by Mike Allen
Gary and Jeanne Barnes of Gulf Breeze, FL, have seen a broad spectrum of military life. Gary spent 22 years in the Air Force and retired in 1993 with the rank of Lt. Colonel. Their daughter’s husband is an active Marine (deployed in Okinawa, Japan).
Mike: What are some of the challenges to marriage in the military?
Jeanne: First of all, just the separation. Gary was also in special ops, which meant that we didn’t know when he was going, for how long, and where he would be. The balance of power that goes back and forth was hard. When he’s home we share power, and then when he leaves, I would do it all my way (laughs). It was hard to readjust to that.
Gary: The military, for me, was exciting. I enjoyed the travel…though I don’t like to tell Jeanne that (both laugh) – but I could see the problems with the children. When I did come home, it was like “Dad’s home, he’s the #1!” And Jeanne would always feel like, “What am I, chopped liver?” I didn’t worry about dying –maybe Jeanne did – it was the uncertainty, the constant deployments, the movement, not being really a part of the kids’ lives that was hard. Now, as I look back, there were things that I didn’t do, didn’t have the time to do, or didn’t choose to take in – ball games, birthday parties, anniversaries. three years, we had three priests.
We’ve been lifelong friends with two of those priests; they come and visit us almost every year, and that was thirty years ago. We were lucky that we had the Church. We found out from living in Guam, that since you’re thousands of miles away, the church is family. It pulled us together, and I think we are so much stronger for that experience, because of that isolation and the Church filling the need for family.
Jeanne: Gary was gone a lot, and the priests would come by and check – I had little children at the time – to see if everything was OK. They were just friends. Growing up in a Catholic family, if my mother had the priest over for dinner, it was linens, china, fancy stuff. So when our first priest stopped by, I thought, “I’ve got to do all this.” But as we got to be friends, it was “Here’s a paper napkin, just sit down and have a glass of beer” (laughs).
Mike: What are some things that local parishes could do to be helpful of military families?
Jeanne: Our church now has a lot of retired Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, but not so much active duty. One thing I appreciate is a book we put on the altar every Sunday that has the names – anybody can write in it – of any military person or family that is deployed. It’s a symbol of how important it is to pray for our military families.
Mike: As for the ministries on military bases, how were those helpful?
Gary: Our first real experience with military chaplains was on Guam. We would have a new priest every year. In Mike: Gary said that death was not on his mind. Jeanne, how about for you?
Jeanne: Yes, I always had it in the back of my mind. Gary’s very first assignment was at Westover, Massachusetts, where there were lots of bombers shot down, so I was familiar with the official car and the chaplain coming by and telling the wives. It was always, “Thank God it’s not me,” and then, “Oh my gosh, it’s my friend,” and then the guilt of “What can I do for them, because I feel so bad that it’s them and not me.” But our church family was always very close, so we could minister to one another. I was in a women’s group where we talked about those things, so just knowing that the other wives were feeling the same thing helped a lot.
Mike: What are some of the other challenges children face when a parent is in the military?
Jeanne: It was more an issue with discipline in our family. We have three daughters, and in my eyes, they could do no wrong, and in Gary’s eyes, they could do no right, so we were a good team (laughs).
Gary: The moving all the time – every two, three, or four years – was extremely hard on the kids. In fact, our middle daughter had written that they were so scared to go to school the first day, that they went to bed together and held each other’s hands.
Jeanne: But as traumatic as it was, all three say today that it made them stronger. They are very independent, strong women, and they do credit a lot of that with having to be the new kid
Another thing is just getting the families or spouses of deployed soldiers together. When our daughter’s husband went to Iraq, it was hard for her to meet other wives whose husbands were deployed. If the Church set up coffees, little gatherings, or something where they could initially get together; then they could take it from there. You need the support of someone who is going through the same thing.
Gary: It depends on the community. If you have a lot of families of deployed, you can do a lot, but if you have five families out of 800, they tend to fall by the wayside. We pray for them every Sunday in our intentions, and the book is there; but outside of that there wasn’t anything for them.
Jeanne: Something our priest does is when soldiers attend Mass, he takes time at the end to welcome them, and the church gives them a standing ovation. Our son-in-law laughs about being embarrassed, but it is good for the family and the children to see that the community appreciates what their dad does.
Gary: We always concentrate on the deployed, and pray for them, but we really need to establish a constant prayer for the ones left behind, because they need our prayers every bit as much.
Jeanne: A lot of enlisted personnel and their families really struggle financially. They may have enough money to live month to month, but their refrigerator goes out, and they don’t have anything extra. That’s another thing the Church can do, if you get to know the families.
Gary: It’s sad in America that our young airmen, in the first five ranks, are on food stamps.
Mike: What about childcare – just watching the children for a few hours – could that be helpful?
Gary: In most daycares, there’s no room for the two hour drop-in. That’s a big deal, if our Churches could step up, just that two hour “go get groceries”
Mike Allen is the Director of Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Lexington, Ky. See www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com for a partial list of counselors who support marriage.