Twelve years ago, Dustin arrived at a new squadron, and at the Hail and Farewell (the Navy’s efficient two-birds, one-stone approach to saying hello and goodbye to rotating personnel), a tall, attractive woman walked into the bar wearing a white tank top and fitted jeans.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
Dustin whispered back, “One of the pilots.”
“One of the pilots where?”
“Here,” he said. “In this squadron.”
I wanted to raise my hand and request that my husband be transferred to a new duty station. As if that works. I imagined how much more beautiful the pilot would seem to the men when they were separated from their wives for months at a time. I hated that she would have more access to my husband than I would. She would eat with him, exercise with him and probably hang out in the ready room with him, too.
Welcome to the strange, conflicted, sexually charged but policed atmosphere of the military, where uniforms meant to stifle individual expression have inadvertently become sex symbols, and where husbands leave their wives for months at a time to live with other women, many of whom are young, smart, fit and attractive.
For all of these reasons, last week, when I heard the news about Gen. David Petraeus having an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, my stomach knotted. Fair or not, military leaders set the tone for their subordinates. A commander who has a family at home likely will make holiday parties and family-services briefings a priority. A commander who is a bachelor might invite “all the guys” to Hooters for dinner. (Yes, I saw this happen.) A leader’s personal behavior gives families back home either confidence or reason to worry.
So in the wake of the scandal, I feel a little like a kid who has just discovered her parents are getting a divorce. Nothing makes sense. The military is not what I thought it was. Shouldn’t Petraeus and his wife, after 38 years of marriage, be the happy picture of what military life can be? Weren’t we striving for what they have?
Civilians, of course, have always secretly suspected that being “on deployment” involves sneaking around on your spouse and shirking duties as husband and father. Military wives sometimes fear this, too, but, until now, we’ve looked to leaders with the brass — you know, the ones who are unimpressed with the country’s latest reality-TV star and are more focused on the troops and defending freedom — and found comfort in the tone they set.
So what now? Four-star generals, unlike some celebrities and politicians, don’t usually end up on the front page of The National Enquirer. What are we to make of this? What is our new standard of a good military marriage?
Or, worse, had we been duped all along?
Jake Trapper, speaking about the affair to CNN’s Piers Morgan last week, shared a story about being with the troops overseas, where it was, as he recalled, a world virtually void of women and filled with men starved for them. He said the men routinely clamored to listen to a female helicopter pilot’s voice over the radio. The men, he said, were convinced she was the most beautiful woman ever.
All across the nation, as CNN went to commercial, a thousand military wives’ hearts broke. Those men clamoring to hear the radio probably weren’t all single. We always suspected as much, of course, but no one talked about it, and military leaders, we had hoped, certainly frowned on it.
Oh, but the damage from this “divorce” is far from done. Next up in the fallout is Jill Kelley, a rich socialite civilian who, despite having no business at McDill Air Force Base, had total access to it and all of its leaders. There, Kelley received favors like written letters of support from two powerful generals for her sister’s custody battle. I had to read that news report twice. I’ve been a military dependent for 36 years; “favors” and “socialite” are not usually in the same sentence with “military” and “base.” Despite being a Navy wife and brat, I’ve sometimes been turned away from the front gate because I didn’t have my ID card. There never were any favors.
But, then, I’m closer to looking more like Gen. Petraeus’ wife than I am the perfectly dressed and toned Kelley or Broadwell. I used to think those things didn’t matter in the military.
It’s like the rug has been pulled out from under military wives. And as each new picture surfaces of the general wearing what looks like Mardi Gras beads and beautiful women on either arm, we will think of his wife, and our bitterness will grow at being left at home to raise families, where we age, grow plump around the edges and wrinkled in the face. All while another woman goes jogging with our husband and a socialite is waved onto base.
That collective sigh you hear is an army of wives asking themselves, perhaps many decades too late, is this really any way to live a married life? But we aren’t all necessarily questioning our marriages. I’ve loved and been devoted to both my husband and the military. Today, I feel like one of them has cheated me. And it’s not Dustin.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.