By Anne Harding

 

'My battle buddies share my pride—and my pain.'

—Brianna Cassel, 29, Kingfisher, Okla.

 

'Lucky is how I'd describe myself. Joshua, my husband, is alive and unhurt, and he just came home from Afghanistan after a yearlong tour of duty with the National Guard. When Josh left, our son, Benjamin, was 2½ years old, and I was four months into a high-risk pregnancy. Between the prepartum hormones, the loneliness and the stress of raising a strong-willed toddler who needed his dad, there were times I thought the deployment would break me.

Josh did get to Skype with me through the labor, though—which was kind of miraculous. Just as I started pushing, we lost our Skype connection. I remember the doctor telling me to forget the laptop and push, but I couldn't bear for Josh to miss Elizabeth's being born. So I stopped everything, adjusted the computer and got the Skype signal back. Then I pushed.

It's an odd sort of life we National Guard families live. We have one foot in the military world and another in the civilian. We've never lived near a base, but I didn't realize how alone I would feel among my friends once Josh deployed. I didn't understand why so many pulled away, or would casually compare dealing with their husband's business trip to my life while Josh was in a war zone.

Honestly, one of the big things that kept me sane this year was my Family Readiness Group (FRG): the spouses, parents, and girlfriends of the soldiers in Josh's unit. We get together as often as we can for dinner, a movie or just family time. We're from different walks of life, but we have two big things in common: Our loved ones are at war, and we're scared. And that makes us like family. The women in the group know what it feels like to jump when someone knocks on the door. They understand my children's pain, and they can ease my isolation. The soldiers have "battle buddies" in combat, and that's exactly what we all are for each other. If someone is hurt or a family needs help, we have a phone tree, and we keep track of each other online, too. We're not there only for emergencies, either. Sometimes just knowing you can call to vent or even just say nothing and let your battle buddy talk is all you need—just to distract you from the moment, because sometimes the moment is too heavy to be endured alone.

I'll never forget the first time Josh called to tell me one of the guys in his unit was injured. I was speechless. I hurt for Josh's friend—and his wife, who is my friend, and their kids—but I also felt guilty because I couldn't help being thankful that it wasn't Josh who got injured. That was a turning point for me: the first time the reality of the danger the men were in hit so close to home. Before, I could just sort of bury my head in the sand and not think about it, but knowing the families of injured soldiers is a different story.

The big unknown for me now is what our new normal will be now that Josh is back home. I'm not worried about him getting his job back (he's a diesel auto mechanic); legally, it's protected. But it took months for Benjamin to adjust after Josh left, and then several more for my son to adjust to Elizabeth. The three of us were just finding our groove, and now the children have to adjust again. Elizabeth had never even seen her dad before, and she's still at that stranger-anxiety phase. The plain truth is that being an Army wife is sometimes miserable in the day-to-day. But I'll take Josh 15 days a year if that's all I get. I'm proud of my husband, I'm proud of his commitment to our nation and I'm proud to be his wife. I wouldn't want any other life with any other man.'