Where Angels Fear to Tread

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When people ask me what my husband does, I hesitate. Non-military members usually have no idea what military ministry looks like, and it’s hard to know where to start. It is cheerier to recount chapel services, promotion celebrations, marriage retreats, and baptisms, but in honor of Veteran’s Day, this is how I’d answer if I had enough time to tell the truth.

A young man comes into the office with the excuse of getting candy. He stays to chat. An hour later he is crying, whispering dark memories of friends lost to bullets and bombs and guilt over making it home without them. The mini candy bar he’d come for sits in his hand untouched.

First she was rushed to the ER. Now she is in a wing of the hospital that others speak of in hushed tones. Deep circles under her red-rimmed eyes, the woman stares at the ceiling. She shies away from the watchful eye of the nurse and itches the bandages which cover deep slashes on her arms. She thinks of the two others from her unit who have been here before her this year.

Photo credit: Caleb McCary 2016

Photo credit: Caleb McCary 2016

“I want a divorce.” He waited until she deployed and told her via text. Now he’s ignoring her calls. She’s blocked from his social media. It’s too late in the States to call her parents. She thinks of their child and breaks down weeping on her bunk. She is thousands of miles from everyone she loves most, and they are being taken away with a single text message.

An aged veteran lies in the hospital bed, heart monitors beeping nearby and a plastic tube pumping oxygen into weary lungs. He has fought in multiple wars but this final battle against cancer is a losing one. His wife sits next to him, contemplating the many years they have weathered and wondering how she can leave this room without him. She watches his chest rise and fall and wills him to hold on just a little longer. Their children need to say goodbye.

He doesn’t want to be here, but he no longer has a choice. The man sits alone awaiting the move to rehab at the end of a trail of broken promises, bad choices, and unspeakable pain. He wonders if there will be anything left of his career and family when it’s all over. He holds his head in his hands in shame and wishes he could get a stiff drink to forget it all. But that’s what brought him here in the first place.

Photo credit: Caleb McCary 2016

Photo credit: Caleb McCary 2016

The cold room smells of smoke and gasoline. It’s difficult to breathe, let alone speak. The team looks at the ruined bodies on the tables, the victims of an IED. A half-burned photo of a beautiful young lady is gently removed from a pocket to be preserved. From another pocket they retrieve a little girl’s pink and white bracelet. It was Daddy’s good luck charm. The team blinks back tears as they prepare these fallen heroes for their final journey home.

The young couple search the ultrasound for any sign of a heartbeat, but the little one within her womb silent is still. Hours ago the little one was kicking her in the ribs as she cleaned house and made dinner. Her due date is only a few weeks away. The doctor sits and tells them how they will proceed with delivery and what arrangements will need to be made.

Photo credit: Caleb McCary 2016

The knock on the door startles her as she makes lunch. She looks at the special clock set to Afghanistan time hanging next to a family photo, and lead fills her stomach. A look through the peephole reveals dress blues, and she knows the man on the other side of the door is about to shatter her life with a single sentence. Her daughter and son are at school, just like a normal day. But today is her worst nightmare come to life.

The flag is draped just so over the coffin. A little boy flinches at the gunshots that ring through the cemetery. He begins to cry as the notes of Taps echo in his ears. He buries his head in his mother’s shoulder. He won’t look at the man wearing a uniform like Daddy’s who holds out a blue triangle covered in stars.

“On behalf of the president of the United States…”

Photo credit: Paula Corley 2013

Photo credit: Paula Corley 2013

“the United States military…

Photo credit: Paula Corley 2013

Photo credit: Paula Corley 2013

“and a grateful nation…”

Photo Credit: Caleb McCary 2017

Photo Credit: Caleb McCary 2017

Chaplains choose to step into spaces full of sorrow and pain. They are light in the deepest darkness. They listen, they pray, they give the best advice they can, and they carry all these stories in silence. A chaplain’s office is as private as the confessional booth. They carry the weight of all the pain and hurt of the unit on their shoulders, and they do it with love, compassion, and courage.

