Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day. The Story of my Life.

I wrote this story 10 years ago as I dealt with the frustration and anxiety of sending my man off to war.  Keep in mind, these were the early days of the war in Iraq...before cell phone signals were reliable or Wi-fi was readily available.  This story has never seen the light of day, mostly because I could never figure out how to write a clean, happy ending.  I've come back to it a few times over the years, attempting to find the right angle to wrap it all up, but always came up short.  I'm learning that you'll never finish anything if you wait for perfection so I'm blogging ahead and posting this!  If you've ever wondered what it's really like to send someone off to war, here is one woman's story.

April 15, 2003 wasn’t a big day in history, at least not in American or world history. The president held a press conference in the Rose Garden for small business owners.  NASA announced its carefully selected landing sites for the Mars Exploration Rover mission.  The world remembered another anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  But in the history of my life, it was a day that won’t be forgotten.  This was the day my loved one shipped out for his deployment to Iraq. 

I can’t say that it was a big surprise.  Anybody who read a newspaper or listened to a televised news program during the early part of 2003 should have known a reservist would be called upon to do his part for the war in Iraq sooner or later.  But prior to the official call, one thing overshadowed logic, news stories and statistical probability.  Hope.  Hope that perhaps somebody else could be called upon to do the dirty work.  Hope that maybe the need for extra troops was somehow being exaggerated every morning on the news.  Hope that the nagging sense of doom in the back of your mind was going to be proven wrong.  Dead wrong. 

No such luck.

When the Army comes calling to collect on old promises, it doesn’t wait patiently at the door to be invited in.  It barges right in with the confident swagger of an obnoxious relative, seemingly oblivious to the dismay of the rest of the family.  The Army talks loud, carries a big stick, and bowls over anything in its path.  A one-year anniversary coming up next week?  You’ll get over it.  A 6-year old daughter that needs her dad?  She’s tough, she’ll live. Vacation plans?  A job?  A mortgage? A seriously ill relative?  All of no concern to the Army.  Pack your bags and get here.  In a week. 

Oh yeah, and no complaining.  It’s unpatriotic.

To have your life interrupted by a military deployment during a time of war is an experience I never dreamed I would live through.  As a single woman, my mental checklist of “Men to Avoid” had “Military Men” listed in big, red letters.  It wasn’t that I didn’t respect or admire those who were willing to serve their country in such an intimate and selfless way.  I just didn’t want to be intimately tied to that service myself.  Sending a man that you love off to war, hearing about his fallen comrades on the daily news, and coming home at the end of the day to find only the four walls of your house standing to greet you didn’t seem like the makings of a great relationship.  “Why put up with that?!” I thought to myself, when there are so many perfectly good, non-military men out in the world who don’t volunteer to get shot at when there is a dictator to expel? 

The language of love knows no logic.  And so Nick and I began a relationship, but our relationship wasn’t exactly new.  We had dated off and on through high school ten years earlier.  He was my first love.  After I left town to go to college, our noble promises to be true and stay together forever quickly faded as the hopes and vows of idealistic 17-year-olds often do.  Time passed, we lost touch and moved on with our lives. 

The same high school that brought us together 10 years earlier served as the catalyst for our reintroduction.  Nick found my email address listed on the alumni website and sent a brief message.  I remember my finger hovering over the delete key while viewing the “Note from an old friend” email subject line.  Not recognizing the return address, my first instinct was to delete and move on to the next message.  But, for some unknown reason, I took a chance.  Viruses and junk mail be damned, I decided to open the message.  And that was the beginning of a flurry of email correspondence that quickly evolved into nightly telephone conversations, and finally weekend visits. 

Tentatively at first, we traveled long-distance on weekends to visit and explore the possibilities of “us”.  As our relationship progressed we looked for a way to cut our two-hour commute and turn our part-time, weekend romance into something more accessible on a daily basis.  The answer came in the form of a job offer for me, and I moved south, back to my hometown (the same place I had promptly abandoned after high school, swearing I would never return).

So when the call to active duty came, a short five months after I had relocated to pursue a relationship with this Army Man, I couldn’t help but kick myself and say “See, I told you so.”  During the brief preparation period before Nick left, we experienced a cornucopia of emotions.  Disbelief and anger were quickly replaced by a reluctant acceptance and panic.  The periods of sheer enjoyment as we savored our few precious moments together were quickly overshadowed by the anxiety of the unspeakable “what if” questions.  His safety and our future together were both, quite literally, being placed in the line of fire. 

After Nick’s departure I returned to my apartment, my job, my life, and found a void. Where there had once been a man who listened and supported me, there was now an empty space.  His hearty laughter and infectious smile that filled the room were replaced with silence.  I was on my own, at least in theory.

