Friday, September 2, 2011

Five Questions: Army Sister

My friend Najia is the one I wrote about in "Sisters of Another Sort" She is super-independent, super passionate, and she blew me away when she offered to stand in for a spouse whose Soldier had been seriously wounded in combat. It seems like such a simple thing-- he was in Germany and needed someone by his side for a little bit. The spouse was in the US and couldn't be there to actually lay eyes on her husband. Najia was in Germany-- of course she went.

When Najia comes back to the States, I hope she will resume her career as a teacher. More kids need her dedication, passion, and intelligent look at life. I will admit that she and I don't always agree on how to approach things or even on certain subjects-- but she always makes me think. And that's something I really value in a friend.

So here are Najia's Five:

1. What are five things you know now about military life that you wish someone had told you?

* You can't beat the system. Yes, the system is stupid, broken, flawed, and at times corrupt yet you will NOT win by jousting at its ACU covered windmills. Learn to work it, learn to navigate it...but don't waste your time trying to fix it.

* All stereotypes about enlisted and officers including their spouses and children have a grain of truth to them. Don't look for the hallmarks of what "they" are like but don't be shocked when you find them, either. That being said, make friends across the great rank divide. Do NOT think you must only befriend enlisted if your spouse is an E or officier if your spouse is an O. The Army is much too small to paint yourself into that corner!

* It is easy to lose yourself in the Army. Your career very well may take a back seat simply because of the nature of the beast. My own career fell to crap due to our constant moving and it was (and still is) incredibly difficult for me. So if you have a career make it a portable one and even then, make sure you do not gauge your own self worth based on your career or income.

* Nobody cares how smart, driven, capable, or trainable your Soldier is. They simply will not promote until it fits the needs of the Army and in some cases, a Soldier's career can stall for years. It sucks and there is no way around it so you help your Soldier hold his/her head up! Be a team and a cheerleader at the same time.

* Walmart can be cheaper than the commissary. ;)

2. What is the most important thing you'd like to tell new spouses?

Listen to older, wiser, more jaded Army wives than you. It is easy to blow them off and think their experiences will not be YOUR experiences. Lord knows I did. And now? Now I am one of the older, wiser, more jaded who just shakes their head at the newbies who won't listen. That's OK though. They will learn soon enough. LOL!

3. What do you love the most?

Odd bouts of pride! There are times when all of a sudden I am head-over-heels in love with being an Army wife. I will walk down the street and see a Soldier carrying a baby while in his ACUs. I will see a wounded warrior I have never met in my life and am inexplicably flooded with love and gratitude. Bizarrely enough, when a civilian bashes the Army I leap to its defense. (Not to say my fellow Army wives and I won't tear it to shreds...but we can! We have earned it! They, in my oh-so-humble-opinion have not).

4. What do you find the hardest?

I think keeping the "what if's" at bay. Being a Solider is not an easy career. Lives are lost. In the back of our minds and in the bottom of our hearts, we ALL KNOW it could happen to our Soldiers. My son has sat in the classroom and been told that his friend's father was killed in Iraq. How do you convince a heartbroken and terrified child that HIS father is safe? How do you lie to him and explain that could/would not ever happen to his father because of x,y,z? Better yet, how do you lie to yourself?

I think it is normal to allow our minds to drift to the dark side, to imagine what it would be like to get "the call" or see a chaplin walk up to your doorstep. By imagining the horror, we somehow believe we are preparing ourselves for the worst...and perhaps we are. But you cannot live there. Life is far too short and much too precious to waste worrying about the "what if's". When I have induldged those morbid fantasies, they interfered with my ability to give love as freely and receive as fully as we each deserve. I have learned to push that acrid taste of fear back into my belly when it creeps would be wise to learn to do the same.

5. Tell me a story that sums up military life for you:

Ahhhhhhhhhhh, OK. Here we go...

