By an anonymous military wife
Walking home from work yesterday, I see a sign that makes me laugh. Plastered on the back window of a tiny blue Fiat Panda is a hand-written piece of paper that says (oh so proudly):
I love Lego and will buy any you have.
If you have Lego to sell, please call….
I take a picture of it on my phone and sent it to my husband. Two minutes later, he texts back with a picture of his own and it looks like he’s been out training on his bike – he’s got mud splattered all over his face. I give him a quick call to remind him to pick up some milk and tell him I’ll be home soon.
Just an ordinary couple, exchanging ordinary information and sharing stories from the day passed. On its own, it’s an exchange that looks trivial and unimportant. But when it ceases to be an option, you begin to realise just how important sharing those little things in life can actually be.
One of the last things the military does before they post someone overseas to somewhere like Afghanistan is remove their mobile phone. So in the last year, I’ve learned first hand what it’s like when that instant communication with your other half is taken away.
And, despite it sounding relatively inconsequential, I don’t mind saying that it’s actually really hard.
So, what communication can you expect after you’ve waved a loved one off to Afghanistan?
Things have certainly moved on since the infamous ‘bluey’ letters of the past (although, for those old romantics, they do still exist). Along with phoning from time to time, most servicemen and women can email, use Facebook and even Skype occasionally.
But that doesn’t mean everything’s rosy.
Like many other soldiers, my husband was told not to call too often or at a specified time whilst he was away – families get used to a routine and then panic if they don’t hear from their loved one when expected. And not to be on the phone for too long – with thousands of soldiers and few ‘public’ phones, it wouldn’t be fair to hog a line for hours at a time.
And then there is the dreaded ‘Operation Minimise’, when all telephone and email communication is cut entirely because there has been an ‘incident’. As the time since your last contact with your husband or wife stretches out before you, it begins to dawn that Operation Minimise has been activated – and the wait for that next phone call can become agonising.
While my husband was completing his tour, I was simultaneously going through one of the most challenging, stomach-churningly stressful periods of my career so far. And this must have paled into insignificance when compared with the litany of new sights, sounds and emotions he must have been experiencing at the same time.
How can you even begin to put all of this experience into a thirty-minute conversation each week?
The answer is quite simple.
You can’t. (Especially when each of you is terrified of causing the other person to worry. So you don’t say that, actually, you’d love to scream at the boss who is constantly undermining you, or that you’re shattered because you were up being mortared all night).
The result, therefore, is quite a muted, weekly conversation, where you dance around the issues that are really on your mind and afterwards, you are none the wiser as to what’s been going on in the other person’s life all week. A strange situation to be in with someone you are used to sharing your life with.
Whilst doing some research for this blog, I found that I am far from alone in feeling like this. Rebecca, who was moved to a new town, with a new baby, just months before her husband was deployed to Afghanistan for six months, described her frustration at this limited dialogue. She took photos and recorded video clips of their baby and sent them on a memory stick to her husband, to help him stay in touch – but this is a very slow process. And whilst speaking to a neighbour about how he’d describe his relationship with his wife whilst he was serving in Afghanistan, he summed up my feelings exactly: disconnected.
My insightful neighbour also made another crucial point that really hit home with me: it is the person left behind who really feels disempowered by the whole situation.
And he’s right. Husbands, wives and partners left at home have no choice but to sit and wait for the phone to ring. It could be today. It could be tomorrow. It could be in two weeks time. You might have some exciting news that you are bursting to share, but it doesn’t matter. The control is taken completely out of your hands. You might be struggling to manage a hectic day at work when the phone rings and you have no choice but to chat in front of half of your office (which was my situation EVERY time my husband called), but you really can’t do anything about it.
Or can you?
Once again, my inexhaustible neighbour crops up with a helpful suggestion. Why not harness the technology available now, to facilitate better communication between military families via video and voicemail diaries? If each serviceman or woman had access to a private voicemail (or even video-mail) inbox whilst in Afghanistan, it would mean families could share real-time thoughts and experiences with their loved one, regaining some control over their communication and relationship.
For my neighbour, it would have meant having snippets of his baby-daughter gurgling down the phone or at the webcam whilst she was awake and alert, instead of missing so many important months because she was mostly in bed when he was able to call. For Rebecca, it would have been a much easier way of ensuring her husband didn’t miss out on those all-important early moments of his daughter’s life.
For others at home, who’ve seen something to make them laugh or cry; to make them cringe with embarrassment, or jump with joy, it would certainly help them feel closer to a loved one thousands of miles away if they could leave a voicemail or video clip to share the experience.
And I’m sure that by watching or listening whenever they can, our servicemen and women would feel just that little bit more connected to the family life they’ve left behind.
Of course, it won’t take away the agony of waiting for an overseas loved one to get back in contact with you– whether by email, phone or Skype. But, it just might go a small way towards replacing that instantaneous and accessible contact that we all-too-often take for granted in ordinary life.
Food for thought…
I know through talking with other partners of forces members that there are real issues facing families of service leavers. With thousands of personnel expected to be made redundant in the coming months and years this is set to become more and more important. Labour Friends of the Forces are therefore asking former members of the forces to contribute to a consultation on resettlement. I believe it’s important to hear from family members too. You can contribute here, comment below or email through your views to me and the Labour Friends of the Forces team at officeoflfof[at]gmail.com.