I was fat (I wasn’t), I didn’t feel I had control over many aspects of my life, and of course, like many young women, I had your garden-variety case of low self-esteem.

Initially, I just experimented with bulimia to see if it would help me lose a few pounds.  And like anyone with an addictive personality, I assumed I could stop any time I wanted. Unfortunately for me, this didn’t happen. It sounds bizarre to people with normal eating habits but the excitement of stuffing oneself with “forbidden” foods (donuts, ice-cream and cookies were favorites,) then getting rid of all the evidence - and the potential weight gain - can become too titillating to stop. In a way, it’s much like the high of drugs or alcohol. Thus began my 15-year “experiment” with bulimia.

One of the hallmarks of an eating disorder is secrecy. I told no one—certainly not my parents, nor my sisters and friends, and not even my fiancé-then-husband (until later). I was embarrassed and ashamed, not to mention guilt-ridden. Before long, the secret had a life of its own. With the hindsight of years and perspective, I now see how bulimia took control of my entire life.

I was a young adult just entering the working world but my time and energies were not focused where they should have been. If I wasn’t currently binging, I was often planning my next one. I was frequently exhausted from throwing up, my mood swinging from one extreme to another (thanks to the abrupt changes in bodily chemicals and electrolytes). I frequently worried about what all this vomiting was doing to my heart…and my teeth. Would my dentist notice a change in my tooth enamel? That’s often a glaring sign. It’s no wonder I was often irritable, couldn’t concentrate, focus effectively on my career or maintain a healthy romantic relationship (although that did finally happen, thankfully). 

Ironically, though I became bulimic to keep my weight in check, this backfired after a while because my metabolism no longer knew whether I was eating or not and I actually began to get heavier. Other tell-tale physical signs of my secret behavior included puffy cheeks and red eyes.

As time went on, there would be weeks and even several months when I would eat completely normally and I would tentatively start believing I was “cured.” But inevitably, a bad day, unpleasant emotions or simple stress would trigger a relapse. Afterward, came the waves of guilt and shame which were getting worse the longer this went on. I was a reasonably intelligent, self-sufficient woman, right?  But I couldn’t seem to stop this on my own.

Each New Year’s Eve I would vow that the next year would be different. Finally I’d had enough. It was very early in 2001 and I had just binged and purged for reasons I have forgotten. I was suddenly sick to death of myself and very bored with the whole bulimia thing. Without thinking about it too much, I randomly called a therapist in the San Antonio area where we were living at the time. She turned out to be wonderful and our client-counselor relationship clicked almost immediately. (I was lucky—this isn’t always the case). I learned that “being bulimic” did not have to define me, nor was it even the crux of my problem. It was a symbol of much deeper, underlying “stuff” that I didn’t want to face.

It was not an easy process but just talking about my huge secret to a “safe” person was a tremendous relief. We talked about a lot of things. and though it took time and effort, I gradually lost the desire to binge and purge. I saw the therapist for about six months before we had to move again. I was also pregnant with our first child at this point. My bulimic days were over at last. 

Back to New Year’s resolutions. I don’t really make them anymore. The one I made back in 2001 was the biggest success I’ve ever had, so why would I try to compete with that? 

Posted in Married to it on Thursday, January 9, 2014 3:41 pm. | Tags: Bulimia Nervosa , Binge Eating , Eating Disorder , New Year , Mental Health , Disorders Comments (0)

Monday 01/06/2014
Hello again, deployment

So the mystery has been revealed. We are not moving this summer as I had assumed we would. Instead my husband is deploying to Qatar for a year. This was not a complete surprise. He had mentioned this as a possibility given he needs to be joint-qualified (meaning he has worked with and supervised people in all of the branches of military service.) The other option for us was Washington D.C., which seemed more likely…and more desirable.

Why I had convinced myself we were moving to D.C. is fodder for another column on psychology and wishful thinking. Suffice it to say that we are “due” a deployment. His last—to Afghanistan—ended in 2010.  Some might say we are overdue. We are well-aware and humbled by the families whose soldiers make far more sacrifices and endure many more frequent separations on a regular basis. 

