Shared Courage, a non-fiction book by Michelle Keener (2007) takes us on a journey of a Marine Corps spouse through marriage, children, volunteering and war. Michelle Keener met her future husband while studying theology and considering a life as a nun. Soon love won her over and she married Paul knowing that he was going into the Marine Corps for a job, not knowing that it would be a complete lifestyle change. Then 9-11 happened.
While reading this book, I discovered that Michelle’s journey through the Marine Corps very much paralleled my own. When I married my Marine, I didn’t believe that he would ever be going to war and on the off chance that he did, I thought it would be over in a few days. My husband too was in Quantico, a class ahead of Michelle’s husband, when the twin towers fell. Both of our husbands were assigned to an infantry battalion: hers as a communications officer in 29 Palms with 3/4 and mine to Camp Pendleton as an infantry officer with 2/1. We both began our journey as a Key Volunteer for the first deployment and initial invasion into Iraq: 3/4 was flown over, while 2/1 was with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). After our husband’s return from war, we both stepped up to become the Battalion Coordinator for the next deployment. Both units ended up working together in Fallujah, Iraq under the leadership of General Mattis. Knowing firsthand what I lived through as a wife and KV during OIF I and II, as well as a 3 year duty station later to 29 Palms, I reflected on Michele’s experiences and they were very much my own.
The first began with housing envy. Our home too was old and decrepit, with dirty linoleum tiles, rubber stairs, and a backyard that flooded when it rained. When we checked into base housing, they still had the original 3×5 note card, starting in 1968, with every individual who had lived in the home neatly typed on each line and the dates they lived there. Like Michelle, these houses have since been torn down and rebuilt with beautiful exteriors and lawns, but it gave us an appreciation when we were given the opportunity to live someone with lead free paint and a garage.
Michelle eloquently paints an accurate picture of what most of us spouses who volunteered to support the unit through the KV program were going through. Michele writes, “My husband was gone and in his place a warrior”. Abandoned by our husbands looking to prove themselves in war, we were left behind to keep the home fires burning, volunteering, dealing with the media, and the bonds of friendship and support through trying circumstances. Not only did we have our own issues to take care of, we were busy helping other spouses find their way through issues both large and small. The frustration from dealing with sometimes difficult issues, casualties and fatalities, created a very strong bond between friends. Michelle writes about a friend’s statement which I have taken to heart. “It’s not going to be so easy for me to make friends now… because having gone through this war with all of you, I know what real friendship means. Now whenever I meet someone new I’ll have to ask myself, Could I go to war with you?” Yes, it’s true that we as military wives are forced to make friends quickly due to limited time at our duty station, but it’s those friendships and bonds formed that make the journey worthwhile. It’s the sense of community that is created that few others will ever understand.
My only criticism of the book is one of negation. Michelle wrote about 3/4’s involvement in Fallujah, but there were in fact two Infantry Battalions and various supporting units involved as well. 2/1 was stationed in Fallujah through the entire deployment. I know firsthand about the pain experienced back home from losing 20 men and sustaining over 100+ casualties. Initially after 2/1 and 1/5 and others had begun operations in Fallujah, 3/4 was brought in to assist in the efforts to cordon off the city, under the leadership of the Regimental Combat Team (RCT-1) under command of Col. John Toolan and the Division Commander, General James Mattis. I feel that not acknowledging the other units, makes their service seem less worthwhile, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
This book captures a moment in time well for spouses who volunteered with the KV program and lived on or near a base during OIF I and II. The war has since transitioned to the end of hostilities in Iraq with the focus in Afghanistan. The Key Volunteer program was disbanded in 2009 and replaced with a paid civilian position (FRO – Family Readiness Officer) due to the amount of constant support needed not only to spouses, but also to girlfriends, parents and other loved ones. While the capacity of the book does not currently reflect current military issues, it delves into an area many military spouses are still facing today: that being Murphy’s military law, missed birthdays, holidays and anniversaries; being sick and trying to take care of babies and toddlers, and having a baby while the father is fighting overseas. I highly recommend this book be read by anyone who wants to understand what many Marine Corps spouses endured from 2001 to 2004, and for those who want a glimpse of what Marine Corps spouses are currently enduring today.