by Patheresa Wells
When I talk about my experiences with the military, which doesn’t happen often anymore, I almost always end up talking about family. My direct experience with the military is as an army wife, a role I fell into when my husband needed some way to provide for us as a young married couple. One of the reasons I rarely discuss my time as an army wife is because once you are out of the military community, it’s hard to know who might understand or care about the life you lived while serving.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was getting into; neither did he. In my family, it was common for someone to join up as a way to provide a steady income or receive opportunities not usually found in our community. My uncles had served, but we were long past the days of the Vietnam War that sent the strong Black boys my grandmother had raised back to us, some more broken than others.
If there was anything military life taught me, it was to not get too comfortable. And it made sure to start teaching that lesson right away. Don’t get too comfortable with the friends you have, the house you have, the job you have. And don’t get too comfortable with life.
You may or may not know this, but each branch of the military, and often their respective divisions, have mottos. For instance, the U.S. Army’s is “This We’ll Defend.” The U.S. Air Force’s seems straight to the point: “Aim High … Fly-Fight-Win.” And there is the “Semper Fidelis” of the Marine Corps, Latin for “Always Faithful.” Of course, the list could keep going; even the newest branch of the U.S. military, Space Force, has one. If I had a motto for my time in the military — through the moves, deployments, changes of command, and stresses of daily life — it might be: Tomorrow Is Not Promised.
There is something about being acutely aware of your mortality, or that of someone close to you, that changes how you look at life. If you are part of a military family, you drive to work knowing that — while living out your day — your loved one may be fighting for their life. After my husband came back from his first deployment to Iraq, anytime he’d hear a loud bang, he’d jump to the ground with fear in his eyes. Seeing that fear, feeling that fear, and watching my friends navigate that fear on a daily basis taught me to value life. During wartime, even if you do not lose someone, you watch loss happen all around you. You see it in the faces of bereaved family members on base accessing services, in memorials hung on doors. You see it on the news. You know that this day is here but the next might not be.
I remember once taking one of those personality tests at a job and finding out “adaptability” was one of my top traits. It was sort of shocking at the time, but in reflection, my time as a military wife, most of it during the Iraq War, forced me to adjust to whatever life brought my way. For instance, I might find out at the last minute that my husband was being sent away for training. That adaptability was also present when I became the Family Readiness Group leader with the responsibility of keeping all the families informed and supported during a deployment. And that adaptability also taught me to value even the smallest of things, like family dinners, because even those can be rare. I learned to work my way through whatever difficulties arose so that I could spend more of the limited time I had, both on earth and with my husband, in the good times. That adaptability continues to serve me to this very day as I attend college at 41 and start what’s now my third career, in writing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t speak to the lives lost. I was lucky my husband’s job kept him mostly on the base during each of his deployments to Iraq. So I do not know that personal sacrifice, but I felt it each day during those years. It’s something we as a nation should feel as well. Not only because the cost of war is exorbitant to all involved, service members and civilians, but because as we reflect on Veterans Day, we must also be aware that veterans make up significant parts of our communities. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in 2019, there were 17.4 million veterans in the United States. Approximately one third of those veterans are of People of Color, and more than half of all veterans are over the age of 65. And according to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans keep serving their communities after their military time has ended.
My personal feelings on war are complex. I come from Black and Iranian ancestry, and I am acutely aware of how many People of Color I know who serve for opportunity while risking their lives. Serving provides paths to things like education and homeownership that have been kept from marginalized communities. I feel like these veterans return from their time in service having sacrificed parts of themselves in hopes of upward mobility.
My time as an army wife introduced me to some of the most resilient people I know: soldiers, their wives, and their families. Almost two decades later, I am lucky to maintain many of these friendships. That time in my life taught me to be adaptable, to grow as a human, and about building community outside of my own family. For instance, as the soldiers returned home from their first Iraq War deployment, I, along with other wives, went to the barracks where the single soldiers were housed to decorate it with “Welcome Home” banners, food, and gifts so that they, too, came home to a celebration of their return. We wanted them to know that they were family too; that we knew that they had helped contribute to the relief we all felt at that homecoming. We wanted to celebrate their lives, their service, and their fortitude because we knew we were all blessed to be able to have another day together.
Each year as Veterans Day rolls around, I think of all the service members who gave so much and who in many cases still do. Who work among us, who are members of our communities and their families who, like them, have lived lives devoted to this nation. I am thankful to have been shaped and modeled into the person I am today by that time and thankful that I can recognize the sacrifices we all make.
Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.
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