If I were to make a list, the negatives certainly seem to outweigh the positives. To name just a few:  Being a single mother (and the boys—at their current ages—need Dad around more than ever), missing my best friend and worrying about him, and handling all the household chores solo, all fall into that “minus” category. However, just for fun, I thought I’d try to come up with some bright spots. Cereal for dinner? Why not! No arguing over the remote, an entire bed to myself and fewer groceries to buy, all spring to mind. For Rob, the positive aspects may be more numerous. Qatar is a beautiful country with a rich, diverse culture and history. I was actually there on a brief deployment with the Air Force back in 1996 and recall marveling at the opulent buildings and picture-perfect beaches. Also, the job he will do sounds interesting and involves plenty of travel and interactions with a wide variety of people.  Plus, he will likely have the opportunity to return to the states for conferences and meetings during the year he is deployed. There is a chance I could meet up with him somewhere and possibly the boys, too.

Military deployments and long separations are strange birds. The build-up and dread of the soldier’s departure looms heavily over families for months before he or she actually leaves. That creates a palpable tension that can be stressful for both the adults and children. Once he or she finally departs, there is sadness, but also a smidgen of relief that the clock is finally ticking. This cycle is repeated endlessly by families here at Fort Hood. Home of the 1st Cavalry Division, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment and many other units, Fort Hood is a virtual revolving door of deployments. 

There’s another reasons I’m dreading my husband’s absence. Every military spouse knows that medical, mechanical and other crises tend to happen during deployments. It never fails—one of the kids breaks a limb, the car goes belly-up, a water pipe in the house bursts or everyone comes down with food poisoning. It is simply “Murphy’s Law” of separation. While Rob was deployed during the Iraq War in 2003, my older (and then only) son Ryan, who was 2 at the time, fell off a high playground platform in Hanau, Germany. Fearful he may have landed on his head, we were urged to spend the night in the local clinic where Ryan was awakened every hour by a not-so-gentle nurse wielding a flashlight that she shined directly into his eyes to ensure he was OK. Thankfully, he was. On the mechanical front, a ferret-like animal called a “martin” chewed through critical wires in our car’s engine. Most devastating of all, however, was the sudden death of Rob’s beloved stepfather. Life—and death—do not wait patiently for loved ones to come home.

I hope that when summer comes and Rob’s departure is nigh, I am able to say goodbye with a sense of optimism as opposed to doom and gloom. For now, six months likely remain until he gets on a plane bound for the Middle East. As we get closer to June, I will call upon my inner “tough broad” who has served me well in the past.  And thinking of all the women (and men) who are also bracing themselves for another year on their own, I know I am in the best of company.           

Posted in Married to it on Monday, January 6, 2014 4:26 pm. | Tags: Fort Hood , Afghanistan , Iraq War , Qatar , 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment , Hanau , Washington D.c. , Deployment , Family , Military Family , Military Spouse Comments (0)

Monday 12/30/2013
Dear Pentagon: Keep commissary open!

The Army Times recently featured a disturbing story about our commissaries. The Pentagon is considering a plan to close all U.S. commissaries in 2015, as a budget-cutting move that many are unhappy about.

I am one of those people. It’s hard to fathom that we could lose our commissaries—an Army tradition for more than 140 years. The Army has approximately 178 commissaries in the U.S. and 70 located overseas.  Here at Fort Hood, we have two large commissaries, a necessity because of the 50,000 soldiers plus their family members, as well as retirees. 

Commissary shopping is often more convenient than going off-post to a local grocery chain and is always tax-free. Despite the 5 percent surcharge we all pay (which goes back into the commissary for repairs, building new stores, replacing equipment and so on), I find I usually spend considerably less money on commissary trips than when I shop at H-E-B or other stores. 

The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) claims using the commissary saves about 30 percent of grocery costs for the average family. This can add up to more than $4,000 in savings for a family of four over a year. 

Commissaries have been a vital part of military life since 1825, though originally, they were only for officers to use. It was not until 1867 that enlisted soldiers were allowed the same privilege.

Currently, commissaries sell roughly 11,000 items—a huge contrast to the 82 standard “dry goods” products commonly sold in 1868.

Many people have personal commissary stories that linger in their memories because of the strong or poignant memories they evoke.  One woman told me about living in Wiesbaden, Germany, when her children were small and “bursting into tears” at the sight of boxes of North Carolina corn on the cob in the produce department. Another friend recalled an actual fight that broke out over precious jars of peanut butter in the Camp Casey, Korea, commissary several years ago. 

On a personal “memory lane trip,” while we were on our first Germany tour, living in Hanau in 2002, the commissary was a link to the familiar and the dear.  As much as I loved living in Europe, homesickness would occasionally strike and somehow being in a store with American brands and recognizable packaging just made me feel a little better. 

Commissaries are one of the dwindling perks available to military members and their families. It would be a shame if these stores were closed down. Please let your elected officials know that your commissary is important to you. And feel free to share any personal commissary stories—I’d love to hear them!        

