Most wives aren't sure what to expect when their husbands return from their first tour to a combat zone. On the contrary, after hours of reading military-related magazines, books and Web sites, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what might happen when James, my husband, returned from 15 months in Iraq.
I'd read the story of a husband who felt his wife didn't understand what he'd been through in combat; he regularly held "conversations" with his dead comrades while sitting on a stump in his backyard. I read another story of a husband who would "check the perimeter" of his property on a regular basis, withdraw completely from family life and look for ways to kill himself at every turn.
So when my husband asked me to pick up two 12-packs of beer shortly before his homecoming, I was more than worried. I wondered how fast the beer would disappear and fretted about his family's history of alcoholism.
The morning of the homecoming ceremony was a whirlwind of cleaning, primping and putting last-minute touches on James' welcome-home poster. This tour was the first of our marriage, but his second to Iraq and third overall. From all accounts, it had gone much more safely than the previous tours. As the platoon armorer, my husband was frequently out of harm's way, a contrast to the situation he faced when he served as a turret gunner during his first tour.
But as wonderful as the blessing of his safe return was, it couldn't disguise one very big hurt: My husband had lost his comrade and best friend, Johnson, just a few months before. If their tour hadn't been extended, Johnson would be returning today, too. He wouldn't be pushing up daises in a cemetery in Louisiana. His wife wouldn't be attempting to tearfully explain to their five children why daddy wasn't coming home today. Johnson's death was the most painful thing my husband had ever endured, and both of us were still struggling with grief, why's and what if's.
The wait at the special events center was excruciating as the boys' arrival was continually delayed. Finally, the back doors flew open and our soldiers marched in to Toby Keith's "Angry American." After a seemingly unending speech, our soldiers were dismissed and released from formation. A sea of homesick soldiers clashed into an equally tear-stained sea of family members. I spotted my husband, and at that moment nothing in the world could have held me back from him. I dove into his arms, and we held each other tighter than ever before. After a long embrace, we gathered his bags, jumped in his truck and headed for the new home we'd purchased while he was in Iraq.
The two of us were surprised at how quickly we "clicked" again; we certainly hadn't lost our chemistry! We were also surprised that neither of us felt rushed to become intimate. Despite spending months on end pining for each other, we weren't ripping each other's clothes off. But the lack of pressure let us fully enjoy each other's company and take our sweet time. Within 48 hours of the homecoming, we'd enjoyed a movie night together, eaten a steak dinner with his family and re-evaluated our budget. Things were going swimmingly.
And, despite some hurdles, things still are. The two main post-deployment issues we've faced have been irritability and differences in sex drive. Sometimes the littlest things I do, such as accidentally serving him spicy food or forgetting instructions he gave me, cause him to lose his temper. When he does, he often apologizes, gives me a kiss or attempts to make a joke out of the situation.
Our mismatched sex drives have been a bit frustrating too. His has been unusually low since Iraq, and it's embarrassing that mine is so high compared to his. We've had a couple of tearful arguments over the matter, but, thankfully, have come to a much better understanding. He's become much better at giving me what I need when I need it, and I've become better at understanding when he just can't.
Many returning service members talk about how they can't stand the petty gripes of Americans after serving in a war zone. I've seen my husband adopt this attitude, and it's affected our home life as well. I have diabetes, and my blood sugar levels went through a rough patch shortly after his return. I went low a lot, which usually causes me to slip into panic attacks. Though my husband was supportive, it became increasingly clear that my anxiety was taxing him. When I asked why he was so aggravated with me, he said, "I've only seen people who have been shot – people who are dying – freak out like you have been. You're not going to die, but you're acting like it."
It's moments like these when I learn a little more about what he's been through and how it still affects him. I'm happy to report that he talks about Johnson regularly – about the good times the two had together, what Johnson might do if he were in a certain situation and what a great husband and father he was. We've both been able to talk about how traumatizing it was to learn of his death. I was able to watch a DVD of my husband giving a speech at his funeral, and I'm helping him compile a scrapbook of pictures, funeral brochures and transcripts from TV shows and congressional meetings that mentioned Johnson.
Both of us are healing a little more every day, personally and corporately. I still cry at the drop of a hat at the thought of my husband deploying again. We're currently facing a possible stop-loss situation, and may only have a couple months left together before my husband is deployed once more. It hurts. But my husband seems to open up a little more each week, and I know someday God will use what we've been through to help others.