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Married to the Military-for Better or Worse

Written by Karen HouppertAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Karen Houppert


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41548-6
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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As taps echoes across the cookie-cutter housing areas of upstate New York’s Fort Drum, the wives turn on the evening news, both hoping for and dreading word of their husbands overseas. It’s a ritual played out on military bases across the nation as the waiting wives of Karen Houppert’s extraordinary new book endure a long, lonely, and difficult year with their husbands far from home. Houppert, a prize winning journalist, spent a year among these women, joining them as they had babies, raised families, ran Cub Scout troops, coached soccer–and went to funerals.

The waiting wives include Lauren, twenty-six, whose Navy SEAL husband was killed in Afghanistan; Heidi, peace activist and Army wife whose life is a daily struggle with her conscience; Crystal, a nineteen-year-old raising two babies on a shoestring while her husband fights in the Middle East; Tabitha, who becomes the alleged victim of murderous domestic violence at the hands of her Special Operations boyfriend; and Danette, once an Army brat and now a devoted Air Force wife, who teaches, raises two teens, and fills her days with endless volunteer work.

Houppert shows that these women make some of the same sacrifices of their personal liberties as their husbands do and yet garner none of the respect accorded their spouses. Today, these military wives find themselves torn between an entrenched tradition that would keep them in a Leave It to Beaver family ideal and a modern social climate suggesting that women are entitled to more–a career of their own, self-determination, and a true parenting partner.

Meanwhile, the military concocts family-friendly policies and spends millions on new programs designed to appease military wives–and to maintain them as staunch supporters who will encourage their husbands’ reenlistment. The Army likes to say that it “recruits soldiers, but retains families.” And indeed, the future of the all-volunteer force hinges on the success of this mission. Though Army brass speak glowingly of the “Army Family Team,” this team is often deeply divided over strategy–and even goals.

A gritty, behind-the-scenes look at the tour of duty from the domestic front, Home Fires Burning provides a fascinating, fresh look at an enormous American institution and the families that live in its shadow.

From the Hardcover edition.



When Casualty Affairs Comes Calling

Being there at Ground Zero for the first time yesterday was very emotional for me. I brought a picture of my husband and posted it there at the memorial. He would have been very, very proud to have his picture there with the NYPD and the fire department.
--Lauren Fidell

