The Horrors of War


A Struggling Marriage

Everything went to hell as soon as we got married. I was twenty, halfway through a double major in literature and psychology, taking eighteen credit hours per semester. My husband, two years my senior, had left school to work full-time at a great job in city government. His first day back to work after our honeymoon, the boss pulled him aside and pressured him to turn in his resignation, claiming that my husband’s relocation to our married student housing took him too far outside city limits to keep the job.

It seems like I could fill ten trenches with the struggles we faced in just our first two years of marriage, but skipping right to the point, our difficulties grew until we decided to make a major change. My husband enlisted in the Army, and we spent the next several months with hundreds of miles between us.

He’d never been a particularly expressive man, but I knew his emotional reservoir was deep. I was both surprised and hurt by the way he began to withdraw almost immediately after he committed to join the Army and I became pregnant. Since he wouldn’t be joining me at the any prenatal appointments until almost my seventh month of pregnancy, I opted not to find out our baby’s sex. The ultrasound technician took pity on me and printed a whole extra set of pictures for me to send to my soldier; I could hardly wait to read the next letter I would get from him at boot camp. When it came, my stomach dropped right to the floor. “I can’t see anything.” No excitement, no best guess of a son or daughter, just a complete lack of interest. Certainly, someone else there had seen an ultrasound before! Couldn’t he just have asked them to point out the baby’s face? How hard is it to recognize the sweet skeleton in a 20-week ultrasound?

Emotional Isolation

After months, we finally reunited. I’d been horrendously sick and very thin when he left, and now I was nearly seven months along. The snap of electricity I expected at our reunion was completely missing. I went from feeling beautifully fertile to untouchable, repulsive.

He wouldn’t talk to the baby. “It can’t hear me,” he said, until I explained that it could. “Well, it can’t understand me. I feel stupid talking to your stomach.” He’d climb into our only car every morning and drive to work, leaving me at home with an air mattress and a folding chair, waiting for our household goods to arrive.

When our belongings finally showed up, I was thrilled. I was exactly eight months pregnant, and living out of suitcases was driving my nesting instinct nuts. I watched the movers carry every single thing into our tiny apartment, checking boxes and pieces of furniture off the manifest to make sure nothing was missing. It was Valentine’s Day, and I was so eager to have my things again. I hoped that being able to surround my husband by the things of “our home” would snap him out of his emotional isolation. I never found out if that would work.

While the movers were still stacking boxes in the dining area, our phone rang. My husband answered, and the voice on the other end of the line turned his spine to steel. He snapped to attention, rocked back his shoulders, and dropped his chin—as though the caller could see him. He fired off some terse affirmatives to the caller, then hung up the phone and turned to me. His face was completely devoid of emotion as he announced, “I’m going to war.”

Going to War

Every weekend for the next two months, my husband came home on Friday evening and told me, “This is probably our last weekend home. We’re deploying really soon; we just don’t know when.” Would they at least let him stay until his baby was born? Shrug. If the baby was born after he left, would they send him home when they could, even for a short time, to see his child? Shrug. Was he afraid? Shrug. Shrug. Shrug.

His unit went to the field to train for a couple days, and in my isolation, I drove down to a coffee shop. I remember sitting there, drinking some decaf as I struggled with my emotions. I was painfully aware of a vast dichotomy I was about to face: that I could be widowed at 23, alone in my youth, and that I was also about to be a mother, and would never be alone again. So much of the excitement I wanted to feel about becoming a mother was washed down the drain by my husband’s apparent disinterest in becoming a father. I knew he must have been afraid and distracted by the danger that was ahead of him, but I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t trying to drink in every moment with his family before he left.

He was still home when the baby came: a beautiful girl. For the next month, he documented her extensively in pictures, and then he was gone.

Through the Barriers

In some ways, he’s been gone ever since. There have been moments when he feels almost close enough to touch, but they don’t last. Three combat tours in Iraq and the horrors of war have locked up some parts of his soul and shattered others.

I spent his first tour mourning him—I needed to prepare for the worst while I hoped for the best, so I researched war through film as tirelessly as I could. I bought and wore out stacks of the most gut-wrenching war movies I could find. On a weekly basis, I sobbed my way through Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers over and over again. I spent hours in the parking lot where I had watched my husband climb onto a bus, weeping while our child slept in the back seat. My obvious sadness over his deployment was an effective mask for my postpartum depression, and in a new town, I had no friends or family to keep an eye on me. While my husband locked his emotions into an impenetrable vault, mine unraveled almost entirely.

The emotional wounds in our relationship caused by the aftermath of war were complicated by a series of more intimate wounds between us. With each new tragedy, I hoped for a rock-bottom moment that would trigger a sea change. I desperately wanted our relationship to survive, but if not, I didn’t see the benefit of dragging things out forever.

Things have never been easy for us, but we’re still plugging along. I’m not sure we’d know what to do without something serious to navigate in our relationship, but I hope we get the chance. It’s been twenty years since I met my husband, and nearly seventeen since I married him, but I’m hoping eventually I will get the chance to step through the barriers he’s built so I can get to know him again.

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