February 1, 2008  

They also serve

Blogs link and support families of service members at war

Like all wars before it, the Long War has demanded a high toll from families of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines fighting it. And, as in previous wars, family members have learned to lean upon one another and their friends for comfort and strength during trying times.

One new feature of this war is that the support community for military spouses has gone online. The Internet allows not only new connections for family members, but also links the lives of individuals who would otherwise remain strangers and communalizes what would otherwise be individual tragedies and triumphs.

The most basic means of establishing these online linkages has been through blogs by military spouses, or milspouses, on the home front. These blogs address the same range of purposes as those written in the theater: communicating with families, venting about the frustrations of the workplace, journaling through emotional stress and chronicling daily experiences.

A defining theme among military spouse blogs is that they epitomize a sense of online community, as their authors are connected not only by a common interest — as are political bloggers, for example — but also a shared experience.

The best introduction to milspouse blogging is Spousebuzz, which is maintained by a cadre of bloggers who regularly report on their daily lives and issues of interest to the military spouse community.

Since September 2006, Spousebuzz has provided a forum to address issues from the mundane to the profound: managing social networks on base, explaining to children why their father has been injured and managing the holidays as a temporarily single parent, among many others.

One of the best features of Spousebuzz is its highly active readership, which engages in excellent discussions of blog postings through the comments section, sharing dozens of experiences and comparing notes on how to handle the trials of milspouse life.

One issue that has inspired persistent commentary on milspouse blogs is the extension of deployment lengths to 15 months since early 2007. The extended deployments and expedited redeployments have made a definite impact on family relations, to the point that the Defense Department now describes the “new emotional cycles of deployment” as families adjust to longer times apart and periods as short as nine to 12 months between deployments.

MOAA Spouse’s Sue Hoppin manages spouse outreach for the Military Officers Association of America and recently commented on the military’s effort to quantify and analyze the effect of extended, expedited deployments. For her, the effort provides some solace: “[W]hat I find interesting about these studies is that if they were able to quantify and identify the different stages of deployment, what we all go through is not so unique. And for many different reasons, that’s a good thing. Once the emotional roller coaster and familial disruptions become shared experiences and accepted norms, we all begin to understand that we truly aren’t in this alone.”

Although many military spouses mention the comfort they draw from their friends, the impact of the longer deployments is shown in two short, poignant posts. “Kelly” at One Day at a Time notices that her nearly 1-year-old son has grown confused by the family video conferencing since his father deployed to Iraq in August: “Every time we walk into the office, [my son] looks at the computer, gets a huge smile on his face and says ‘Dada’. I’m beginning to think that he thinks [his father] lives in the computer.”

Likewise, Stella Post at the aptly named Fifteen Months blog suggests that military spouses with children at home visit the Flat Daddies Web site to order a free, life-sized portrait of a deployed spouse for their child: “Really now, with 15-month deployments, what else are people with young children doing to keep Daddy (and Mommy) alive around the home?”

While longer deployments are a challenge for every military family, some milspouses have blogged about the challenges that remain after family members return from war, especially in instances where they have suffered emotional or physical injuries.

Carissa Picard at Military Spouses for Change has organized an eponymous nonprofit organization to “promote and protect the rights and interests of veterans and military families.” In an e-mail exchange, she explained that she founded the organization to help milspouses become advocates on behalf of their soldiers, who are prohibited from being politically active: “Our experience with military policies is second only to the service member, yet we are not similarly limited in our freedom of expression. … So we have to make that shift from caregiver to advocate.”

One issue that Picard has addressed is the use of “personality disorder discharges” to remove combat veterans from the military, a category under which she writes some 22,000 service members were discharged between 2001 and 2006: “Rather than diagnosing these members with PTSD, some units are declaring that these service members had a [pre-existing] mental health condition and, therefore, the military is not responsible for their mental health care. They are given a general discharge and, in most cases, billed for any bonuses they may have received for enlisting or re-enlisting.”

In one case, Picard mobilized her organization to intervene in the case of a 10-year veteran who has served two combat tours in Iraq, and was informed Nov. 28 that he would be discharged in 10 days for a personality disorder. The soldier’s wife is a member of Picard’s organization, and after two days of advocacy, calls from two generals and a congressman had garnered a transition for the man to the Warrior Transition Unit for evaluation and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a very personal account of tragedy and recovery, Josie Salzman began her blog, Life in a Cracker Box, in April to journal the days after spending four months with her husband at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Salzman’s husband, “J.R.,” then a Minnesota National Guardsman, had suffered grave injuries during an improvised explosive device attack that claimed his right arm below the elbow. Josie’s description of eight months living at Walter Reed explores the gamut of human emotion — despair at the sight of a shattered loved one, dedication to her husband’s gradual recovery, the marital trials of a couple who have been reunited under unimaginable circumstances and a dry wit about the absurdities of life in the Army medical system.

Salzman’s thoughts on the eventual return of her husband’s unit from Iraq capture the conflicted emotions that caring for a wounding husband have sown: “I cannot explain all of the feelings I have about the return of our soldiers. I am excited for the families to be reunited. I am thankful that the soldiers are safe. I am also a little jealous. For months, I played through my head what it would be like to stand in that room and wait for J.R. to walk through the door. I could see the flags and the smiles of the people in the room. I would think about that first hug I would get from J.R. But our family along with thousands of others didn’t get that reunion. I hate the people that destroyed our ‘happy ending.’”

As difficult as caring for an injured spouse can be, no outcome is worse than the loss of a loved one, as experienced by “Heidi” at Learning to Live. Heidi began blogging one year after her husband’s November 2004 death in Fallujah. Her self-described goal is “to document my experiences and emotions for my son, Colin.” Heidi’s account of her experiences is moving beyond words and serves as a monument to both enduring love for her late husband and hope for her young son.

Where such experiences as Salzman’s and Heidi’s once may have been experienced individually, they serve today as shared reminders of the human cost of the war and the strength of the human spirit.

The community of milspouse bloggers has allowed them to touch countless hundreds, included those who need inspiration from their resilience, and generated nationwide sympathy and appreciation for families who have sacrificed in a time of war.

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CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.