flag“You can’t make this shit up” I told myself once again last week as I found a certificate from an Air Force black hawk helicopter rescue flight, flown in Afghanistan in my name, and the American flag that came along with that honor.

I was packing for my move back down South and was trying to leave behind the memorabilia from my former marriage. That particular item seemed sacred, however, and it reminded me of the important role I played as a military wife.  Really? That happened? My husband was flying helicopters in Afghanistan while I attempted to live life as a housewife on the East End of Long Island.

I reminisced about those days yesterday, too, while on the phone with a cable representative. With time to kill during the rebooting of systems, I learned that her son is currently serving in Afghanistan, unable to contact her. It’s freezing there right now, she added. With that reality check, I told myself, “I have no problems,”and told her, I would keep her son in my prayers. The conversation brought back memories of being attached to my phone as well as the scrolling letters on the bottom of my television screen that spelled out words like “helicopter crash” while life went on like nothing was happening for most others around me.

It was different during the earlier days of living off the Army base at Fort Cambell in Clarksville, Tennessee. The other women there could relate well to my situation because their husbands were alongside mine for weeks at a time during dangerous training deployments. It was not wartime yet then, in the late 1990’s, nor did it occur to me when I signed up for this role that war would come about again in my lifetime. That oblivion also included the thought that his new “part-time job” with the reserves in the Air National Guard in Westhampton Beach would be nothing to worry about.

But everything changed that day when I watched on my East End television set as bombs were shot off like fireworks, and he came home with talk of Iraq and anthrax vaccines. I was opposed to the series of six toxic injections, and the war, yeah that too.  My opinion didn’t matter. In fact, while I watched images of world wide protests on satellite TV I was told that I was not allowed to express my opposition publicly, because I was an “officer’s wife.”

This post is not meant to be a pity party for me, although those years did take a toll. I am writing about this subject because I want to share what I know to be true about those who serve, and to remind everyone that service includes the family. I enjoyed a video about parenting challenges shared on Facebook the other night titled “People with no kids don’t know.” Today, on Veterans Day, while sympathetic to the challenges of leaving the house with a child who prefers to stay home shoeless, I think there are many more people who don’t know the extent of the experiences of many Veterans.

I am truly grateful that I experienced military life. I would have never known the motivation, stamina, professionalism, responsibility, and brotherhood that resides there. I surely never saw it in any guy I dated before that time. It seems that just about every military person I meet can be trusted with my life, and I am in awe of the strong bond they have with each other. Many of them have seen things that many of us could not deal with, lived in uncomfortable surroundings, away from their homes and families, in extreme temperatures, and life-threatening situations. Yet they remain dedicated to their jobs, the community, and the government that sends them off to what often resembles Hell on earth. Staying active as much as possible in events that support Veterans, I have met many in years since who continue to exemplify the honor and strength I admire.

I hope that today and whenever possible, both those who know and those who don’t truly thank and support Veterans. I am ever so grateful for doing so one December evening a few years ago when I met Joey Theinert, from Shelter Island, who was enjoying a few beers with his brothers before heading off to Afghanistan the next day.  I thanked him for his service and I clearly remember the look of appreciation in his eyes.

Joey did not come back alive. He died a hero’s death and I was so grateful to have expressed my appreciation beforehand. His death shocked and forever changed the Shelter Island community. I witnessed the pain first hand, but also the beauty of humanity when thousands of East Enders came together to honor the return of his remains. I joined the procession from the National Guard base in Westhampton on the back of my ex-husband’s motorcycle. I photographed people with hands on their hearts, standing in the rain to show their love and respect. All the way to Shelter Island, I captured the emotions and the show of support, and it felt so powerful to me that I realized I wanted to be a photojournalist.

I will never forget that day or that former life of mine, and I will always support those who serve, especially those who return with mental or physical wounds, and the families of those who do not make it back alive. I hope others will, too.