Posted in Married to it on Monday, December 30, 2013 4:14 pm. Comments (1)

Thursday 12/26/2013
A military spouse's best friend

I didn’t know we needed a dog so desperately until we got Murphy. Oh, I knew something was missing—we weren’t quite “complete” and another kid was out of the question. Neither Rob nor I are cat people (we’re both allergic) and other types of animals just didn’t appeal to us. So a dog it was.

I had been working on Rob for a dog for several years but he stubbornly resisted, claiming we had enough on our plates and, later, asking me to wait until we moved into an actual house with a fenced-in yard. Reluctantly I agreed.

As it turned out, our house and yard here are ideal for a dog and my husband was all out of reasons. So several months after moving in (when the roof-high stack of boxes on our patio had finally dwindled.  Not exaggerating in the slightest,) we started searching. I chose the Golden Doodle breed because when I was a child, my family had a series of standard poodles which are simply wonderful animals. But I wanted to try something a little different.

Through friends, I heard the mixed breed of Poodle and Golden Retriever made for an intelligent and loving animal. After pinpointing a breeder online, we trekked to Georgetown one Sunday to meet our future beloved pet. There were about eight puppies in this litter, each unbearably cute in its own way. Our younger son Andrew—age 6 at the time—immediately bonded with a brownish fluff ball temporarily named “Yellow Boy.”  (The breeder and her family had gotten too attached to previous litters so this time decided to only refer to them by color and gender). However Ryan, the eldest, was drawn to “Purple Girl.” We had a serious dilemma on our hands. Luckily, the puppies weren’t old enough to leave their mother quite yet so we had some time.

When at last it was decision time, I flipped a coin and “Purple Girl” won.  Inexplicably, I yelled “best two out of three” and continued flipping until “Yellow Boy” was the clear victor.  Son #1 huffed and puffed but he soon recovered. 

In retrospect, I believe that happened because “Yellow Boy,” now “Murphy” was “our” dog from the very beginning. He belongs with us like fire ants belong here in Central Texas.

His quirks seem tailor-made for the Dillons. Quite simply, he is as weird as we are and as contradictory. One the one hand, he can lounge like nobody’s business and is the softest, most comfortable nap buddy a gal could ask for. He’s also vaguely neurotic and obsessive-compulsive when it comes to food and his sacred daily walk. Rob calls him “Rain Man” when he starts his restless pacing first thing in the morning, which is thinly-disguised code for “walk me now!” 

We each find ourselves turning to Murphy for stress relief. The boys hug on him or throw his toys for him to fetch. After a long day of soldiering, Rob wrestles with him and then pets his silky fur until Murphy’s eyes are mere slits, while I love to chase him in the yard. All this and the dog can crack us up with his silly antics—a welcome quality when we start stressing about things we can’t control. For example, being half Retriever, he will bring “offerings” to us in the middle of the night. These can range from one of the boys’ dirty socks to my older son’s wristwatch. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that he sleeps on our bed more often than not and has long had dibs on one of the couches in the TV room. (A new couch purchased less than a year ago. Yes, this dog is spoiled.)   

Whatever type of pet one chooses, he or she can ease the uncertainty and anxiety of military life for the entire family. Yes, we will move again but so will Murphy. And he will make our next house or apartment or duplex a home just by being in it. And most likely, he will “own” the couch at the new location, too.     

Posted in Married to it on Thursday, December 26, 2013 4:16 pm. | Tags: Golden Retriever , Human Interest , Goldendoodle , Poodle , Central Texas , Pets Comments (0)

Thursday 12/19/2013
Struggling with the gift-buying dilemma

It is Dec 19 and I am by no means ready for Christmas. The decorating has been attempted, but temporarily abandoned. The baking is nonexistent. The cards have not been mailed and let’s not even talk about the shopping. Or let’s. Though I am female, shopping is not my favorite activity. And especially not at Christmas time. I wish I were the type of organized person who had everyone crossed out on her list by Halloween but sadly, that is not, nor will it ever be me.

But what is behind this strange procrastination? Let me make something perfectly clear before I go any further: I love gift-giving. I just don’t like to feel pressured or obligated to purchase, and as we all know, the holidays have become a retailer’s dream where the message is simple: Show how much you love your family and friends by buying them stuff ... even though this goes against the grain of what we’re celebrating in the first place, even though we know material things don’t equal love or happiness or satisfaction (after the initial “high” wears off. I’ve made enough impulse purchases in my lifetime to finally get that.), even though we’re all tightening our proverbial belts in this uncertain economy. And most importantly, even though “the reason for the season” is Jesus’ birth. So the big question is, why do we fall victim to this gift-giving frenzy that makes many of us feel frazzled, guilt-ridden and, ultimately, just plain bad? 

