Combating the Disconnect: What It's Like to Have a Spouse in the Military

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After growing up with a father who worked on oil rigs and was absent as often as he was home, Rachel Starnes had no desire to marry a man whose job similarly took him far afield from his family. But that was before she fell in love with Ross, an aspiring navy fighter pilot.

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And married him.

And had two sons.

In her new memoir, The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible), Starnes writes candidly about what it's like to be a military spouse, including the steady progression of moves from state to state, the gut-wrenching good-byes at deployment, and the attempt to stay connected through grainy overseas Skype calls.

In an exclusive interview with CafeMom, Starnes explains why she chose to share the bittersweet realities of her family with readers.

What inspired you to write this book?

I found myself feeling that our constant relocations, while they meant concrete, logical, and linear progressions for my husband's career, were erasing me little by little. I kept having to start over -- with jobs, with friends, with creating a sense of home ... After our children were born and I stayed home to take care of them and thus let go of the professional identity I'd created, it felt vital to me to tell the story of how I ended up where I was.

... I also happen to really admire the people in my life -- my husband, my parents, my fellow navy wives -- even when they've challenged me or we've been in conflict, and the best way I knew how to honor them was to write about them.

How did Ross feel about it? Was there any part that surprised him or made him uncomfortable?

My husband has been extremely brave and generous throughout this process, and most of the edits he's asked for have been technical details of the aircraft or procedural elements of the job.

He's a very private person by nature ... Nevertheless, he recognizes that this is my story, that I needed to tell it to help me make sense of our lives, and that point of view is necessarily subjective.

I have not, in other words, written the definitive story of our marriage, just one angle of it.

“rachel
Rachel Starnes

How does military life strain your family, both in day-to-day life as well as in the big scheme of things?

It's probably different for everyone, but I think the hardest parts for me have been the distance from family and any sense of having a home base, and also combating the disconnection that arises when your spouse works long, unpredictable hours.

Before kids, it was just lonely. After having kids, it was lonely but also nerve-racking because I was constantly juggling the logistics of trying to get everything done with no guarantee that there would be another adult to help me.

I've learned to put an enormous amount of trust and faith in my friendships with other military wives, and to ask them to lean on me as well.

In a larger sense, the issue of risk and safety is a shadow that hangs over everything. Aviation is a small community that gets smaller the longer you're in it and anytime there is a mishap, everyone feels it.

More from CafeMom: 30 Telltale Signs You're a Military Wife

How often is Ross away from home?

There's really no set answer to this and that's part of why it's been hard ... At any given time, you may be looking at "detachments" of a week, two weeks, a month, six weeks, or three months, often multiples of these in groups called "work-ups" leading to a deployment, which can last anywhere from 6 to 10 months.

Then there are training schools and certifications and always, everything is "subject to change without notice." For the year of 2010, when I was pregnant with our first son and finishing grad school, we went from one end of the year to the other, with no deployments, seeing each other for a total of seven weeks.

We counted ourselves extremely lucky that he was able to be there for the birth. I have several friends who have given birth with their husbands on a Skype connection.

Is there an adjustment period each time Ross comes home?

Yes ... and it varies depending on how long he's been gone.

How do you two stay close?

[That], for us, has required constant, direct work, including marriage counseling as preventative maintenance. It certainly hasn't always been easy, but we're committed to finding creative ways to make it work.

These days, we try to save Saturday nights for date-night cooking projects. We inherited my grandmother's cast iron cookware that's generations old and we've been working our way through the America's Test Kitchen cast iron cookbook.

Cooking, for us, has been a great way to negotiate division of labor, timing, communication, and forgiveness of mistakes. It's amazing.

More from CafeMom: Military Life in Pictures: 10 Images That Will Make You Proud to Be an American (PHOTOS)

If you could change just one thing about having a spouse in the military, what would it be?

That's a tough question ... I would require one two-week vacation per year with the sole stated goal of reconnecting as a family, just us four.

What reception has your book gotten from other military wives?

I really worried about this at first -- ours is a small community and I knew that if I got anything wrong, I'd hear about it. I also really struggled with the notion that we've all had different experiences in the navy.

But I also know that right now there are not enough stories from our community, and that ours is an experience more people need to know about, especially when our country nears its second decade at war and the gap between the civilian and the military version of American citizenship seems to be widening.

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