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ON WATCH AT HOME
Authors shed light on military spouses' wartime experience
By Laura S. Jeffrey - Special to the Times
Each week, another new book is published that examines some aspect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military members, authors and journalists alike come back from the war zones with boots-on-the-ground perspectives for a civilian population largely disconnected from the war.
Much less has been written on the effects of war on the families back home, but increasingly, those family members are making their voices heard.
Among them are Kristin Henderson, Stacy Bannerman and Rebekah Sanderlin.
These women hope to help civilians connect with how the war is changing both those fighting and those back home who support them.
AIRING 'DIRTY LAUNDRY'
Henderson, 44, is the author of "While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront."
Her husband of 21 years is a Navy chaplain who has been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Published last year, Henderson's book includes information gathered from interviews with several military spouses, many of whom shared details of the darker side of deployment, including marital discord and infidelity.
Henderson said she was expecting a "mixed response" from the military community, particularly because "what I was writing about, some people would call 'dirty laundry.' But I've had overwhelmingly positive comments.
"The military community knows [a deployment] is hard," she said. "And they know that most civilians don't know what it's like. And unless [civilians] understand, there will be no funding to help take care of these families."
No stranger to Iraq, Henderson spent a month in the war zone in 2005 researching an article on religion and the military.
A GUARD SPOUSE'S FIGHT
In her book, Bannerman also challenges conventional wisdom, but in her case, she focuses on the treatment of reservists and their families in wartime.
"When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind" describes a reserve force that is largely unprepared and ill-equipped for war, and whose pay and benefits still lag behind the active forces. She also takes aim at resources for families, noting that family members do not have access to the support and services active-duty families have.
A longtime peace activist, Bannerman married an Army National Guard soldier in 2000. The 15-year Guard veteran had recently re-enlisted to reach the 20-year retirement mark. Three years later, he was mobilized for duty in Iraq.
After her husband was activated, Bannerman found that she was unprepared for military life -- and that she was not the only spouse of a reservist who felt that way.
"For the vast majority of us ... when our loved ones joined the Guard or reserves, they were told ... it was almost certain that they would never be deployed," said Bannerman, 41. "And now we find that National Guard and reservists are serving some of the longest tours in Iraq."
"When the War Came Home" is intended not only to call attention to Guard and reserve issues, she said, but also to "put some real weight behind the phrase 'Support the troops.'"
To Bannerman, that means sending them to war with the best training, equipment and support available.
Of the apparent distance between civilians and the war their military is fighting, she said: "I understand why there are so many people in America who want to turn away from this. There's a part of me that would like to, as well. But I think we owe it to our service members who have served so bravely and the families who have suffered so much."
'ALONE IN THIS WAR'
Where Bannerman and Henderson chose books as their forum for telling their stories, Sanderlin has developed a two-way conversation.
Sanderlin, 30, blogs about military life for iBraggle.com, a military spouse Web site launched by The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. She is married to an Army staff sergeant who has deployed several times in support of the wars.
Sanderlin is a journalist who was the Fayetteville paper's health care reporter until October 2004, when she quit after having a baby.
"Do not equate your husband's three-week trip to London/Omaha/Tokyo/etc. with a one-year deployment to a war zone," she wrote in a recent blog post. "Aside from the obvious trip length difference, nobody shot at your husband or tried to blow him up with an [improvised explosive device]. ... There is no comparison. We do not feel bonded to you in the slightest because of this comment and, if anything, we probably resent you a bit for comparing a combat deployment to a business trip.''
Late last year, Sanderlin was asked to submit a commentary to National Public Radio that aired on NPR stations across the country. She hoped it would be a wake-up call to the American public.
"We bristle a bit when other people say 'Iraq war' instead of the war on terrorism, she wrote in her commentary, "because our next-door neighbor was killed in Afghanistan and no one seems to remember that we're fighting there, too. I'm telling you this because it seems you all don't understand us very well.
"We feel pretty alone in this war," she wrote. "America seems to have sent us the loud and clear message that we volunteered, and that makes the war our problem. ... People like me are not even 2 percent of the American population. The other 98 percent went shopping."
After the commentary aired, Sanderlin received negative e-mail from civilians, many noting that she should "be grateful for what you have" and "get over it." But she struck a chord among those in the military community, who offered feedback that was entirely positive.
"It's increasingly frustrating to me to be somewhere [among civilians] and to have people acting as if these things that are totally insignificant are a big deal when we literally have guys fighting and dying," she said. "I think that's the reality of the situation -- but I don't think that's how it should be."
Laura S. Jeffrey is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia.
Advance Praise for When the War Came Home
"When the War Came Home is a war story and a love story, passionate and personal, and because of that a more powerful indictment of the war than any cool political analysis."
- Howard Zinn
"For military families who have experienced the heartache, fear, pain, and anguish of having a loved one deployed to Iraq, Stacy Bannerman's compassion, anger, humor, and raw honesty will be immensely healing. For the rest of the nation, this is the book to read to understand and be able to reach out to those who have. When the War Came Home will help bridge the divide between those who have been touched so directly by this war and those whose experience of the war comes largely from the sanitized news media."