I went through a whole day not knowing my husband had been shot," 26-year-old Lauren Fidell* says. She is amazed and somewhat appalled that her best friend and the love of her life whom she'd been with since she was 16 had been lying in Afghanistan with a bullet from an AK-47 through his head while she had been shampooing the carpet. "I thought my body would know, that I would feel if something happened to him. So I was surprised when they knocked on the door that night and told me what had happened. I did not believe that he was dying. But they told me it was imminent."
"They" were of course the men in uniform.
And five months ago they brought Lauren the worst news of her life. While she acknowledges collapsing then, today she is unflinching. Which is not to say she doesn't cry--she does--but rather that she is undaunted by her tears, and figures I ought to be as well.
When we speak for the first time, we sit in a very public place, a huge hall at New York City's Jacob Javits Center in the midst of a Maritime Security Expo Exhibit. She is there helping to raise funds for the Naval Special Warfare Foundation, a nonprofit that gives scholarships to U.S. Navy SEAL families. We sit at a large, round table in the exhibitors' lounge; two men in suits sit on the other side of the table negotiating a contract. In the course of our conversation, Lauren tears up a couple of times; I tear up a couple of times. When people notice, they politely avert their gaze.
Lauren plows ahead. She remembers every detail of that night, June 24, 2003, she tells me, as if she were watching a movie--somebody else's tragic tale.
It was 10:30 p.m. on a warm June evening. Her children, two- and five-year-old boys, were in bed. Her younger sister was visiting from out of state. "I was getting ready for bed and I had just laid down on the couch to watch TV when there was a knock on the door," Lauren says. "I was halfway across the living room when I realized that it was too late to be a neighbor knocking. I stopped. I had a bad feeling." Lauren stood there, in the middle of the living room, stuck. They knocked again. "My sister came to the top of the stairs and said, 'Open the door. It's just a neighbor.' "
But six men stood in their dress uniforms on Lauren's porch. "They were very stern looking. One of them was the commander of my husband's group. One was a CACO officer," she says, referring to the navy's casualty assistance calls officer. "The CACO officer said my name, then he said who he was and where he was from."
Lauren looked straight at him. "I know who you are," she said.
He spoke: "Your husband was in a convoy that was attacked and he was very seriously injured and is not expected to live."
Lauren began to scream, "I'm not ready yet. I'm not ready yet." Despite the fact that her husband was a navy SEAL, one of the elite units specially trained in dangerous maritime and amphibious operations, that he'd already been called away several times to undisclosed locations in the fight against terrorists, that she was pretty sure he had been in Afghanistan these past eight weeks, she says she hadn't thought about him dying. "I'm not ready yet," she wailed.
"I wanted to talk to him," Lauren recalls. "But they kept saying, 'He's not conscious.' " He had been shot many hours earlier in a clash south of Kabul and had been transported to a hospital in Bagram. "What are his chances?" she asked. "He's dying. It's imminent," they told her. Hoping for a different answer, Lauren asked them again. And again. "It's imminent," they repeated.
"I want to talk to him," she said.
"He's unconscious."
Lauren kept insisting that she wanted to talk to him. But they kept explaining, as if she were not comprehending. "He's unconscious." Finally, they understood that Lauren didn't care whether or not he was conscious, that she thought maybe he could hear her, that she needed to try to talk to him. Eventually they got through to the hospital. "One of his buddies there beside him said, 'Lauren, I'm going to put the phone up to his ear,' " Lauren recalls.
She spoke to him. She reminded him that she was an occupational therapist and it didn't matter what his injuries were, she just didn't want him to die. "I went to school for this," she said. "You're going to come home and I'm going to take care of you. It's going to be okay." She told him what their boys had done that day. She told him that she loved him. "Everything happens for a reason," she said. And then she told him that if he had to go, "It was okay."
Recalling the incident five months later, she wonders why she said that. "I didn't mean it," she admits.
At some point, after several hours, the men in uniform left. And friends began to arrive. The SEALs are a small and tight-knit group, with 1,200 stationed in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Most of the 5,000 active SEALs have spent their entire careers together, back and forth between SEAL postings in San Diego and Virginia Beach. They have trained together, worked together, fought together, ate and slept together for weeks at a time. Their wives, often home alone, have baby-sat each other's children, gone to the movies together, shared Thanksgiving dinners, formed deep friendships. And in the dark hours of the night on June 24, they mourned together. A cluster of women sat on Lauren's bed talking, crying, and listening as Lauren tried to face death. At 3:30 in the morning, Lauren realized the time and felt some relief. "It's morning there now--and he lived," she said. Then she worried. "I thought, 'Oh my God, what if he has to retire from the navy? He's going to be crushed.' Meanwhile everyone around me knew he wasn't coming home."
"I fell asleep then. And when I woke up my sister and my best friend, Teresa, were sitting on my bed. My eyes were still closed when they asked, 'You awake?' " Lauren was, but she didn't want to be. "They said, 'Lauren, we just got word that he passed during the night.' "
"It took a second to register, like I was in a time warp. I was really mad at him. He promised me he'd come home."

Lauren's story, like all these stories of soldiers' families, begins with the knock on the door. Eleven thousand, one-hundred thirty-four knocks on the door by the fall of 2004. Eleven thousand, one-hundred thirty-four families who learn that their husband or son is dead, dying, or injured. Eleven thousand, one-hundred thirty-four encounters--often by strangers who announce a "mishap" (in air force parlance) to a primary next of kin (PNOK) and stand by helplessly as the PNOK crumbles. They meet on doorsteps, in living rooms, in kitchens, in offices. And because the military has been doing this for hundreds of years--and because there's nothing the military likes better than acronyms and uniformity and reports--a whole literature of death and dying has sprung up in the form of policy manuals, pamphlets, PowerPoint presentations, and protocols. And, as the war against terrorism drags on, a new slew of specialists has been activated, soldiers every bit as pivotal to the smooth functioning of the armed forces machine as its maintenance mechanics. Teasingly called "diggers" by their buddies, these soldiers "go where others fear to go," as the director of Mortuary Affairs at Fort Lee, Virginia, put it in his Ode to the Mortuary Affairs Specialist:

They do things that others will not do.
The sights, sounds and smells of what they do,
others avoid.

