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January 26, 2011

Interview with Keri Smith

by K. Tsetsi

–by Kristen Tsetsi

Keri Smith, 31, works in Human Resources for the U.S. Government. She is a 31-year old mother of two sons, Taylor the “sweetheart” and Gavin the “smart-ass,” and, she writes at her blog site The Glamorous Life of an Army Wife, “I happen to be married to a soldier in the Army.”

LIFT: Why that phrasing, “I happen to be…”?

KERI: I got married to a soldier at a young age, only 19. I had yet to develop my own identity, and here I was, a mother and a wife. I see too often that
military spouses fall in to that “space between” where they have gotten married young and never developed their own lives and goals, and then they have issues later in life trying to figure out who they are. You are NOT your husband’s career. That was a choice that he made for his job. The military takes so much of my husband from me, but they won’t define me by slapping on an “Army Wife” title. I am a daughter, a caregiver, a writer, a mother, a friend… but none of these one things say who I am as a person, and what I have done with my life. I like to find my own way.

LIFT: I think people tend to believe a person is either a proud military spouse who identifies him- or herself as such, or someone who shuns all association in an effort to remain fiercely independent. Is there a middle ground, and if so, what is that middle ground?

KERI: The middle road is the one I take when associating with the military. They say, “Everything in moderation.” That’s a great way to think about it. I see my husband come home in uniform every day, I live on an Army base, I work for the Army as a civilian. It definitely has an influence in my life, but the majority of my close friends are not military affiliated, nor is my family, so we don’t really discuss it. We are about to start recruiting duty in a few months, so it will be a shift in our lives, not having a military community that we are living in. Thrust back out in to the civilian world, it will be interesting to see the differences it makes in our lives.

LIFT: What elements of being a military family do you most enjoy?

KERI: I love that we are well-traveled, have friends all over the world, and we are adaptable. I am spell-bound by my sons (one of whom is autistic), and
how they manage to cope with 9 houses and 6 schools in twelve years, and
still make the honor roll. We are stronger and closer than most families,
whether military or civilian. I don’t wear a uniform, but I like the pride I
feel in giving part of my life to serve my country.

LIFT: People who find the idea of recognizing (not honoring, but recognizing) the Military Family as TIME’s Person of the Year unrealistic might say the military family hasn’t had its own impact on our culture – not the same way the military has. How do you respond to that?

KERI: They say “behind every strong man, there is a strong woman.” Without a family back home to support them, our soldiers wouldn’t make it through war.

They wouldn’t have a soul left to keep them human. These soldiers are
training to be machines in battle. The things they see and experience change
them forever. Sometimes it’s the homemade drawings from their children, the card from their mom, the perfume on a letter from their wife…little things
that remind them what they are sacrificing for and makes them focus on
getting the job done. We are the unsung heroes, and I don’t mind saying
that. Even when my husband isn’t overseas, he is gone for months during the
year on training, field exercises and schools. My children and I serve our
country by sacrificing our husband and father. My sons would probably say
having an absentee dad had quite an impact on their lives.

LIFT: How many times has your husband been deployed in x number of years?

KERI: Out of 13 years in the army, we’ve gone through 2 deployments to Iraq. I can honestly say that I am thankful it’s “only” been 2, and that we were already married for 5 years the first time he went. I consider us lucky because we had a chance to have our children and establish a life together before he had to be gone that long.

LIFT: What bothers you the most during deployments?

KERI: When people ask if I’ve heard about the bombing in Iraq that day, or the soldiers who were killed. They want to know if I’ve seen the news. Believe
me, there isn’t anything going on that I’m not aware of. If my husband
didn’t call me by a certain time of day, I knew something had happened to
someone in his unit. I just had to wait to see if it happened to him. I have
had several phone calls with my husband (while he was overseas) interrupted
by explosions and a dead line. I am well aware of what is most likely
happening around him. I understand people are curious, but if you are
talking to the wife or husband of a soldier who is deployed, stay positive
and encouraging.

LIFT: Does it get easier every time?

KERI: When I was a young army wife (19 years old!), I used to look at the
“veteran” wives in horror when they would say they were used to their
husband being gone! Now that I’ve been through it, I don’t know if I would
say easier, but I am used to it. It’s different every time. When you have
small children, it is definitely tough. You have no one to step in and help
you out. If you move home to be near family during the deployment, you feel
isolated because no one understands what you are going through.

Sometimes it helped just to see other soldiers in uniform.

You also sacrifice your independence by moving back with your parents. I made that mistake the first deployment. The second deployment, I stayed in my own house and I worked full time. Staying busy kept my mind more occupied and made time pass more quickly. It won’t get easier to say goodbye to the man that you love, but you can make it more tolerable by creating a life for yourself in his absence.

LIFT: How would you describe what you think and feel for the duration of a deployment? That is, how do you sleep/how does an average day feel/what do you feel that people you encounter may not necessarily see?
KERI: I never really had too much sleep. Part of it was the stress and no one to convey it to. My husband is my best friend. No matter how bad of a day I have, when I know that I have him to come home to, it makes it all better.

When he’s gone and I don’t have that reassurance, it takes a toll. It becomes easy to turn yourself off emotionally, rather than risk breaking down and being weak. You have to be such a rock…for your kids, your husband, even your in-laws. You can’t complain to your husband that you had a bad day, because he will always win that contest! It puts things in perspective for you to look at it like that, but it doesn’t mean it makes it easier to deal with. Over the deployment, it becomes easier to detach from things. But when they come home, it adds stress because you wonder how you can let down your guard to need him again. I usually have to have a really good cry a few months after he gets home to “wake” myself back up.

LIFT: What do you think others – civilians with no connection to the military – think of the military family? That is, how do you think they perceive them, or what do you think their idea is of the lifestyle?
KERI: I think many of them glide through their day with their yellow ribbon car magnets and “Support the Troops” bumper stickers, and feel like they are truly supporting us.
This is an unprecedented war. During Vietnam and the World Wars, there was more of a sense that the country was in it together.Everyone made sacrifices, from “Meatless Tuesdays” to cars up on concrete blocks to silk stockings for parachutes. Everyone ran the risk of being drafted. It became everyone’s problem. I don’t think the public realizes how many military families have to use food stamps, food banks and public assistance to get by. These men and women who serve our country have to scrape by when they first start out.
The first year I was married, I remember filing our taxes. My husband made $14,000 and we had a baby to support. How does anyone survive on that? I think people need to wake up and get involved. Join the USO. It’s so rewarding to welcome home soldiers returning from war. Organize care package donations. Give your time to a VA hospital. Just DO something to contribute.

LIFT: What do you wish more people understood about the military family?

KERI: I wish people understood how resilient we are, and like our soldiers, we have immeasurable pride in our country. We love to serve and be able to make a sacrifice because we ARE so strong. We can shoulder the weight so that others don’t have to. While the rest of the country sleeps comfortably in their beds, we are awake at night, worrying about the safety of our loved ones. Our children are called “Military Brats” but I think they should be called remarkable.


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