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Can Civilians Understand?


I’m guilty of saying, Civilians can’t understand us the way another military spouse can. I’m guilty of saying that more times than I can count. I’ve said it during my husband’s deployment, I’ve said it when trying to explain the nuances of military life and I’ve said it in times of stress and fear. Civilians JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND. That statement includes family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers on the street.

This feeling is perpetuated by the insensitive things civilians say when trying to be kind. I could never do it… Aren’t you worried he will die? Of course, there are those who feel that military spouses with a deployed service member are in need of some form of wisdom… giving them carte blanche to say whatever is on their minds. He signed up for it, so whatever happens to him is his own fault. That was my favorite. I heard that more times than I care to remember — sometimes from strangers, sometimes from people I love, but no matter who said it, it hurt none the less.

The other painful one? You knew he was in the military when you married him. As if that somehow negates any fear I have because I have not heard from my husband for 10 days. Being so disconnected from him often made me afraid to turn on the radio or TV for fear of hearing of injured or dead service members because one of them just might be my husband.

These are all very valid reasons to feel that civilians don’t understand. They are all reasons we military spouses use to support this belief. But is it true? Do they really not have the ability to understand this life we lead which is so different from theirs? I don’t think so. I think they can and often times, do understand, but I think they are afraid to.

I believe civilians see the chasm which grows greater because many of us have a spouse deployed. It doesn’t matter what type of deployment or where our loved one is deployed to; there is innate danger and stress with deployments. The word deployment conjures up feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, but empathy is a powerful thing. The ability to wonder how you might feel if you had to wake up every day unsure if your loved ones are alive and safe — but knowing that you can’t let that get you down because you have kids to take care of, or a job to get to, can go a long way. I’m sure most people are able to imagine how stressful it is to not talk to your spouse on a regular basis, even when you really need to. It’s a frightening thing to have to face.

Many military spouses have had tragedy hit close to home. Many of us know someone who came home injured, or someone who didn’t come home at all. It’s awful to have to worry about the safety of those you love. And I think that is a powerful motivator to why we say civilians don’t understand. I think many of them do. I think many of them look into our smiling faces and know that we are probably smiling to hide those feelings. I think those insensitive comments may come from people who are having to face their own uncertainties and fear, when looking into the face of ours.

When they say, I could never do it. And, Aren’t you worried he will die? They are saying, I’m afraid to face what you are facing and I don’t know how you cope because my heart hurts just thinking about it. When they say hurtful things like, He signed up for it. Or, You knew what you were getting into when you married him, I also feel those are coming from that place of empathy and fear. They are saying, I’m terrified to even consider that my spouse could die. I don’t want to think about it so I’m going to be defensive.

We represent a life that many civilians do not want to think about. Maybe some don’t want to consider that their child might get injured or worse. Maybe they don’t want to face the fact that there is uncertainty in life: a poor prognosis when sick, a diagnosis of a terrible illness, an accident, an injury… anything can happen to a person, whether civilian, military spouse or service member. But it’s something people don’t want to think about. And it’s something that military families are painfully aware of.

We military families do not have pretenses of safety. We no longer have the protective bubble of ignorance and denial. We can’t ignore the facts of life, which is that anything can happen. And I think civilians do understand that. But recognizing it, thinking about it, facing it, and accepting and understanding that life is unpredictable is a terrible thing to truly understand.

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  1. Yes I understand. Ask your husband if his doc does. I’ve been retired now 7 years and it feels like I never left and it feels like this supposed “real” “world” that civilians live in, where they never leave home, their county, their state, or even their country. Civilian’s real world consists of just their life at home, the trip to work, work and the trip to the grocery store. Their stress daily is based on their emotions getting twisted because their feelings got hurt. I finally got to the point where I don’t give a damn what a civis life is. I don’t understand their life anymore than I understand my life or our lives in the military. To me, they are the echelon of cattle. Ignorant of the life outside the field surrounded by barbed wire.


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