On the battlefield and on the home front, soldiers are being called on to recover, identify, and refrigerate remains, to "cosmetize" them, to transport them, to notify families, to bury them, and to assist families in the weeks following a soldier's death. And every possible element that can be controlled by the Department of Defense (DOD) is orchestrated--even micromanaged and scripted--from spelling out who gets a live bugler (active duty) and who gets a boom-box version of "Taps" (vets) to specifying what rank the "notifier" must be (equal to or higher than the person who died). Perhaps because a little order helps alleviate the awful randomness of these events, the Department of Defense wants its soldiers spit-shined and on the mark here.
When it comes to death and dying, the military are Masters of Ceremony.
A soldier's death calls for a brilliant display of patriotism, a nod to the notion of cause as a way of affirming that this death was not in vain. While its commander in chief may occasionally stumble (the fact that President George W. Bush had not made a single condolence visit or phone call to a dead soldier's family sent a ripple of shock through the military community in November 2003), military brass understands that death matters--and may indeed be its most critical public relations campaign. Compassion and spectacle are essential to winning the hearts and minds of the American public, and the military firmly believes that these elements can--with proper attention to detail--be manufactured.

Training for death detail is thorough.
"We're in a zero-defect environment," says Frederick Calladine, chief of Casualty and Mortuary Affairs at Fort Drum near Watertown, New York. "We like to make sure everything is done correctly. If we do make a mistake, the whole army pays the price. And that price is public ridicule, mistrust, and distrust. Then we've created an enemy of the army by the families, and we don't want to do that."
Calladine addresses his remarks to a group of forty soldiers on March 20, 2003, the evening the war with Iraq began. These men and women at Fort Drum have the dubious distinction of being the newly appointed casualty notification officers for their units. Hand-picked by their supervisors, they are getting the PowerPoint ABC's of military mortuary manners. "Wear your dress uniform," Calladine tells them, and remember that some wives want to kill the messenger. "Give them the news, then get the hell out of Dodge."
Though military wives live with a vague sense of dread that is often described as coming home to see an unknown dark car parked in the driveway, Calladine says the cars used are simply the notifier's own vehicles and that they are specifically told not to lurk about. "If nobody's home, don't sit there like a bulldog waiting for them to come home," he says. "Go get a cup of coffee, check the neighbors to see if you can find out if they're on vacation or whatever."
And be careful, Calladine says. "Make sure we aren't informing the wrong people." This isn't just hypothetical. The same week that Calladine conducted this training there was a helicopter crash at Fort Drum, a routine training accident in which eleven soldiers died when a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter went down in the forest. "We had the name of an individual who might've been on board who, as it turns out, wasn't. So if we had rushed out and said, 'Oh so-and-so was on this and killed--and then he shows up, we're going to look like a bunch of idiots."
When the proper primary next of kin is located, the rest is scripted. Literally. "I have an important message to deliver from the Secretary of the Army, may I come in, Mr. Jones," says a "Casualty Notification Guide for the Casualty Notification Officer," which Calladine offers to his audience. Sample scripts follow:

(1) For death cases: "The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your (relationship; son, Robert or husband, Edward; etc.) (died/was killed in action) in (country/state) on (date). (State the circumstances provided by the Casualty Area Command.) The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss."