Being on my own was not foreign to me.  I prided myself on being an independent, modern woman.  I was fully capable of being happy with or without a man in my life. But, when you’re in a relationship you don’t expect to be on your own.  Togetherness is part of the deal.  This whole “together but apart” deal was a whole new experience.  How do you exist within a relationship when your partner is thousands of miles away?  You’re not single, you’re committed to another person, but you aren’t reaping any of the rewards of being in a relationship.  Your “built-in date” for Saturday night is suddenly missing.  The person you look forward to seeing after a hard day at work is nowhere to be found.  For all intents and purposes you operate as a single person.  Oh, except you’re not.

The first few months of the deployment were, in hindsight, perhaps the easiest.  I adapted.  Instead of looking forward to seeing Nick at the end of the day, I learned to look forward to curling up on the couch, pen and paper in hand, to write out a letter to him.  I immersed myself in activities that occupied my time and stretched my mind and body.  I ran three times a week.  I took golf lessons so Nick and I could play together when he came home in the fall.  When the weekend came around, I went to the video store alone and relished in the movie selection process that considered nobody’s interests but my own.    

I became a regular at the post office.  Every other week or so, a carefully packaged box would be sealed, addressed and sent half way around the world.  I began to think of those boxes as my way of sending a piece of home straight to Nick in Iraq.  The items in the box would vary each time.  Sometimes it was books, sometimes snacks and candy.  Sometimes the box was practical with bug spray and sunscreen, other times whimsical with squirt guns and Frisbees.  Unable to physically hug him, I used the boxes as my way showing affection. The time and effort I had previously poured into maintaining our relationship went into the careful selection of items to fill the biweekly boxes. 

For a while, it worked.  The boxes gave me hope that our relationship was being maintained, we were still a couple, and things between us were still within the realm of what could be considered “normal.”  But as time wore on, the novelty wore off and the boxes were no longer enough.  I wanted connection.  I wanted dinner dates and hour-long conversations about the funny thing that happened on the way to the grocery store.  I wanted shared experiences and personal interaction.

Nick's Squad.  341st MPCO.
The sporadic phone calls also offered little solace.  I didn’t have any way to call him, so moments of my life that would warrant a quick phone call to share good news or get a second opinion quickly passed without Nick’s input or response.  I was forced to sit and wait for his calls that didn’t come nearly often enough.  Times when he did call often came at awkward moments in the middle of the grocery store, during a meeting at work, or while I was cooking dinner. 

It is a struggle to stop your day on a moments notice and attempt to have a “meaningful” conversation.  Suddenly everything important kind of slips your mind and the only thing you can think to talk about is the weather.  During our phone calls, I found myself censoring the news I discussed, political or personal, for fear of upsetting him.   Even good news like a family birthday party seemed like a difficult topic of discussion because it only drew attention the life he was missing back home.  

And then it hit me.  Somewhere around month nine of the deployment, after the golf lessons were long over, summer had come and gone, and my life had dramatically changed as I purchased a home of my own, I realized that during an extended deployment you do not maintain a relationship. You can’t.  There is no humanly possible way to feel as though you are engaged in an intimate relationship when the one you love is thousands of miles away, you talk once a week (if you’re lucky), you don’t see each other for over a year, and they are absent for each and every important moment of your life.  You simply decide if you want to be around when he comes home to pick things up where you left off.  Or not. 

The realization came not as a harsh wake-up call, but more as a relief.  The effort and time put into each letter, each care package, each oh-so-precious phone call, always left me feeling inadequate.  It was never enough.  No matter how many pages I wrote on a particular evening, the letter never really brought me the true feeling of connection that I craved.  To finally come to the conclusion that I was attempting the impossible somehow put me at ease.  By realizing the impossibility of my task, I came to accept my defeat rather than continuing to aspire to an unachievable goal. 

The obvious question after this epiphany was, “Now what?”  Knowing that I couldn’t properly maintain our relationship, but also aware that I wanted to pick things up when he finally got home, left me in a difficult position. There were no rules for this game that I was now playing, well into triple overtime.  I knew there had to be other military partners who had come to a similar realization.  But I never heard or read about anybody acknowledging it out loud. 

There is a code of secrecy that is rarely broken among military families and significant others.  No matter how unbearable the situation gets, you persevere, you support your country, and above all, you do whatever you can to prop up that soldier of yours so he can do his job without having to worry about any kind of problems back home. It is not socially acceptable for someone associated with the military to express weakness, doubt or criticism. To do otherwise is to risk being labeled as un-American.

