A Year of Absence

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

I just finished one of the most depressing books I have read in years, but I could not put it down. "A Year of Absence," by Jessica Redmond, an Army spouse.

Redmond's husband was an Army infantry officer stationed in Baumholder, Germany, with the First Armored Division. As one of only a few Army trained infantry officers in the Air Force and having been to cold, miserable Baumholder in the winter, the book caught my attention from the first page. The "absence" that is referred to in the title is about the military member of a family deploying to Iraq and what the family members go through during the separation.

When I was on active duty the military separated me from my family. My father, a Navy Master Chief, would go to sea for six to nine months when I was school age. So I understand family separation. The two major differences were that neither my father nor I were in direct combat, which helped immensely on family member's stress levels, and our families were in the US during the deployment separation.

When the majority of the Army troops at Baumholder left for their one year in hostile Iraq, their families were not sitting safely at some state side location, where a simple phone call could summon an extended family member for help in time of crisis. The families were stuck in cold, rainy, non-English speaking Germany.

The military makes a major effort to take care of the dependent family members when a GI is deployed, but when virtually the entire active duty component of a base is removed, the Army support system is overwhelmed. Redmond's book follows the lives of six dependent wives who are left in Germany for what was suppose to be a year without their husbands. Some with children and some left alone. Of the six wives there were officer's spouses, NCO spouses and young junior military member's spouses.

As a former military commander, I recognized some of the same disparities in Redmond's subjects as in my former subordinates and their families. Money, education and pre-deployment training, or the lack of any of these, was a major contributing factor in how a military family functions during the long term "absence."

Do not get me wrong, every one of the wives had problems and emotional issues during the "absence." However, if you do not have children and you do have a larger paycheck coming in, I would suggest that person fairs better than the early twenties wife of a private, who is alone for the first time in her life, outside the US, with small children always needing attention.

The combat deaths and memorial services at Baumholder did not help to relieve the stressed families. The author's own husband was evacuated with medical complications that ended his military career. I have to assume this did not help her personal stress level. When the Baumholder soldiers got extended in Iraq for an extra four months, along with an increase in the combat deaths in the unit, the families continued to suffer.

We live in a world of instant communications, and the generation depicted in this book was very much a product of that. When my father went to sea all we had was letters that were sometimes 30 to 60 days old by the time they got back to the States. I had no e-mail when I was in Korea in 1983, again letters only.

Modern military families have regular access to phones and the Internet, but in some cases it only exacerbated the situation. Nasty instant gossip from both ends of the telephone created its own set of problems for these separated families.

"A Year of Absence" is a must read for military families headed for a long term deployment. I also strongly suggest officers and senior NCOs need to read this book. The civilian spouse (male or female) who remains behind needs this book as a starting foundation for preparing to be alone. Our senior military leaders and more than a few senior civilians who impact the lives of the troops could use some quality time with this book. Every military base library should have multiple copies.

Deployments are going to go on for years to come. We must get better at assisting our military families. They need help and the military needs to retain its members. Better support for the families will have a major positive impact on both issues.

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Copyright 2005, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.