According to Calladine, the next thing most wives or parents want to know is exactly what happened. " 'What happened? How could it happen?' they'll ask. You're not allowed to tell them. You don't know," Calladine says. "Don't commit the army to anything. Even if you know gory details of the incident, you don't give them." Depending on the service more details are provided in the next few days, weeks, or months after investigations are complete.
Giving out these details is the job of the casualty assistance officer. "Sometimes when you tell families about a death there's a wall thrown up instantly," Calladine says. " 'Okay, you've told me, now get out!' that kind of thing. There's that controlled anger against the messenger. We just do what they say and we get out. Then we try to get hold of them later to have another person go out and help with paperwork and benefits. That's the casualty assistance officer and that's why we split it into two categories."
Timing is everything. Notification can't be done before Calladine's office gets official, faxed confirmation from the Department of the Army (DA)--even if he can see the burning hulk of a helicopter crash from his office window. And it must be made within four hours of hearing from the DA but not after 10 p.m.
"Why not past 2200 hours?" one soldier wonders.
"DA policy," Calladine says. He realizes this is, perhaps, an unsatisfactory answer--and scrambles. "We don't want to go in the middle of the night and wake people up and tell them that their loved ones are dead. We, uh, want to wake them up at 6 o'clock in the morning and do it instead."

For Lauren, there is just The Knock. There is her life pre-Knock and there is Now. The story of who she is now, and who her family is and will become, begins with the Knock on the door. Any vague "happily ever after" image that she carried in her head is gone. The disorientation sets in. There used to be a line from here to there--this is my life now and if I drift along like this I will end up there--that has been interrupted. The Future now requires conscious thought.
"I've never even been on a date as an adult woman," Lauren says. Death came to her, she insists, out of the blue. "I've never lost anyone young or really close to me before. I never thought about him dying in combat. I thought that he might get hurt in training," Lauren admits. "We've had friends that had gotten hurt and even died in training. It was almost a regular occurrence that people would blow off fingers or have jumping accidents. I expected something like that, but not this."

From the Hardcover edition.
Karen Houppert|Author Q&A

About Karen Houppert

Karen Houppert - Home Fires Burning
KAREN HOUPPERT was a staff writer for The Village Voice for ten years, writing many cover stories on women and politics. She has contributed to a wide variety of publications, from Glamour, Redbook, and Self to Newsday, The Nation, and Salon. Her first book was The Curse. Houppert, a one time Air Force brat currently lives in Brooklyn with her family.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Karen Houppert

Q:What distinguishes HOME FIRES BURNING from other press coverage on the military?

Most current media coverage focuses on the military as a fighting force. I’m looking at the military as our nation’s largest employer–one that in wartime has increasing powers of persuasion.

HOME FIRES BURNING puts the military’s corporate culture under the microscope. With an annual budget of $371 billion (compared to Exxon Mobile’s $200 billion budget, or Walmart’s $227 billion), and 2 million employees (compared to Walmart’s 1.4 million or Exxon’s 97,000), the Department of Defense is the largest “company” in the United States.

In some ways, the military is a progressive company. It does better than Starbucks with employee benefits, for example. Though they probably wouldn’t put it this way themselves–the military is also a massive welfare state. Health care is free for the entire family; housing is free or subsidized; quality childcare is subsidized and affordable; mental health, financial, even some legal counseling is free. The military has bought an idea which has been a hard sell among other U.S. Corporations: A healthy, happy family makes for a more productive employee.

Q:Considering the many benefits provided to military families, why are so many wives reluctant to have their husbands reenlist?

Instead of simply providing services, the military has engaged in some social engineering to manipulate the beliefs and actions of military wives–an effort to secure their undying institutional loyalty. But their efforts are not working. A 2004 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard University, and the Washington Post found that 79 percent of military spouses say frustration with being in the army is high. Only 36 percent say they will encourage their spouse to reenlist.

The problems are myriad. Military wives are manipulated by the Department of Defense into making some of the same sacrifices of their personal liberties as their husbands, and yet garner none of the respect or pay they are accorded. And while the husband may be the one who enlists and swears loyalty to the institution, the wife becomes a de facto employee–or member of the “Army Family,” as it is more benignly described by DOD.

Q:How is the Army strong-arming wives?

