(Part 1 of 4) Some months ago, I found myself sitting at a conference table with many well dressed, important people who work in veterans’ services. We were gathered together to provide feedback and guidance on a national campaign to retell the stories of veterans, with an emphasis on bridging the military-civilian divide. The topic is one that I believe in deeply, and one to which I dedicate my personal and professional life. As the spouse and caregiver of a veteran, the military-civilian divide describes the limbo in which I spend most of my days.
To me, the military-civilian divide is the embarrassment of ingratiating myself to landlords after they review our application and surmise my husband must be one of those crazy vets based on the VA award letter. It is explaining to a civilian doctor, for the fifth time through clenched teeth, why we can’t just “have the VA call them if there’s an issue” when preparing documentation for a disability rating review. It’s the sidelong glances we get when we take the subway to a gala, my husband trying to look as comfortable as possible in his dress uniform. It’s the polite nod and swift exit when another civilian spouts radical conservative rhetoric and assumes we must agree because, you know… the military.
Sitting in a room with individuals who share these experiences can be freeing. There’s less explaining, and often times fewer assumptions to rail against. Yet, if experience has taught me anything, even within seemingly “safe” spaces there are certain topics that individuals are happy to gloss over. So it was when the inevitable question was asked during our meeting, “Where are all the caregivers and spouses? Why aren’t they at the table, and how can we reach out to them?”
The question is well founded, but the answer is more complicated than most want to acknowledge. Throughout the group’s discussion about how to retell veteran’s stories, and what audiences to target in this process, the vital role of caregivers and spouses came up repeatedly. Veterans and veteran’s service organizations often speak about the role that spouses and caregivers play, waxing poetic that “the wives and caregivers are the true heroes. They sacrifice so much and work without recognition.” Unfortunately, this sentiment doesn’t often translate into meaningful conversations about the lived experience of military spouses and caregivers.
When individuals at the table asked why it was so difficult to get spouses and caregivers to join discussions about broader veteran’s issues, I sighed with the weight of too many hours spent explaining my existence as a feature in my husband’s story. I wanted to ask, Is this storytelling project about the experiences of veterans AND spouses and caregivers? Or is it an initiative to collect veterans’ stories? Because there is a patent difference between asking for the stories of spouses and caregivers, versus asking for veteran’s stories and including spousal and caregiving stories as a facet of that topic. I know the difference because I watched my own story get lost in that lapse.