There may not be bullets whizzing overhead every day, but chaplains walk where angels fear to tread.

*Important note: all examples in this post are fictitious, composites based on publicly known facts, or my own personal experience. My husband takes privacy very seriously and would never betray the confidence of a soldier under his care, even to his wife.

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Between Lakes and Oceans

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It’s getting to the end of our time in Georgia. We are checking items off our bucket list such as visiting SeaWorld one last time or eating at our favorite burger joint in Savannah. As a chaplain family, we can expect to move every two to three years, but specific training or “school” can mean as little as six months in a post. This means that about the time a place starts to feel normal, we leave. But moving house is just one piece of the story.

It is wise for military chaplains to experience many different types of battalions early in their career as it prepares them for the duties of higher ranks. This means that my husband went from a cavalry squadron (the soldiers heading into a war zone to do reconnaissance, but they ride helicopters, humvees, or tanks instead of horses) to a support battalion (the soldiers stabilizing the wounded, fixing humvees, hauling water and food, and generally keeping everything and everyone running). Our new adventure that begins this summer is hospital chaplaincy training. My husband will be the chaplain at a soldier’s bedsides when he or she is suffering the aftermath of the ugliest war has to offer. It is, as a mentor put it, “Ranger School for chaplains.”

This life is in stark contrast to my childhood experience. My family lived in the same house and my dad worked at the same job my entire childhood. We practically wore a rut in the road from our house to my maternal grandparents’ home on the other side of the lake. We were as settled as we could be in our neighborhood, church, and homeschool group, and sometimes I miss that feeling of stability and familiarity. I look at pictures of my birthday parties, the faces mostly the same each year, and ponder that my children will never have the same set of friends longer than a few years. I think of that rut in the lake road and mourn that grandparents will always be hours or days away. FaceTime calls only reach so far, and wanderlust suppresses homesickness only so long. It’s why you hear experienced military wives talk about “forever homes” with wistful looks and long sighs.

But as I have pondered how this life has affected me so far, I keep coming back to euryhaline fish. Stay with me through some science talk.

Homeostasis is how an organism regulates its biological processes to maintain optimal functioning in its environment. If you have or know someone who has insulin-dependent diabetes, you know exactly how this works. In a diabetic one of the mechanisms of homeostasis has broken down and the person must consciously monitor and regulate blood sugars and insulin to survive. All organisms adapt to their environments, but there are limits to how far that adaptation stretches. Most fish can survive only in either fresh or salt water. If you take a fish from the ocean and toss it in a lake, its cells will take on water until they burst and the fish becomes an ex-fish. But a euryhaline fish can survive and thrive in both fresh and salt water because they can regulate the amount of water that enters their cells.

Okay, stop nodding off. I have an important point to make!

Everyone experiences change, but with the military it is often sudden and extreme. One of my friends moved from Georgia to Japan with barely a month’s notice. Another came to Georgia from Germany. In cultural, social, and spiritual terms, I’d call that the equivalent of being picked up out of the ocean and thrown into a lake. And as in homeostasis, the work that must be done to survive that type of change is internal. You can hang new curtains, paint a wall, discover new parks for the kids, and expand your palate, but survival depends on your heart.

As my husband begins the next chapter of his job in a brand-new city, we will encounter situations I cannot imagine, and if our marriage and ministry are to thrive, I have to adapt at the heart level. I am a cerebral sort who leads with facts and logic, so I’m reading Grunt by Mary Roach to get my head around what he will see in the hospital from day to day. While I house hunt on Zillow, I pray for a sensitive compassionate spirit that is tender when he is hurting at the end of a long day. While I look for churches, play groups, museums, and hiking trails, I memorize verses on how God binds up wounds and is close to the brokenhearted. This fish intends to survive and thrive no matter where He sends me.

Maybe one of those places I’ll finally figure out how to grill salmon.

Oh look! We found Dory!

Oh look! We found Dory!

Getting My Breath Back

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He’s home.