We hadn’t been at Fort Campbell for more than a week before my husband started dropping hints. “I met with my captain and told her all about you, she would really like to meet you sometime.” “I bet you would do great if you had been in the Army, you should really meet my captain.” Being new to the Army world, I didn’t recognize this butter-up job for what it was…my husband was being wooed by his NCOs at the prospect of snagging his wife as a volunteer. Not just any volunteer either; his captain was receiving pressure from her higher ups to find an FRG leader. (Cue sinister music here.)

Being a brand spanking new Army wife, I had joined a number of online support groups to learn about this foreign career that I apparently signed up for when my husband took the oath to support and defend our country. I had heard all the rumors from those who had gone before me. FRGs (Family Readiness Groups) were a boiler of politics. Enlisted wives and officer wives clashed the way women clashed best…psychologically, all the while smiling. Backstabbing was the norm. I was warned the gossip rumor mill thrived in FRG meetings and my personal home life would be a matter of public record (and debate). It seemed every active duty wife had a horror story, every girlfriend had attempted to join only to be excluded, and every retiree’s wife was grateful to be out of the “support group”.

Frankly, I thought these women had issues. I mean, really? I was a professional educator. I was a woman who was used to handling 120 students a day, navigating the political arena of staff meetings, and managed to tactfully maintain my bearings when dealing with belligerent parents. As far as I was concerned, those complaining about FRGs and sharing those stories were doing the very thing they condemned: gossiping and creating drama. I recalled being pregnant and having every woman I met try to outdo the other with a bigger, more dramatic labor story. The FRG horror stories seemed awfully similar. I mentally filed their stories away as the sour grapes of bitter women. Their narrow experiences would not be mine.

Additionally, I had been told that as a wife of a specialist I would hold a rather low place on the Battalion totem pole. Enlisted were not to fraternize with Officers, likewise enlisted wives were not to hang out with officer wives. Like it or not, those women had access to your husband’s boss and office politics could be determined in the comfort of their living rooms. The stereotype was that enlisted wives were young, uneducated, and “breeders” (read: tons of children) and unappreciated by their older, higher educated “O” wife peers. The stereotype made me uncomfortable. Mostly because I knew that wasn’t me and set out immediately to dispel the myth.

The wooing continued and my husband came home with the captain’s phone number for me to call to “welcome me” to Fort Campbell. My husband had been advised by other soldiers that my being active in the FRG would only be a good thing. It would reflect positively on him and his career. Looking back, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me at the time to ask why they didn’t have their wives accept the FRG leader position and reflect positively on their careers. I was too busy imagining having BBQs and hanging out with untouchable officer set I kept hearing about. In my mind, I was one of them. High speed. Educated. Mature. I knew I would fit in beautifully. That and let’s face it, with the upcoming deployment it wouldn’t hurt to be in ‘on the know’ for breaking news and information. I was nosy like that.

A couple of phone calls later, I found myself sitting across from my husband’s captain at Starbucks. Captain Lisa O’Malley was not your stereotypical officer….at least not by what I had been told to expect. She was in her mid-twenties, had blond hair, blue eyes, a perky nose and an infectious personality. She was girly with an edge and had a wicked sense of humor. She talked about her time at West Point and how, despite her qualifications, she constantly had to prove herself to the “boys club”. I liked her immediately. She had brought along her XO’s spouse to introduce me to as well. Kate was in her early 30’s, with a tiny and petite hard body. She had a loud laugh and welcoming smile. Unfortunately, she also had a 4 year old in tow who was tearing Starbucks apart brick by brick.

“We are going to get along so great! That is very important…there needs to be good communication between the FRG leader and the Commander,” Cpt. O’Malley gushed. “We will need to get this rolling soon. We haven’t had an FRG for the past year and the families really need to be brought together before the deployment.”
I sipped my latte as Kate’s son catapulted over the sofa for the 10th time. “You are going to love everyone! We are not the typical officers’ wives. We drink, cuss, burp…” Kate laughed. I was pretty sure every woman I ever met had drank, cussed, and burped so I wasn't sure what to do with that little gem of information but I was grateful for the extended friendship.