Lest you call me the ultimate Scrooge, I realize kids need toys and gifts at Christmas time — this is not about them. I’m talking about adults - grown-ups who know what they need and can pretty much get these things on their own. That would include me, by the way. 

What baffles me (and my husband) is why we keep ourselves in this somewhat crazy do-loop of commercial spending when, most likely, the people we are frantically shopping for are probably feeling the same way about shopping for us. Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Not everyone is on this bandwagon, however. I spoke with a perfectly sane woman the other day who told me she announced to her extended family members that no longer would she be mailing them gifts during the holidays, but she would be happy to donate money to a worthy charity in his/her name. I thought that was brilliant. Some families throw names in the hat and choose one person to buy for. Also a reasonable and smart idea. Making handmade gifts is another way to give to loved-ones while maintaining the spirit of the season.      

This dilemma reminds me of a quirky film called “The Abilene Paradox” (aka “The Road to Abilene”), which is frequently shown in leadership and communication workshops. It’s dated but the message is timeless.  The video centers on a family of four somewhere in Texas who are laconically going about a hot afternoon, trying to figure out what to do next. Someone suggests taking a road trip to Abilene and somehow the foursome agrees to go, with little enthusiasm. So off they go to have dinner in Abilene. On the way back, each person realizes that no one truly wanted to go but thought the others did and were afraid to offer a differing opinion. It is the classic example of group-think.

For military families like ours, buying gifts is a way to “touch” people when we know we can’t be together. I get that. It’s difficult to be geographically separated from relatives throughout the year but even more so during this poignant holiday season. Gifts are a tangible reminder that we love and miss a person. Gifts are a way to say, “See?  I battled the mall for you!” 

So each year I gnash my teeth, pull tufts out of my hair and join the throngs searching for the “perfect” gift, often barely remembering that person’s clothing sizes or current preferences. It’s a gamble and I know I don’t hit the mark all the time. But I keep doing it all the while wondering if there’s a better way and how do we jump off the merry-go-round together to get to it? If you’ve solved this dilemma in a graceful manner, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re still struggling, please drop me a line and share your struggle. Or perhaps you sincerely enjoy shopping and buying gifts for all your family members and friends? Whatever the case, if we all put our heads together, we can strive to capture more of the true essence of this beautiful season.

Happy Holidays!

Posted in Married to it on Thursday, December 19, 2013 5:00 am. | Tags: Christmas , Shopping , Gift , Christmas And Holiday Season , Holiday Greetings Comments (0)

Monday 12/16/2013
Santa's Workshop: These ladies rock

If it’s true that the Army relies heavily on volunteers, then all is well here at Fort Hood. For the past eight months or so, I have been privileged to volunteer with a group of ladies who amaze me with their energy, enthusiasm, initiative and smarts. The organization we’re all a part of is called “Santa’s Workshop” and though I’d love to expound on how wonderful it is, my blog-space today is dedicated to the volunteers themselves. But to briefly describe it, Santa’s Workshop is a non-profit group devoted to helping financially-qualifying Fort Hood families provide toys and gifts for their children during Christmas. What sets us apart from similar charities is the soldier or his/her spouse comes to the workshop to hand-pick the toys for each child in the family.

And now, a little history:  Wives of soldiers have been volunteering since the Revolutionary War, and most likely since medieval times when feudal “wars” were a constant.  Their role was often a gritty one—nursing grievously wounded men alongside the battlefield, cooking and providing moral support.  They would mend torn uniforms and socks, launder filthy clothing and bandages, and generally keep the “home fires” burning as best as they could. Actually, that doesn’t sound so different from today’s wife, with the exception of the creature comforts we now enjoy.

In today’s Army and military, volunteers perform myriad tasks that mirror “paying” jobs. Just a few examples include running meetings, organizing complex fundraisers and other large events, leading and advising Family Readiness Groups and approaching local businesses for support or donations. It is difficult to quantify, but volunteers Army-wide contribute roughly 500,000 hours each year. Last year, Fort Hood volunteer hours totaled approximately 184,000 hours with a calculated value of service equaling $2.5 million.

