“Has your Daddy been killed yet?”
Direct and to the point, this was the question, writer and military wife, found out her first grade son was being asked each day by a classmate. The questions came soon after a day of outreach in which Buckholtz came to her son’s civilian school and talked about the role of the military in American culture; talked about why her husband was away for months at a time, talked about where her son’s father was.
“This little boy was worried about Ethan’s father,” Buckholtz explains in defense of the six-year-old who daily reminded Ethan that his father was overseas, in the navy, fighting in a war with no end.
After living the life of an army wife, near the base in Washington State where children and spouses are all in the same situation – a spouse, a parent overseas — Buckholtz returned to her childhood home recently, leaving the support of other exhausted, pushed to the limit military families, returning to the civilian world.
She had come to her son’s school to explain to the children the important job being done by men and women in the military – to explain the military life. She could have been talking about life on a farm or life in Africa the subject was so foreign to these children at this typical suburban, public school in the DC suburbs. They knew nothing more about the military than what they watched on television or overheard in adult conversations. Her son Ethan and his younger sister, Esther, were an anomaly as was Buckholtz herself, a military wife in a civilian world. So she brought her world to the school, spoke to the children – at their level – about what Ethan and Esther’s father was doing for their country, far away on a navy ship and later on the ground in Baghdad.
And then the questions began. The little boy, having not known about the war before Buckholtz’s talk, became consumed with worry about Ethan’s father. The question was asked daily, the little boy’s drawings of a man with a machine gun, reflected his constant concern.
And Ethan took it in stride. His father was away, doing his job. He would return. He didn’t use a machine gun.
The gap between military families and civilian families is an enormous chasm. There is much that is not understood on both sides. Buckholtz, herself, fell into the military life when she fell in love with a military man. She, herself, had no idea what she was in for. “I was called a non-traditional military wife,” Buckholtz says, “but what I learned is that all the spouses are non-traditional. Most of us only have one thing in common and that is that we had all fallen in love with military people.”
As her husband prepared for his first deployment from where he was stationed in Washington State, his parents and her parents far away on the east coast, Buckholtz turned to her computer for consolement. She penned an essay about the military life, about Flat Daddy, the cardboard cutout of her husband that took rides to the ice cream parlor and dinner at the dinner table, a smile-plastered on his face at all times. “It all seemed vaguely Orwellian to me. The idea of pretending a proxy dad was home doing all the things a real dad did — when the real father was fighting a war with no end in sight — sparked a sense of dread that I couldn’t shake. I was also doubtful that the Flat Daddy concept was something my son and daughter would fall for. But every time I flashed back to those upbeat articles, I reconsidered. The families seemed to be having so much fun; maybe they knew something I didn’t. After all, I’ve never been through a deployment with children.”
The New York Times ran Buckholz’s essay, “A Father on Poster Board Just Won’t Do,” in their Modern Love section read by approximately 1.5-million people. Soon she was finding out her story was a story – a book length story. Civilians were fascinated by her life, either because it was foreign to them or because they felt guilty for the sacrifice military families, not just the soldiers, were making for American freedom.
“I became a translator of sorts,” says Buckholtz. “Really that’s what the book is, I decipher and interpret one side for the other. That is actually the origin of the book,” says Buckholz of Standing By: The Making of an American Family in a Time of War, published in the spring of 2009. On her website, Buckholtz describes the book as a, “candid account of her family’s struggles during her husband’s eight-month deployment on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom and a subsequent year-long deployment to Iraq. With insight and humor she describes trying to keep life as normal as possible for the couple’s two young children while transitioning into the unfamiliar – and at times unwelcome –role of military wife.”
Bucholtz wrote the book during the 8 months her husband was deployed as a pilot on a carrier. He didn’t come home at all for nearly a year and they were unable communicate by phone, e-mail or Skype. “The children went to sleep back then at 6:30 at night. I wasn’t much of a television watcher, so for 8 months I wrote.” Her husband returned just as I was about to start writing the final chapter, Homecoming.
“It was a book on outsiders for outsiders by an outsider. But by the time the book came out I actually felt like an insider. After the book came out I was answering the questions that I had been asking: how do you live like this? In the end I found out that by asking and challenging out loud I learned how the military fits into the American culture and how to live the life of a military spouse.”
Following his homecoming, Buckholtz’s husband took another tour of duty; though he is in the Navy, this time he was away for 14 months on the ground in Baghdad. Alison and her children no longer live far away from family. They have moved back east to live a civilian life near grandparents and the friends with whom she grew up. She misses her military friends from the base in Washington State, but the network her is a different kind of strong.
“My friends [the military wives] told me it was a horrible idea that I was going to be living the civilian life. I can see why that would be for other people, especially those in rural areas. But I do get so much support from my non-military friends because they have it to give. There, they wanted to give and they did, but they didn’t have much to give because there everyone was sleep deprived and the kids were always sick. Here it’s a greater advantage because my friend’s husbands are home and they have a lot to give. I’m still involved in military groups here so that’s where I get the emotional-military kind of support.”
Following his mission to Baghdad, Bckholtz’s husband had a three-year military stint in the DC area. She hopes never to move again.