- Nancy Lessin and Charley Richardson, co-founders, Military Families Speak Out
"Stacy Bannerman's a national treasure. She speaks with wisdom, from the heart, and her considerable intelligence informs every page of When the War Came Home. The justifications of the warmongers are abstract and distant. All the better to keep citizens docile and agreeable to their violent ways. Stacy brings it home, makes it real, all too real. Please read this book. It will change your life. It might just change the world."
- Glenn W. Smith, Author of The Politics of Deceit
"Stacy Bannerman's story shines the harsh light of truth and reality on Bush's war - and quietly calls all of us to action to prevent more of these painful stories."
- Jim Hightower, author of Thieves in High Places
"When the War Came Home is an eloquently honest account of how the war changed the lives of Stacy Bannerman and her husband Lorin. Stacy forthrightly wrestles with her conscience and her deep devotion to her husband. This is a book of tears and grace."
- Celeste Zappala, mother of Sgt. Sherwood Baker, the first Pennsylvania National Guardsman killed in Iraq, and co-founder of Gold Star Families Speak Out
"The power of this book lies in its intimacy: what it feels like to have your husband who you love go off to a war you don't believe in, to know he's fighting with inadequate equipment while captive to an indefinite stop-loss order, to speak out as a witness while hoping he comes home alive."
- Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen
"Never have I seen the human, health, and psychological toll of the Iraq war brought home so dramatically as in Bannerman's new book. Her exchanges with her National Guard husband, Lorin, speak volumes about the horrible impact of this war on the soldiers and their families. Through their words and those of other military families, we enter the fear, the bravery, the horror, the tears, the doubt, and the full range of human emotions that define this immoral war. I only wish that those men who make this war could read these words."
- John Cavanagh, Director, Institute for Policy Studies
"If you want to know the real-life human impact of the Republican invasion and occupation of Iraq on America's National Guard members, read When the War Came Home!"
- Thom Hartmann, author of What Would Jefferson Do?
REVIEW - BLOGCRITCS.ORG
April 19, 2006
Book Review: When The War Came Home: The Inside Story Of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind by Stacy Bannerman
America is split right down the middle when it comes to the war in Iraq. What happens when a marriage is, too?
Stacy Bannerman of Kent, Wash., is a longtime peace activist. Her husband, Lorin, was a member of the Washington Army National Guard who was called up to serve in Iraq.
For Stacy, her nonviolent, anti-war beliefs collided with her wishes to support her husband as he was sent off to fight in a war she doesn't believe in.
In her book, When The War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind, Bannerman looks back on a frantic 18 months when her marriage was turned upside-down by war - and how National Guard families throughout America have been affected by the conflict in Iraq.
"I've spent my career trying to change the conditions that create war," Bannerman writes. " I never imagined my husband would be fighting one."
Bannerman highlights a community that has been bearing the brunt of the war in Iraq - the National Guard. Guardsmen have been far more involved in this conflict than any other, "citizen soldiers" turned into full-time warriors, and Oregon and Washington have carried a heavy burden. Dozens of troops from Douglas County have served.
In When The War Came Home, Bannerman tells the story of Lorin's deployment, from the time they first got the news in late 2003 to his eventual return home last year. Bannerman, a longtime activist well before Lorin's deployment, becomes involved with Military Families Speak Out, an anti-war group trying to draw attention to service family issues.
Bannerman heavily researched the issues the National Guard has dealt with in Iraq, and moves back and forth between her own personal story and the bigger picture. It's a troubling litany of issues the war veterans have to deal with - financial problems, family discord, benefits delays, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. That's all assuming they make it back in the first place, and Bannerman also digs up grim data about how the government is letting guardsmen down with inadequate supplies and training.
Occasionally, the statistics she cites aren't sourced as well as they could be, but generally they paint a damning picture of the government's too-frequent neglect of those serving their country.
Bannerman is very honest about her own insecurities and flaws, which excuses some of her excesses as her principles and reality battle - such as when she actually tells her husband that she wants him to imagine her face if he ever has to point a gun at an Iraqi. It's advice that, while nobly intended, could clearly get him killed, no matter what your politics are.
But as a writer, the candor makes Bannerman pretty captivating - she lays it all out, even when it doesn't make her look very good. Her struggle with her husband's mission is kind of America in miniature - beside her anti-war views, she has to deal with the simple pain of missing her husband and worrying about his fate.
She faces scorn from both sides - from military families who can't handle her outspoken liberalism, and from peace activists who have a hard time with the fact that she's also a military wife. "The concept of a peace activist being married to a military husband doesn't work for me," one friend writes Bannerman.
Bannerman's writing is charged with her own very vocal anti-war views. The frustration she feels leaps off the page; yet in the end, she accepts a tenuous truce with her husband's battles.
"I come to the realization that my love for him transcends my beliefs, and there are few things for which I would not forgive him," Bannerman writes.
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