I was raised with tradition, taught to respect my elders, my country, and all who come across my path. I was reared by my grandparents. My grandfather migrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia during the Nazi regime and he valued freedom in the deepest sense. His heart swelled with pride when he found I was marrying a military man.
Other than what I had seen in the movies (which usually are not remotely close to reality), I had no concept of the lifestyle I would be living. Now, more than 26 years and 15 moves later, still married to the same man who now has more than 30 years of military service and multiple deployment stripes on the sleeve of his dress blues, I know without a doubt that military life has changed me.
During my husband’s first deployment to Iraq, I was living in Washington, D.C., a big city where you have to be alert to your surroundings. My children were grown by this point and I remember unlocking the front door to our home and opening it to total darkness. Tears welled up in my eyes as I concluded I truly was alone.
During our first overseas tour to Schweinfurt, Germany, my husband was in command of a battalion deployed to Iraq. It was unsettling as the deployment date changed repeatedly over the next 45 days. Once he was on his way, I thought I would settle into a routine, appreciating my alone time but realizing there would be periods of loneliness as well. The deployment was extended from 12 months to 15 months and we began to experience the loss of our soldiers in harm’s way. Ultimately, I would help plan and attend 67 memorial services for our 139 soldiers lost in a 15-month period as the military base decided it was best to honor the soldiers by combining the services to only one a week.
I was the family readiness group leader of more than 2,000 family members overseas, and I was adamant that I would stay strong for them as death surrounded us. In the shower every morning, I would heavily sob to get out my emotions (I thought no one could tell I had been crying if I just came out of the shower) and my red hair came out in handfuls due to the stress I was enduring. I developed health issues and feelings of guilt as I attended each memorial service and took care of the families whose soldiers would never celebrate another birthday or Christmas with them. I felt guilty that I still had my husband and another spouse did not. And, I felt a sense of relief that I still had my husband ... and then another pang of guilt for being so selfish. Once the deployment finally ended, I realized how fortunate I was that my husband had made it home safely but also that I had made friendships with other spouses who had weathered the tragedies with me and that we would be friends for a lifetime.
My husband has since completed brigade command where our units were scattered across Europe in more than 20 locations. I drove more than 10,000 miles in two years, taking care of soldiers’ families in and out of deployments. I attended more memorial services, although not nearly as many, as our soldiers make our world safer.
Now we are at Fort Hood on our latest Army adventure. But, life for me will never be the same since that deployment in Schweinfurt and experiencing so much loss. I cannot hear Lee Greenwood sing “God Bless the USA” without tears rolling down my face, even if I am in a public place.
Today, I find myself more emotional, more kind-hearted, and more compassionate. I find myself a better person. Not better than anyone else, just better than I used to be. A salute to our military families not just during November and “Military Family Appreciation Month,” but every day of the year.
I know, firsthand, military families serve our country as well.
Contact Wendy Sledd at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7476