The 25 women on Santa’s Workshop Board have many of the skills required of corporate employees or even upper-level managers. For example, two of the volunteers are known as “toy buyers” and they are responsible for ensuring we have the same variety and quantity of desirable toys at the beginning of the shopping season as at the end. This is not as simple as it may seem. Toys are divided into categories based on age and gender and must be monitored and replaced when inventory reaches a certain level. These gals have been shopping since June, often sacrificing their precious family time (and garage space) for toys for needy families. Other board members have been organizing local fundraising events on and off-post since last July when we kicked off our “Christmas in July” shin-dig at Plucker’s Restaurant. There have been countless other fundraisers since then that require hours of planning and coordination. Still more ladies handle complicated accounting and computer issues, provide food for each event, or keep track of the volunteers themselves. (In addition to board members, Santa’s Workshop relies heavily on “Elves” during the shopping season. These men and women generously give up large blocks of their day to assist the families in choosing gifts for their children.)

Much has been written about how volunteering can hone possibly once-dormant skills and prepare a spouse to re-enter the work force when the time is right. If that is the case, these Santa’s Workshop ladies are all destined for success should they choose to work paying, full-time jobs in the future. (And by the way, I should mention that several of these gals have home businesses and other part-time jobs in addition to their children and family responsibilities.)

I am proud to be associated with this group of impressive women and know there are similarly amazing military spouses all over the world.  Thanks for your unselfish contributions, ladies (and gentlemen) and Happy Holidays!

Posted in Married to it on Monday, December 16, 2013 9:31 pm. | Tags: Christmas , Army , Fort Hood , Santa , Volunteering , Santa S Workshop , Salvation Army , Christmas In July Comments (0)

Friday 12/13/2013
Turns out The Great Place is pretty great

 I am excited (and a little nervous) to introduce myself and kick off my very first blog focusing on “life as a military spouse” at Fort Hood. Obviously, I cannot speak for everyone, nor will my experiences necessarily resonate with other women married to soldiers. My hope is that more often than not, I do strike a chord. If nothing else, maybe I can clear up some misconceptions and stereotypes or simply shed light on what being an Army family is about.      

A few things my blog will not be …

It will not be a forum to glorify or glamorize military life, nor will it aim to denigrate it or attempt to inspire pity. There are many positive aspects to signing up for this roller coaster of separations and joyous reunions, constant adjustments to new people and situations, and countless other highs and lows.   

One part of this lifestyle that we all share is the frequent moving. OK, full disclosure:  I did not want to come to Fort Hood. The harsh Texas summers and general lack of defined fall and winter seasons (and spring, to some extent) have never appealed to me. My roots are Midwestern, so in some twisted way, I crave vibrant fall leaves, snow and yes, even miserably cold temperatures at certain times of the year. But my husband—after 23 years of steady progress in his career—was given the well-deserved opportunity to lead a brigade here. So I sucked it up, as they say. And what I’ve discovered is that Killeen (and surrounding Central Texas area) is the most supportive, appreciative and involved military community we have ever lived among. I will also say that we have grown to appreciate the mild climate--coats? What coats?!--and have discovered some beautiful natural areas through hiking and exploring.

We moved into our on-post home in July 2012. This is our eighth move together, my 13th counting my own active duty service moves, and my 20th (roughly) since babyhood.  My dad—a peripatetic journalist—kept the family hopping when I was growing up.  In retrospect, I see this was good training for the future!

 A few facts …

I have been married to Rob since 1999. When we met, we were both captains in our respective services—me in the Air Force, he in the Army. (Prior to my stint in the Air Force, I was enlisted in the Army for several years.) Strangely, being in the military myself did not prepare me for my current role.

Rob and I have two boys, ages 12 and 7. We were considerably older when we started our family compared to many other couples our age. I joke that I’ve always been a “late bloomer” and will be asking my kids to change my diapers in the not-too-distant future.

Please let me hear from you—your input and stories are always welcomed and encouraged. If you’re military, did you want to come to “The Great Place?” Why or why not? If you’re not part of the military, what kinds of interactions do you have with soldiers and their families?  How do you view them?

As we fully enter this holiday season, I plan to focus on all that I’m grateful for. And one of those things is being given the honor of representing my fellow Army spouses through this blog. Whether you are a military wife, a mother, a veteran or all three (or none of the above), I invite you to join the discussion. 

Posted in Married to it on Friday, December 13, 2013 9:57 am. | Tags: Fort Hood , Army , Central Texas , Texas , Family , Peripatetic Journalist , Military Spouse , Army Wife , Killeen , Children , Parenting , Soldiers Comments (1)

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