“Kate, aren’t the wives getting together soon for coffee?” Cpt. O’Malley asked. “You should go. It would be the perfect time to meet folks and start recruiting volunteers. THESE are the women who are going to help you. They are fantastic.”

“Yes, next week actually.” Kate’s friendly smile shifted slightly at the thought. I didn’t get a chance to process the change of expression as her son shot between us, knocking over magazines on a table.

“Great! I would love to come” I answered while picking up magazines watching the hellion dart the other direction.

“Sweet! I will pass your number onto the Lt. Col’s wife, Cecelia and she can give you directions to her house” Cpt. O’Malley responded.

Soon enough the meeting was over. O’Malley had to get back to the shop, Kate had to take her demon spawn home for a nap, and I had to figure out what the hell an officers’ wives coffee entailed. I found my answer in a marvelous little book called “The New Armywives Handbook”. Later that evening, as I soaked in the tub, I scanned through the chapters.

“Ken! Listen to this” I called to my husband. ((((insert quote))) Are they serious? This is like some crap my grandmother had to navigate back in the 50’s. “My husband wandered into the bathroom and gave me a blank look. The idea of wives having a proper way to drink coffee, enter a room, or greet other wives was beyond his realm of experience. It sounded just as ludicrous to him.

“Don’t worry about it, babe. I can’t imagine they really expect that of anyone anymore.” Huh. The book was nice waste of $29.95 as far as I was concerned. I let the book flop shut as I tossed it on the floor next to the tub. And with the sound of that satisfying thud, I didn’t give Army etiquette a second though.

The day of the coffee I stood in front of my closet preparing to dress. For a brief moment, the haunting words of The Armywives Handbook flashed through my mind. “(((insert quote about clothing)))” A quick snort of disgust brought me back to reality. “Ridiculous” I muttered to myself. I settled on a pair of khaki capris and summer top. A quick glance at the clock revealed I had 30 minutes to get wherever I was going. Where was I going? Cecelia never did call with the directions to her home. It was just a mix-up of communication to be sure. I was suddenly reassured this woman was as busy as I was and dropped the ball every now and then. Not being one to get overly excited about miscommunication, I just called CPT O’Malley.

“Hey Lisa? I was wondering if I could get directions to Cecelia’s house from you? I am supposed to be there in 30 minutes but have no idea she lives.”

“Sure. Um. I don’t know where she lives either…let me give her a call and have her call you real quick.”

“Thanks girl!” I ran around my home gathering my “to go” kit. Cell phone? Check. Car keys? Check. Dogs outside in the backyard? Check. Five minutes passed, then ten. Fifteen minutes after I spoke with Lisa the phone finally rang.

“Najia? It’s Lisa. Hey, um…I feel horrible. I don’t know what to say…”
“What’s wrong, Lisa? Are you OK?”
“Yah, I’m fine. I mean…(deep breath)…Cecelia wanted me to tell you that you can’t come to the coffee. I guess she only allows Officers’ wives to attend and well, your husband is a Specialist…” Lisa’s voice trailed off. “I am just so embarrassed, I feel terrible. Najia?”
“I’m here. Sure. It is okay. I understand. I am sure I will get a chance to meet everyone later.”

After a couple more minutes of awkward chit-chat, Lisa let me go and I sat on my sofa stunned. I had just been officially slighted, banned from my first social event because of my husband’s rank. Cecelia couldn’t even be bothered to call me and explain the faux pas herself. She threw Lisa under the bus and made her to do the dirty work.

To be honest, I was beyond miffed. I was flat out offended. Did being married to a Lt. COL give anyone the right to act like a complete ass? As it turns out, it did. A week later I met Cecelia face to face at our first FRG meeting. She embraced me like a long lost sister and gushed about how pleased she was to meet me. Then with all the subtly of a staged public address, Cecelia pulled out a tiny pin in front of everyone.