With a hefty dose of old-fashioned paternalism and some fancy propaganda, the Army is struggling mightily to make wives “mission multipliers” (as they call them when they’re being cooperative), instead of “human dimension challenges” (as they’re dubbed in their more taxing moments). This well-orchestrated effort is called “Army Family Team Building.” Wives go to classes to learn all about the Army–why it does what it does, how she can help support her husband’s mission, how her husband’s mission is her own mission, and how to be a good army wife. The Army has stepped up its efforts to win the hearts and minds of wives–often in ways that undercut their own best interests.

Trying to create the same unit cohesion (or bonding) among wives that is critical to good soldiering on the battlefield, the Army has also devised Family Readiness Groups. What wives really wanted while their husbands were away fighting a war was a support group. What they got instead was more work. Typically headed by a unit’s commanding officer’s wife (who “volunteers”), these groups are charged with dispensing the latest information about deployments and redeployments, fundraising to cover costs of morale-boosting social events, organizing events that promote unit-cohesion among families, writing newsletters, serving as social workers or a referral agency for families in trouble, and helping to pass along Army family values and army culture to young wives. Attendance at these groups is very poor. Many wives prefer to pick their own friends, and resent the “morale building” tasks as busy work.

Some wives are expected to put in hundreds of unpaid hours a month to keep many of the posts’ vital programs up and running. The military sends a not-so-subtle message that if a wife truly supports her husband, she must support her husband’s unit, the larger military community, and her country. Volunteering at a bake sale is then cast as their patriotic duty. Thus many women shoulder a tremendously taxing volunteer load–all while their husbands are overseas and they are working and single-parenting.

Q:What happens if wives simply refuse to do all the volunteer work the Army requests?

Officially, nothing happens. Unofficially, wives say it’s another story. Though a lawsuit filed by a military wife in the 1980s forced the military to drop its policy of factoring in a wife’s volunteer contributions and social suitability when considering a soldier’s promotion, most officers’ wives believe it remains the unwritten addendum to employee evaluations. The military does little to counter this perception. And why should it?

Q:What kind of hardships does military life pose to a spouse who is trying work outside the home?

If you’re married to a soldier, it is assumed that your career will take a backseat to your husband’s–if you’re able to land a job at all. Consider that wives must move where and when the government tells them (every two years on average, for Army families), and each time they must give up their job and start from scratch in a new town. Each time a military family moves, the soldier’s wife loses weeks or even months of work as she hunts for a new job; most states don’t allow these wives to collect unemployment since they “voluntarily” relocated. They rarely stay in a place long enough to be promoted, to qualify for a 401(k), to build up a pension, or to climb career ladders.
And, while civilian wives average $15,800 a year, military wives average only $10,200 a year–with the biggest difference occurring among college-educated military wives, who made $116 less per week than their civilian counterparts. Military wives are also less likely to work outside the home, with only 49 percent of military wives who were high school graduates working outside the home, compared with 62 percent of civilian wives. Among military wives with a college degree 56 percent worked outside the home, while 70 percent of civilian wives do.

Q:When it comes to domestic violence rates, how does the military population compare to the civilian population?

The military has a dirty little secret: Its domestic violence rate is 3 to 5 times higher than the civilian rate. More concerned with bad press than with genuinely solving the problem, the military says one thing but does another when combating domestic violence in its ranks. For example, it sends those who commit domestic violence to Anger Management classes. In the civilian community these types of classes have been largely dismissed as useless. The problem isn’t really about managing anger, or handling stress. Julie Fulcher, Public Policy Director for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, put it this way: “Domestic violence is not something that happens because you’re feeling upset today. It’s about people feeling like they’re entitled to do this to their wives.” Fulcher adds, “The day you start seeing these guys go after their commanding officer because they’re pissed off and they just can’t control their anger, we’ll rethink our theory.”

Yet in the military, domestic violence continues to be dealt with as a communication issue. Instead of being sent to jail for their crime, perpetrators are sent to couples counseling.

Q:The military always proudly announces that it “takes care of its own.” If this is true, why are so many young enlisted families struggling to make ends meet?

