There's a phrase being tossed around military installations, "living in the new normal." It means that this -- this life of repeated deployments, prosthetics and memorial services -- is what life is going to look like for us for a while to come, so we had better learn to deal with it.
My son was just two weeks old the first time his father deployed to Afghanistan. My husband was on his third deployment there when our son turned four and our daughter was born. She didn't meet her father until she was almost five months old. For the first months of her life she knew him only as an 8x10 picture taped to the backseat of the car. My husband knew his daughter only as the screaming voice in the background when he and I talked on the phone.
My husband is not deployed now and, amazingly, there are no plans for him to leave again anytime soon. The other day we calculated that he has spent 75 percent of our marriage either deployed into combat or away from home for training. His being home now is yet another "new normal" for us and we are again trying to adjust.
My little boy is so used to this life of ups and downs that he thinks it is normal -- the old normal. It's not even new anymore. My son doesn't know that there are kids in the world whose daddies come home every night. Months into the last deployment my son tried to convince me that I should let him go "fight the bad guys with Daddy." He said, "I'll push those bad guys down, punch them in the butt and call them 'peanut butter and jelly head.'" He had decided that his best chance for seeing his father was to go to war, too.
Most young military children don't know their situation is unusual. They weren't alive in the time before mommies and daddies went off to war. That's not going to change anytime soon. Troops who have just shaken the last bit of Iraqi dust out of their uniforms are now packing their bags for Central Asia, preparing for harsh mountain winters and more brutal desert summers. Their families are preparing for yet another year apart, more missed birthdays, anniversaries and Christmases.
On March 8, 2003, I sat in my wedding gown in a hotel room in Key West, Fla. and counted the costs of being a military wife. My handsome soon-to-be husband was already standing on the beach with his brother and his buddies, sweating in their tuxedos and waiting for me. I took my time because I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was doing. I had no doubts about the guy but wondered, was I ready for military life? The possibility of frequent moves, the long absences, for the Army to take priority over me? Even though I knew I wasn't walking down the aisle and into a dream life, I decided that I could accept military life and all the drama that goes with it. I didn't have kids then so I didn't have to consider what this life would mean for them. My kids didn't get to count the costs like I did. They were drafted into service.
The reality of life in a war-time military family means that my kids won't have the childhood I had. They won't live in a town where our family has generations of history -- where they have dozens of extended family members to call during emergencies or to cushion all of their falls and disappointments. They'll grow up much faster than I did.
They will grow up with a higher sense of community, purpose and responsibility than I had, but they'll also have memories of a perpetually empty seat at the dinner table and of mom being the one who taught them to fish. They will remember the bitter pain of hugging their father goodbye knowing that they'll be three inches taller when they see him again. They will remember that some of their friends never got to see their fathers again.
I believe wholeheartedly in the mission our country has undertaken in this war and I am extremely proud of my husband for being one of the few who has stepped up -- again and again -- to shoulder the burden. I'm proud of myself too, for somehow holding it all together during the deployments and for sacrificing my own comfort for something that is bigger and more important than myself. But, truthfully, I don't like this new normal very much. The pride and strength it offers comes at a steep price. Still, we are living in the new normal, and we're going to have to deal with it.