Women in the Military; Loyalty to My Husband’s Mistress
July 22, 2012
I know exactly how my husband feels when he leaves me to be with his other family. I know because he has written it down. This is how he describes 16th March 2008.
“We kissed and I walked out of the door and down the path, my kit slung over my back. Once, twice, I glanced over my shoulder at Margaret and the life I was leaving behind. There was sadness, but also excitement.”
“My latest adventure awaited. In those few steps between wife and car, I went again from being hers to being theirs.”
Theirs, he says. The Army’s.
I remember that day as I remember every day we have said goodbye over the course of a 25-year military marriage. This particular departure marked the start of what Doug said would, without doubt, be his final operational tour of duty, the twelfth in all (on top of which there had been countless exercises which have taken him away for weeks on end).
As Doug stepped out of sight I remained rooted to the spot, something inside me saying that maybe, just maybe he will come back around the corner for one more look, a lingering smile. I waited for another wave from the man I live with – on and off – and love. Of course he did not turn back. Doug had already switched mode, the gentle compassionate man was now Doug the professional soldier, someone bound by responsibility to carry out whatever task he was given regardless of whether it could cost him his life.
Not for the first time I stood there alone, not quite sure if I was immensely proud of Doug for having such a strong sense of duty or immensely resentful of him putting the military before me. I have never been someone who neatly fitted the mould of the Army wife. Yes I was the partner of a soldier, but that did not make me a natural or subservient member of the ‘military family’.
When Doug served as the Regimental Sergeant Major of 1 R IRISH it was expected that I would, along with the Commanding Officer’s wife, run the wives’ club. But I declined to slot into this role. My life had never previously centred on that enforced sociability and I had no intention of starting just because I now happened to be married to the RSM. It would have been disingenuous of me to do so. Doug held the rank, not me, something many partners forget.
This isn’t to say I was not intimately involved in what happened in the unit or wasn’t close to other wives and girlfriends. Rather, I offered my support as a friend, not as a regimental ‘official’ who got too closely involved in others’ personal lives.
While I have been walked out on countless times as Doug departed for this deployment to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, or training trips to Kenya, Cyprus, Canada I always knew in my heart he would come back to me. But I also witnessed far too often when the husband never returned and the life shattering news reverberated around the married quarters creating fear, apprehension, isolation and loneliness.
For living on what in known to many within the military and outside the military as ‘The Patch’ is like living in a community within a community. And although the place names may change, for an infantry battalion the family personalities remain constant.
As a unit was posted so went the families to a new community somewhere around the globe. It is like staring anew, new house, new job, new school and new places to explore. It sounds glamorous, conjuring up images of exotic places to see and interesting people to meet. Glamorous, that is until you actually arrive at your destination.
The repeated shattering reality was one of dispiriting disappointment invariable caused by miserable accommodation. Over a quarter of a century we have lived in 15 sets of army quarters, ranging from flats to terraced houses, small bungalows to detached properties. Ostensibly they were all different, yet each possessed a common feature: a drab, shabbiness that induced melancholy at best and depression at worst.
If you had tried to put asylum seekers in such conditions there would be uproar amongst the chattering classes. The camp followers of the 19th Century, used as they were to squalid conditions, would not have felt completely out of place. Yet if you as a 20th and 21st Century military wife wanted to be with the man you loved then there was little alternative other than to try and grin and bear things as best you could.
Having made that decision to share your life with a servant of the Crown; having decided to sacrifice your career; having accepted the sub-standard housing; having understood that to a lesser or greater degree your existence would be governed by written and unwritten military rules; you then find that your husband is routinely snatched away for half year periods. The effects on your own self-esteem can be startling. Your physical health can suffer visibly, but it’s the emotional impacts of absence that are felt hardest. The joys and pains of ordinary life fall and are put squarely on your shoulders to deal with.
In the early days of our marriage, Doug missed the birth of both of our children. The second, Luke, was already six weeks old before his father finally saw him. Countless birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas mornings have come and gone without the man of the house being present.