The situation is dire. In 2003, 38 percent of army families qualified for federal poverty programs like food stamps, WIC (a program for poor pregnant or nursing women), or free school lunch vouchers. Consider that 54 percent of soldiers earn less than $2000 a month, that 75 percent of soldiers in the Army have kids, and that 88 percent of those kids are under age 5. That’s a lot of very young, very isolated, very poor families struggling to make ends meet. Only 9 percent of Army families describe themselves as “financially comfortable.” In fact, the Defense Department’s own studies show that 67 percent of junior enlisted soldiers report savings of less than $1000.

Q:How are military wives being proactive or working collectively to make changes?

Fortunately, military wives are a resourceful lot. Over the years they’ve kicked and screamed enough to force some changes, many within the last twenty years. The military now offers families some of the highest quality daycare in country–and it’s subsidized, so affordable. (Next, the Army needs to eliminate the waiting lists for this daycare and extend the hours to accommodate real work schedules.) Military wives have pushed hard to make the base schools for their kids equal or better than civilian schools.

Q:How do military wives support each other?

This is really the best thing about the military life–almost every woman I spoke to mentioned the emotional and practical support they get from other wives who are in the same boat. Because you move so often in the military, you have to make friends quickly. And because the husbands are gone so often, the wives come to rely on each other, creating a strong sense of community. If a young woman goes into the hospital to have a baby while her husband is deployed, you can bet other wives will offer to take care of her toddler, bring her dinner, or do her grocery shopping. Or just as likely, all of the above.

While she may not repay the women who helped her directly, years later you can be sure she’ll send her teenaged daughter across the street to baby-sit when another young wife is struggling alone with a newborn. That’s just the way it is. And no matter how thankful she might be, she’ll probably get the same kind of lackadaisical response that fighter pilots are notorious for: “No problem.”
Q:How did your personal experience growing up in the military lead to this book?

I’m an Air Force brat myself and I remember when my own father went to Vietnam in 1969, my mother belonged to a something called “The Waiting Wives Club.” She describes this support group as her “lifeline.” As the U.S. was gearing up to go into Iraq, I started thinking about all the women who were going to be left alone to work and bring up kids. I was curious to find out what the military was doing today to help wives cope while their husbands were away.

From the Hardcover edition.



Advance praise for Home Fires Burning

“Too often in my twenty-four years as a member of the House Armed Services Committee I saw reflections of a military attitude that said ‘Your family is your problem. If we wanted you to have one, we’d have issued you one.’ With so much written about the U.S. military, from history to strategy to memoir, it seems incredible that, until now, no one has turned a spotlight on America’s military families and the courage they exhibit every day in their supporting role. This wonderful book does just that!”
–Pat Schroeder, former Congresswoman

“Home Fires Burning is an indispensable addition to that very short shelf of books that takes an honest, clear-eyed look at the lives and sacrifices of military families. Through portraits of heartbreaking specificity, Karen Houppert makes the indisputable case that soldiers and their loved ones should no longer be paid in platitudes and patriotism. It is hoped that a truly grateful nation will make damn sure that Home Fires lights some fires of its own.”
–Sarah Bird, author of Yokota Officers Club

“Karen Houppert casts a sharp, sympathetic eye on the little-known lives of military wives–twenty-first century women in a 1950s world that is at once demanding and infantilizing, secure and incredibly dangerous. Her interviewees range from gung ho to openly rebellious–and sometimes both at once. An important book for our parlous times.”
–Katha Pollitt

“At last, a book about the unsung warriors of the All Volunteer Force: the families. Houppert, an air force brat, skillfully chronicles–among many challenges–the family stresses of turn-around deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the agony of combat and noncombat deaths, the isolation of an antiwar wife and the military’s self-serving struggle with escalating domestic abuse. A searing and sobering view behind the modern khaki curtain.”
–Linda Bird Francke, author of Ground Zero:  The Gender Wars in the Military

“When my husband was called to war, I had no idea what to expect. This book shows what it’s like for the women left behind. It provides an honest look at the uneasy truce among soldiers, wives, and the military brass who know that these women–the heart of the army–are critical to national security, but don't begin to understand them. If you've ever wondered what it means to be a modern military wife, I’d encourage you to read this.”
–Stacy Bannerman, human rights advocate and spouse of a deployed soldier

From the Hardcover edition.

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