Thursday, January 24, 2013

Battle on the homefront

Whenever there is a conflict and the Commander-in-Chief (the current President) deems it necessary, the men and women in our armed services rise to the challenge, taking up arms to defend our country. And while we think of the sacrifices that they make to secure our freedoms, we don’t always think of the sacrifices that have to be made by those left behind: their husbands, wives, parents, children. The burden can fall heaviest on spouses and children, as a deployment means the spouse has to pick up the slack around the house, serving as cook, handyman and primary caregiver.
During the Media and the Military workshop, held at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Leonard Wood from Sept. 23-28, I had the opportunity to hear from four military wives - Michele Sumter, Mary Shaver, Denise Fox and Lissa Wojtkun.
While all four women are similar in aspect that all have a husband in the military, the way they deal with deployments and constant moves could not be more different.
Shaver’s husband is Virginia National Guard Major James Shaver, and she has been a part of the military family for nine years. They have four children together, ranging in age from 2 to 22.
Mary’s husband has deployed twice during their marriage - once to Afghanistan and once to Iraq - for 12 months at a time.
“You really learn how to be resilient, being part of the military life you have to be resilient,” Mary said. “...You become everyone: you become mother, you are still wife, you become the handyman, you become the gardener - all those things that my spouse did while he was here, once he is deployed I become all of those people.
“It really gives you a sense of pride to know hey, I can do this on my own now,” she continued. “You become resilient, which I think helps not only in the military life, but it also helps you in your day to day life, whether you have a career or other experiences outside of the home.”
On the other hand, Michele relies on her family for support when her husband, Major Shawn Sumter, is deployed. Shawn has served three tours in Iraq, all for 12 months or more at a time.
When he is home, Michele said Shawn manages the money and helps with cooking and cleaning. Because she has a demanding career as well, Michele said both her and Shawn’s mother visit every other weekend to help around the house.

When Michele arrived at Fort Leavenworth, it was the first time she did not have a 9-5 job lined up. Before moving to Fort Leavenworth, Michele was a school principle in Virginia. Even though she has moved, she still works as a consultant for the school, via phone and online. So also spends her time taking courses the fort makes available to military spouses, such as Total Fitness.

From left to right, military wives Mary Shaver, Michele Sumter, Lissa Wojtkun and Denise Fox spoke to journalists from around the world at the Media and the Military workshop at Fort Leavenworth on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012.

When Lissa got engaged to Major Karl Wojtkun, the two of them preplanned for their marriage. Military life wasn’t new to Lissa, whose dad was in the United States Army. However, the two agreed that while Karl was in the Army, Lissa was not going to have a full-time career. Instead, she would take over as breadwinner after Karl put in his 20 years for retirement.
“My opportunities when we go to the different bases, and we’ve been to quite a few of them, is that I can jump in as a volunteer and support not just my husband, but the entire base,” Lissa said.
During a deployment, some, such as Denise Fox, the wife of Lt. Col. Matthew Fox, choose not to watch the news. She said knowing something bad has occurred overseas can be terrifying, especially when she has not received news.
“When you don’t hear from them, it is terrifying. When you hear from somebody else who has heard from their husband, it is hard,” Denise said. “For us to kind of watch the news, it is a little difficult.”
Lissa Wojtkun takes the opposite approach and tunes into different media sources for news, such as MSNBC, BBC, CNN, Fox News and Al Jazeera.
“I know my husband, what he does, so when a helicopter goes down, I know is it in my husband’s region? If it is not in my husband’s region, is it my friend’s region? I am well versed in it. I don’t like a surprise. I am prepared at any given point if my husband might not come back and we have worked on a plan of what I would do if he doesn’t come back,” Lissa said.
Being a part of the military requires strength and conviction, not only for enlisted personnel and officers and their spouses, but the children as well. For Michele, Mary and Denise, moving is part of the territory, and new schools for their children.
When Mary and James Shaver and their children moved to Fort Leavenworth, it required changing schools in the middle of the year and making new friends. Yet despite Mary’s nerves, the children adjusted.
“Military children are just so resilient; they are incredible the way they are able to welcome a new child to the neighborhood, a new child to the school district,” Mary said. “They will come right up to you and say ‘Hi, my name is so-and-so, what is your name? Where are you guys coming from? Where are you from? Where did you just leave? Where are you going? They are so used to moving around and they have been there and they’ve done that.
“The first week or two we were here I really thought I was going to have some issues with my 10-year-old,” Mary continued. “She fit right in, she just glided right into this community and all the children and parents just welcomed her with open arms, and it was just amazing to see. Coming from Virginia, not living on a post, not attending military schools, we thought we would have some issues, but we just jumped right in there, it was great.”
While military life is difficult and comes with its own set of challenges for not only the service men and women, but their spouses and children, being part of the military family is a point of pride.
“None of us are happy that our husbands go away and they have to do the things they do, but there is a sense of pride that goes with it, kind of overshadows the rest of it,” Denise said. “Our soldiers are a special breed. They are incredible human beings that put everybody else in front of themselves. I asked my husband, how do you do that? ...His one comment that sticks out is ‘I fight so my children don’t have to...I fight so they will never come to our shores and touch us again.
“The mindset is just incredible, and with the spouses, the sense of pride that comes with it is immense, and our children are truly the heroes that go through all of this,” she finished.

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