After many long months, my husband is back sitting next to me at the dinner table and in the car on a drive to Dunkin Donuts. The bathroom smells like shaving cream, and there is camo in the laundry. Several times I’ve had people ask what it’s like now that he’s home. I say that I’m able to breathe again.

A relationship ebbs and flows each day like breaths. I have spent twelve years learning what makes this man tick, and he me. We “get” each other. We have patterns and rhythms in our life together. We speak in shorthand.

“Did I tell about that one thing?”

“Yes. Hilarious.”

“Also, I’m done. Just done.”

“Yep.”

So a long separation is like holding your breath, except you don’t realize you’re doing it. You know something is off. Despite communication via the miracle of text messages and the occasional video call, your chest burns. There are pictures, packages, emails, and a hundred different ways to feel loved and connected, but you go to bed with a choking sensation. So many things get lost in the shuffle with time differences, bad wi-fi connection, and pure exhaustion. It builds with each day, and those last few days before he finally comes home feel like you’ll never breathe again.

He steps off a bus and kisses you for the first time in four months, and it’s like that first gasp the moment you break the top of the water after you dive deeper than you meant. It’s such a wonderful relief it hurts.

Now you have to figure out how to breathe again.

After you hold your breath a long time you’re keenly aware of it. Every inhale and exhale is distracting because it requires conscious thought. I find myself simultaneously joyous and frustrated because having him home again is the way it should be, but it bothers me to have to think about it. In the military they call it “reintegration.” Such a technical word for such a complicated process.

I have to make room for him to help me again. I have to buy coffee creamer. I have to leave space for him on my calendar. I have to wash PTs and coffee mugs. My go-to recipes don’t make enough for all of us. He is here to hold the baby, to distract the kids while I cook, to take the trash out, and to squash spiders, but I have to remember to let him. A million tiny things have to change back, and you can’t fix them all at once. You have to take them as they come.

So that’s where I am: breathing until I don’t have to think about it and we have settled into a new normal. Grateful to have a second set of hands to help with the kids, handle chores, and hold me when I’m sad, tired, or frustrated. Grateful to wash camo and PTs.

Grateful to breathe easier for a bit.

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Redeeming Time

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Deployment makes for long days and longer nights. I’m used to long days with my three children. Much of the time the older two are awake with the sun and demanding breakfast before I can tell granola from frosted flakes (much to their chagrin). The youngest is awake earlier still. I stumble downstairs, three little souls requiring my close attention, and I put one foot in front of the other until sundown. Sometimes I even show them how to make cool stuff like Lego ziplines, “jellyfish” in jars, and homemade Oreos. I feed them, I hug them, and I try to wear them out before they wear me out.

After my little ones are tucked in bed I am used to sitting on a couch next to a handsome blond, snacking on chocolate chips, and watching Agents of SHIELD, Fixer Upper, or Fresh Off The Boat. I’m used to telling the aforementioned blond about the food that was not eaten at lunch, the blinds that were broken during “nap” time, the reasons the baby and I have changed clothes three times since noon, and the fact that I am tired. So very tired. Then I’m used to snuggling against him until our youngest demands a midnight snack.

But right now instead of talking about my day, I send a few text messages and pictures for him to peruse when he wakes in a few hours. Instead of eating chocolate chips and watching television with him, I eat chocolate chips and work on my novel or do the chores that he isn’t home to do. Instead of rolling over in bed and snuggling against my favorite person, I stuff a pillow behind me and pretend it makes me feel better.

We are a little unusual in that we knew before we got married that this was the life we were called to. I have been mentally preparing for this first major separation for a decade, but it does not make the nights shorter. What it does is make me fight for a positive attitude even when I don’t know how I’m going to get up in the morning and do it all again without him. I tell myself I can do this and God called us to this ministry for a reason. That He made me strong, independent, and capable. That I can mow my own lawn, kill my own spiders, and wrangle three children at the commissary. But I am still lonely.

