'While They're At War' Kristin Henderson, author of While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, talks to Michele Norris about the private sacrifices made by military families.
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'While They're At War'

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'While They're At War'

'While They're At War'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris. Many Americans don't personally know what it's like to send a loved one off to war. And beyond the picture of tearful goodbyes and joyful reunions, many don't know what life is like for the families left back home. Kristin Henderson hopes to change that with a book called While They're at War, the true story of American families on the home front. Henderson is a journalist and the wife of a military chaplain, her book paints a vivid picture of the families behind America's armed forces, now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ms. KRISTIN HENDERSON (Author, While They're at War): When our nation decides to wage war, we women and men who love America's war fighters, comfort them when they call home sounding hollow. We manage their lives while they're gone. We pay their bills, service their cars, care for their children. We're told if there is a problem, don't cry to your spouses. There's nothing they can do about it, it will only distract them. And where they are, distractions can be fatal. So we solve the problems ourselves, and while we're doing all that, we're waking up every morning, knowing today could be the day the staff car pulls up in front of our house, and two or three people in dress uniforms walk up to our door. Today could be the day our life, as we know it, disappears into a black hole of grief.

NORRIS: Henderson says military spouses experience a specific kind of grief, anticipatory grief.

Ms. HENDERSON: During the first couple of years of the Iraq War, the chaplains at Fort Bragg started noticing a lot of spouses coming in to them in tears, suffering these various symptoms. They saw it as a wave of grief moving through the base, and they found that it matched all the same symptoms of anticipatory grief. That was a biggest ah-ha moment for me. When I was doing the research on this book, I was like, oh, that's what that was. Because while my husband was in Iraq, I would find myself crying in the shower, I would imagine his funeral, I would have moments where I couldn't get a breath. Those are all symptoms of anticipatory grief.

NORRIS: I know each individual story is different, but if you can speak in broad terms, what happens to a military marriage during deployment?

Ms. HENDERSON: It's stressed. Separation's hard. You're both dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and you're both changing a lot. Some women who are left behind, some spouses, really grow as people during this time. They become much more independent and self-assured, and if their returning service member can deal with that and see that as a positive, then their marriage is strengthened. That was the case for my husband and me after his Iraq deployment. Our relationship was much, was much stronger. For others, especially if there are pre-existing problems, sometimes the deployment makes them worse.

NORRIS: Now, you write about that one thing that everyone knows, but no one really talks about in public, and that thing called infidelity.

Ms. HENDERSON: Yeah, it's the big fear. It's probably a bigger fear than the reality, but it certainly does happen. Soldiers cheat while they're over there, and home-front spouses cheat here. Wartime is a time of feeling like there may not be a tomorrow, and when your spouse is far away, they become sort of vague to you. You try to picture them, and it begins to fade in your mind. So you start filling in those blanks, sometimes with what you imagine to be their best qualities, and you fall in love all over again. And sometimes with the qualities you wish they had that someone right near you happens to have.

NORRIS: Military spouses wait for the day with great anticipation that their loved one will return, but your book shows us that that's often just the beginning of a new and even more challenging chapter in their marriage.

Ms. HENDERSON: And you can never predict it either. My husband came home from a wartime deployment twice. The first time he came home from a war, I was expecting, you know, the honeymoon period and all that, and it was an extremely rocky homecoming. So I was anticipating that when he came back from Iraq, and it was just the opposite. I mean, he came back changed, but almost mellow. It was as if being through those experiences and seeing how, seeing that kind of suffering that made him decide not to sweat the small stuff. But it was completely different from what I expected, and that's the problem, often, is managing expectations.

NORRIS: There's a story in your book, Tiffany's Story, which is just one homecoming. It's on Page 262, I've got your book right there. And she gets the call, and she learns that her man's coming home.

Ms. HENDERSON: Right. Tiffany and her husband were married just a few days, actually, before he deployed, and he called her from Germany to say he was coming home. He was Special Forces, so his departures and returns tend to be unannounced. And she was just beside herself. She sprinkled rose petals all over the house. She baked like crazy, she decorated, she lit candles. She, you know, put on her best outfit, and then headed, waited for that call that he was at the airport. So she goes to the airport to try to find him, and she finally located him down at baggage claim.

Ms. HENDERSON (Reading): "Baby, she cried and ran up to him, screaming, ah, and he said, glad to see you. You look great, but, baby, not now. I got some missing equipment I got to take care of. He picked Gabriel up, her son, and he gave him a great big hug. Tiffany wanted to hug that man, too. She wanted to hold him, and all he could say was, baby, not now. He was an NCO, a non-commissioned officer. Taking care of his men and their equipment was his job. He hurried off to deal with the equipment. Things improved once she got Andre in the car, and when he walked in the door of the house and saw everything she had done for him, he was awestruck. Oh, my God, he said."

"That first night was great until she woke up and found him asleep on the floor. The bed was too soft, he explained. He could not sleep in the bed. Within a few months, he called her a whore, and she found herself on the ground in front of the house with his hands around her neck."

NORRIS: Now, this is a tough story, but how often does this happen? Either physical abuse, emotional abuse, fissures in the marriage?

Ms. HENDERSON: It's a minority, but it's a sizeable minority. And that's not counting all the couples like my husband and me who had, who didn't, it didn't come to physical violence, but we certainly had a lot of shouting matches and a lot of trouble after that first wartime deployment. So it's common, for it to come to that point is uncommon. One thing I found while I was working on this book is that there are a lot of services out there for military families. The Pentagon invests a lot of money in them. The big gap is in communicating that.

NORRIS: You write about your own experience, also, your husband, Frank and his return. Did you decide to pull back and not reveal too much of that story? You sort of saved much of that for the end of the book.

Ms. HENDERSON: I guess I really wanted the focus to be on the other families. My experience was my entry into this world. When my husband joined the military eight years ago, I was the most civilian of civilians. I knew nothing about military life. The journey that I've made from being kind of suspicious of the military to the point where I am now, knowing so many military people, knowing them as people, to me, points at the gap between the military community and civilian society that's developed over the last 30 years, now that we have such a small portion of our society serving. So I wanted to take readers along with me on that journey so that they could see what exactly the costs of war are. War always requires sacrifice. It's much more than just the soldiers who are sacrificing, it's the families. And if you don't know what all the costs are, you can't calculate accurately whether or not a war is worth fighting.

NORRIS: Kristin Henderson, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Ms. HENDERSON: Well, thank you.

NORRIS: Kristin Henderson's book is called While They're at War, the True Story of American Families on the Home Front.


And you can read about military family sacrifices in an excerpt from While They're at War, it's at our website, npr.org.

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