But for the selfless efforts of my parents I do not know how I would have coped. Dealing with their deaths was tremendously difficult. Not only were my mum and dad no longer with me, the grief normally associated with losing loved ones was compounded by the disappearance of the only practical pillar of support I had.
Reading back over what I have so far said I see that I have created an impression of treatment at the hands of an uncaring military something akin to domestic abuse.
There will be those shouting at their computers, “You should have bloody well left him.”
But how does anyone walk away from the most loving man I know? Someone who treats me like a princess when we are together? Someone who adores me, who plays his part in the home, who worships the children?
The privations are great, the time together often all too short, but the rewards, despite it all, are immense.
And through it all you adapt. For all the difficulties, I have managed to come to terms with my life and, just about, coped. You learn to be resilient, self-reliant. You establish a routine that is almost that of a one-parent family. Essential parts of this existence are the radio and TV. Each morning when Doug was away I would get up and turn on the news, trying to catch some detail about the latest war he was is involved in. The day ends in the exact same manner, hoping to see or hear an update, praying even that the footage on the box will portray a glimpse of my husband, giving some comfort that he is, for the moment at least, safe.
During the invasion of Iraq Doug actually seemed to be on the television all the time. Seeing him there helped ease the gut-wrenching fear that stays with me night and day when he is away. For soldiers themselves, danger is often a fleeting thing, something which might actually account for a very small part of their working lives. But for their families the anxiety is constant. We have no way of knowing when the danger is present and when it is absent, so instead we are condemned to always think the worst.
White lies told by the men themselves do little to alleviate the stress. Doug’s first tour of ‘Afghan’ supposedly involved doing a desk job at Kandahar Airfield. I should I have been reassured by this; I wanted to be reassured, but it wasn’t easy. Doug has always yearned to be out and about doing real soldiering. As much as I tried believing he was well out of harm’s way, I never quite did.
When he returned home on R & R with a broken nose, dislocated fingers and cuts and bruises he attempted to pass it off as nothing more than the result of vehicle accident at the base. I suspected something else. But it was only after Doug had returned to Helmand and I foolishly watched the Sean Langan Channel 4 film Fighting the Taliban – which documented an awful, bloody battle, and all too vividly showed my husband’s part in it – that I understood where he got his injuries from and just how lucky I was to have him back at all.
I wished I hadn’t seen the programme. For the final two months of that tour I lived the worst existence imaginable. My coping strategy was shattered and I was constantly on edge. Whilst he was still away I received news that he’d been awarded the Military Cross for his part in the horror that I sat through. This merely fuelled my imagination. If they were giving him such high recognition for his actions the risks involved must have been huge.
I know that I am not alone in my suffering. Today there are thousands of women – wives, girlfriends, mothers – who are going through what I have endured. In the years to come there will be many thousands more.
These women are the real backbone of the British Army, the ones who engender hope, courage and commitment in the soldiers sent away to fight. If only they were rewarded by officialdom with the respect and dignity they deserve. For they give a lifetime of service just as much as the sons, husbands and boyfriends they unflinchingly stand behind.
My husband’s career has been long and illustrious. He went from boy soldier to young ranger; from RSM to a commissioned officer. He has been honoured with the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland Commendation, the Queens Commendation for Bravery, the NATO Meritorious Service Medal and that MC earned in Afghanistan.
Doug always says the medals are mine, as mush as they are his: that we have been through things together, even though so much of the time we have spent physically apart.
Going back to the question I asked at the start of this piece, the answer is both. But while the resentment is a passing emotion, the pride is always there. Though my husband rarely makes things easy for me, even now as we both get older and have not only children but grandchildren.
As it turned out Doug’s 12th operational tour wasn’t his last. Despite what he said to me, despite what he promised, he went on to complete a third tour of Afghanistan. Today Doug still works with the Royal Irish. He promises me that he is now home for good. I’ve heard it all before and every time the phone rings I fear it will be them ringing. His other family. Making him an offer that’s just too good to resist.
This week’s piece in my ‘Women in the Military’ series was a guest article written by the wife of Captain Doug Beattie MC who he previously wrote about in this Channel 4 piece. I am very grateful to her for sending me her words.