“Now I normally only give this to my senior wives, but I want you to have one! It is our unit pin!” Any hope I had for a graceful apology was lost at that moment. To this day I don’t know how I managed not to hurl my cookies or hurl the pin back at her.

Cecelia became my nemesis and I fought her at every turn. Looking back, fighting her meant fighting the Army and everything I was learning to resent about it. Her husband may have been a Lt. COL but she was simply another woman to me. I hadn’t joined the Army and felt no need to bow down to her or anyone else. Some of our clashes were petty, some were epic and rooted in my taking a moral stance against how she treated people around her. Cecelia never did apologize for uninviting me to her home in the three years our husbands were stationed together. We continued to have numerous interactions, some good, some not so good, some outright hostile. To me, Cecelia was a walking caricature of Army wives past. She was doing her best to uphold her role in the Army. She believed with all her heart that her job was to lead the other wives, establish a pecking order and maintain Army traditions. The problem was as a grown, educated woman I felt no need to be led, be pecked apart or be socially segregated at events.

An interesting side note: I moved half way around the world thinking I would never have to deal with Cecelia again. As Mr. Murphy would have it, she would be stationed an hour away from us!! Now that we are no longer locked in a power struggle (different units), we get along quite well. :) You just never know with the Army!!!

1 comment:

  1. Ahhhhh I remember my opinions of the whole "Officers' Wives" set from being an "enlisted" kid, even from the Air Force end of the spectrum! My step-dad was enlisted. When Steve & I got down to the nitty gritty details of what it was going to mean once we got married (because he's an officer) I had to seriously soul-search about what being an Officer's wife would mean for me. I mean, from my experience in high school, the O-moms were the ones organizing Boosters, having Pampered Chef parties, Ladies' teas (not kidding!! Teas!! Like, TEA PARTIES with grown women!!)... the E-moms were the ones with 3+ kids running around making sure to get so-and-so to such-and-such practice/rehearsal on time & be cheering from the stands/audience/whatever.

    Now that I've been an Officer's Wife for almost two years... and I STILL think of it that way in my head, with the capital letters and everything, I know I'm a living contradiction of THAT stereotype. I honestly tried at first- being a part of the "club" (although it's the "Spouses Club" now, what with our female officers) and attending ice cream socials and monthly dinners. I admit- I even went to a Pampered Chef party! And one monthly "Spouses Social" dinner. The entire time I was thinking "This isn't for me... this isn't me!" Especially because I WAS trying to be open to the idea of aligning myself with this group of people and behaving as such. But only two or three of the women I met were actually nice to me. A few were polite; most just ignored me. At the time I was 6 months pregnant and I didn't care about the dirty looks I was getting because I had on maternity jeans, my beloved Converse one-stars, and a maternity top to stuff my boobs into instead of high-heeled sandals, "tastefully distressed" denim jeans, and a silk tank top, the outfit of one 8-month pregnant wife who was also there.

    After a month or two of trying to "fit in" I asked myself "Why am I trying?? This isn't who I am and I'm not getting anywhere but frustrated trying to be someone I'm not, so why am I doing this??" SO I stopped going. I still get the email newsletters about happenings b/c you know I love to cook, so I send dinners over all the time to new parents or families who have someone deployed. And at the squadron functions I do attend, I have no problem holding my own in a conversation about current events as they pertain to our boys (& women) in uniform.

    Thankfully, other women in the Club are still very cordial to me, but as per the usual I get along better with the guys than the girls (most O-club ladies don't even know what a two-point conversion IS). Still, we're friendly. Come time for formal events and functions, I know how to be classy and graceful so I'm not worried about embarrassing myself. I've even met other O-wives that are just like me!! It's refreshing to know that even though we're a minority, the New School of O-spouses is in session and I'm proud to be part of the class! (=