Throughout this deployment experience, I never really knew about the rules and codes that dominated proper military culture until I had broken most of them.  Nick and I openly discussed our frustrations, acknowledged the difficulty of our situation, and didn’t hold back to save the feelings or spare the worry of the other.  He knew from day one of his deployment that I was worried.  More than I worried about him not coming home at all, I worried that he would come back changed somehow.  I worried that the dirty, inexpressible experience of war would transform him into someone I didn’t know, or couldn’t love. 

The advice on military support websites will tell you things like, “Keep your letters peppy.  Don’t worry your soldier with bad news from home.  Don’t disparage the cause for which they are fighting and claim to support the troops.”  Had I followed that advice, and withheld my difficulties from him, I myself would have turned into someone Nick didn’t know.  And so he got an earful.  He listened and acknowledged and confirmed my right to be angry.  He permitted and even encouraged my venting and my questions.  It was through this process that we found a way to connect.  Together we shared the burden of our individual deployment experiences.  Rather than building a wall around our struggles so they wouldn’t splatter on the other person, we brought them into the open, messy details and all.  There were times when I couldn’t pretend to be the ever-supportive Military girlfriend.  And there were times when he was not the model, “Anything for America” soldier.  There were countless times when we were not the politically-correct, proud Americans.  And that was OK. 

The months of Nick’s deployment drug on.  And on.  What began as a six-month tour of duty turned into nine, and then 14 months. Homecoming day had been postponed so many times, I lost count. I told Nick that I didn’t even want to know when he got orders to come home.  I just wanted him to call me when his boots hit the ground.  There was no chance for another disappointment that way. 

This story is not unique.  There are at least 130,000 other girlfriends, wives, husbands or lovers who could no doubt share a similar one with you.  But they probably won’t. Most likely they will just smile and tell you how proud they are of their soldier.  They will say that their family is happy to have the opportunity to serve our country.  Perhaps they’ll admit to a little worry for their soldier’s safety, but rarely utter a word of criticism.  It’s a quiet world waiting for a deployed soldier to come home.  A silent, pray-every-night, hold-your-head-high-by-day, kind of world. 

Epilogue, November 2014.

Nick and his unit made it safely home in June, 2004, welcomed by fanfare fit for kings.  The appropriately named “Champion Air” charter plane that carried them home could barely be heard over the roar of anxious family members as it touched down at Moffett Field.  I gave Nick clear instructions when I spoke with him before their flight home.  “Don’t take any carry-on baggage onto that plane”, I told him.  I wanted to be sure he wouldn’t have anything blocking my way as I went in for my welcome home hug. 

After the deployment, life returned to normal.  We had a great homecoming party for Nick.  He went back to work.  We fine-tuned our golf game.  We got married, bought a new house, and had a couple kids.  Our wedding brought me into the Cavalleri family and his Army family as well.  The motley crew of guys and girls that shared 14 months of desert hell with my husband continue to be a tight-knit group that provides support, love and understanding in a way that nobody else can. 

What I’ve come to understand during the past 10 years is that my man put on a good show when he first came home.  But he didn’t just bring home Iraqi coins and desert sand as souvenirs of his time at war.  He brought home nightmares, anger, hyper-vigilance, survivor guilt and trouble reconciling his time in combat and his relationship with God.  He brought home a sense of loneliness over this deployment experience because nobody else can fully understand what he went through.  This is the stuff I worried about during the deployment.  This is the war he still fights today.

And after years of cycling through my own confusion, denial, anger, and acceptance, another thing I’ve come to understand is, of course.  Of course, after 14 months of operating in survival mode on high-alert, he came home a little amped up.  Of course he ran into trouble re-assimilating into civilian life with embarrassingly minimal support from the Army.  Of course, nobody can endure chronic, long-term stressors without some lingering, PTSD side effects.  Of course hours of therapy were bound to be in our future.   

Of course. 

And so as we move forward, we have good days and bad.  Being a Veteran on Veteran’s Day is fun.  Other days, sometimes not so fun.  Much like you don't feel less of a mom the day after Mother's Day, you're a Veteran every day of the year.  

And perhaps that is the true difficulty in finding the perfect ending for this story.  It goes on, still today.  For better or worse.  In sickness and in health.  It's the story of our life.

Click here for the cutest Veteran appreciation song ever, sung by the sweetest, smartest, and most talented Kindergarteners in the country.  


  1. Thank you. Thank you for sharing the reality. Thank you for telling the real behind the scenes truth about your version of military life. I'm confident it is shared by many, and not spoken of (as you mentioned). But when things are exposed to the light, especially the true light of God, becomes light and hopefully provides a witness and the way to someone else.