Memorial Day for a military spouse

Memorial Day for military families means more than a flag posted outside the home. It's a link to a global network of those who serve, and supporting those who struggle.

Eric Gay/AP
Boy Scout Juan Gomez helps place US flags next to head stones at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in preparation of Memorial Day, in San Antonio, Texas, on Friday, May 23.

Memorial Day is a day to remember those who have died while in service to our country. None of those individuals are directly related to me, but now more than ever, I feel as if I am inextricably linked to each and every one of them.

My husband is a US Navy chaplain. In October 2012, we learned that his first active duty service assignment would be in Norfolk, Va.. aboard the world’s largest naval base. That following January, we packed up our belongings and our newborn son in the car (I should say we packed in things around our newborn son, as we used nearly every square inch of our tiny Honda CR-V) and moved from Boston to Norfolk. 

Our first assignment has been what is considered “shore based,” meaning my husband – in theory – won’t deploy for the three years he serves in this position.

I say “in theory” because the Navy, more than any other profession my husband or I have been connected to, is particularly unpredictable. As we talk with other Navy families about their experiences, one thing is clear. Never expect a first set of directions to be final. Orders to move can be changed as a family’s personal belongings ride away in a moving truck; schedules of when to meet a returning ship at the pier can be moved back on the calendar by days or weeks, sometimes even months.

Of course, such unexpected shifts make sense if one keeps in mind that the military is responding to world events, which don't operate on a set schedule. And this is a huge organization with many moving parts.

Talking with other spouses, I have learned the wrong ways to communicate with kids about when mom or dad will return. Most importantly, never tell kids someone is coming home until the ship is sighted from the pier or the transport plane is landing at the local airport. 

There is a rich history associated with being part of a navy that is nearly 250 years old. The Navy loves its traditions, and there are plenty, for both service members and their spouses. Based on those traditions, there are protocols for everything from how to wear a uniform, down to how long you should stay at a party with a commanding officer present, and how to address a thank you card. Even when the rules seem relaxed, experienced Navy sailors and their families are trained to maintain a certain posture in their everyday lives.

Since moving to Norfolk, I have built a wonderful network of military spouses. Chaplain’s wives, neighbors down the street, and moms in my workout group are the foundations of my Navy tribe. I consider it a tribe because along with Navy customs and traditions, there is also a specific dialect associated with these families as well. There are terms like “PCS” which means “permanent change of station” – known better as a move to another city, often uncomfortably far away from where you live now – that are becoming part of a second language for us.

As my husband points out, the phrase "We lost someone today" has also entered into our lexicon.

This is where we have come to better understand the meaning of Memorial Day, a day meant to honor the lives of others.

I can count the number of friends who have moved away in the last-year-and-a-half. But, I can also now count a number of members of our community who have died.

Since becoming a full-time military spouse, my ears perk up a lot more when there is news of global terrorism, news of military personnel killed on the ground overseas, or news of a training accident close to home.

I may not know the individual directly, but I have a better understanding than ever before of what is means to mourn as a military family.

Specific experiences connected to our lives in Norfolk include a helicopter crash during a training exercise in January that killed a pilot and two crew members aboard a Sea Dragon helicopter. The crew – Lieutenant Sean Christopher Snyder, Lieutenant Wesley Van Dorn and AW3 Brian Collins – was from HM 14 (Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron), stationed in Norfolk.

When news first broke, text messages started pinging around my circle of friends, focused on the wives of pilots we know: Is your husband OK? Is he part of that squadron? Do we need to call anyone or rally the families?

Then there was a shooting of a sailor on Naval Station Norfolk in April. The young man was an MA2 - Master at Arms, second class –  known for his role in protecting the Naval fleet and its sailors. MA2 Mark Mayo died protecting a fellow sailor from a gunman who used an authorized form of ID to enter the base.

As a chaplain spouse, living in a military town, I heard two sides of this particular story. The media coverage and the story of the memorial service my husband helped to organize, celebrating the life and the sacrifice of a dedicated sailor.

These two events, and many others like it, have taught us the importance of honoring our fallen military, and the importance of preserving the health and well-being of those continuing to serve.

I am regularly reminded that there are those who have not been killed in action, but are struggling with thoughts of death, including thoughts about taking their own lives. Their reasons can be connected to what they have experienced while serving, or challenges that seem to have lasted longer than their time in uniform.

It is as important to help these military members to remain safe, as it is to honor their fallen colleagues. Memorial Day for us means honoring those who have died in service and supporting those who struggle as they serve.

Thoughts of suicide and self-harm often turn service members – those with faith and without – to chaplains. In the Navy, chaplains are the only officers who can be confided in with the promise of complete confidentiality – meaning they are a lock box for personal grief. As a chaplain spouse, I am the shoulder my husband comes to lean on after he has spent time being a source of strength for someone else.

For my family, it has become day of deeper reflection, prayers for our sailors – those we have come to know personally – and military around the world, and a celebration of life that surpasses service for our country and dying while in that service.

My military dependent identification card serves as a membership card into one of the most exclusive, yet expansive groups in the world. When I pull it out at a store or airport security and hear "Thank you for your service" it still feels odd to me, but I am grateful for the recognition, for both me and my husband. 

The further down the path we go, the more we understand what it means to serve, and the better we’ve come to understand that it’s so much more than a set of orders and packed car.

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