I know he misses Netflix and chocolate chips as much as I do. He sends me emails during the night so I wake up to encouragement and sweet memories. He sends European chocolate shaped like hippos in the mail. And he texts me to work hard on my novel, to keep training for my first 5k, to take a deep breath and check another day off the calendar. He tells me he is proud of me. He sends me music, smiles, and love from across the miles, and my heart wears it like battle armor.

Yes, nights are long. But months are fleeting, and homecoming is sweet. There is redemption working through these long days, and I am called to be active, not passive. So I’m going to go squish yet another spider and send him the picture.

“Redeem the time for the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:16

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Military Life: 70 Years of Stories I Wish I Knew

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We are officially moved into our home at my husband’s first duty station as an Army chaplain. It’s been a crazy few weeks getting settled, but posters and pictures are on the walls, the kitchen is functional, and we all have clean beds to sleep in. I call that success.

It’s been a strange transition moving onto a military post. Other than a brief stay at Fort Jackson for Caleb’s graduation from chaplain school, I haven’t spent much time on military bases. I made a few trips to the base commissary with my grandma when I was little, but what seven-year-old actually pays attention? I read The Army Wife Handbook in preparation because yes, I’m that wife. I googled everything I could find on our post, the amenities, and the house itself. I’ve joined Facebook groups and scoured internet forums for advice. The truth is you just have to experience it.

There’s a special rhythm to life on post. My husband disappears for PT every morning and returns almost before I realize he was gone. I hear bugle calls for reveille, retreat, call to quarters, and taps (there are others, but my boys make too much noise for me to hear them all). I woke up to practice fire on the artillery range, and I heard it again as my oldest played on the playground. The neighborhood comes alive each evening with kids shrieking and riding their bikes. Families chat across their fences, some soldiers still in uniform as they flip burgers or pet the dog. It’s PCS (Permanent Change of Station) season, so many of us are packing or unpacking.

And through all of this, I keep thinking of Papa.

Last summer my beloved grandfather went home to heaven. After Caleb resigned from the Kansas church, we ended up living in Papa’s empty house. You would think it would be hard living in my grandparents house, and sometimes it was. I had small daily reminders of both my grandparents as I moved through my day. I’d open a cabinet, and the sugar bowl would send me back in time until I was kicking my short legs beneath the kitchen table and munching toast with red plum jam. I’d whistle along with the birds as I did dishes and break down crying because my whistle sounds nothing like my grandma’s. I’d see Papa’s cap collection and think of a funny story I needed to tell him until I remembered he was gone. But those moments were usually brief because the house was comforting in its familiarity. I’d spent nearly as much time in it as my own home growing up. It was a safe place to be sad, even if it hurt.

Here on post, I’m keenly aware of the side of my grandparents that I didn’t know.

Papa was a pilot and bombardier in the Air Force and fought in World War II and Korea. I knew this my whole life, but in high school I discovered he had flown two missions on D-Day. He said it was foggy that morning. He worried the weather would throw off his targeting and accidentally hit his fellow soldiers instead of the enemy. He was a man of few words, so that was the end of the story and I didn’t push it. I now know Grandma was invited to every party on base in the Philippines, their first duty station as a married couple. I know that the silver and blue dress with the mandarin collar was handmade for her in Hong Kong. I know Papa loved to bring her trinkets from all his trips overseas. I know my mother and uncle remember Papa coming home in a flight suit, sometimes carrying his helmet. I know they lived at several different bases in the US before retiring to Oklahoma. But these are all just facts without the warmth of memory.

Now I live across the road from the golf course, and I wonder which base my grandfather first picked up the clubs he came to love so much. I wonder what it was like to blast through the air in huge bombers and scrappy fighters. I wonder if he liked being a flight instructor later on and what he missed most about spending his days in the sky. I wonder what Grandma served at coffees for the other wives. I wonder what her strategy was getting to know each new place. It seems like every new thing I experience brings questions I didn’t know to ask. I think I feel their loss more keenly now because of this sudden insatiable curiosity. There are so many stories I never heard, so many missing pieces and snapshots with no captions.

I wish I had known the right questions to ask.

My grandfather’s plane from his service in WWII