The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(4)

Written By: Rachel Starnes

So when Ross received a call from the Navy recruiter he’d been talking to with the news that he’d been accepted for OCS, Officer Candidate School, it seemed for me like the end of a lovely, unexpected dream. I knew that he had applied a third time for flight school with the Navy, but I also knew that the odds of acceptance were slim, and that he’d already been rejected without explanation twice, once at the beginning of college and once after he’d finished his degree. I admired Ross’s dream to be a fighter pilot as just that—a dream—and likened it to my own of publishing a short story in The New Yorker. I saw us pitching to our beloved institutions every now and then, remaining largely ignored but better people for the effort. It was New Year’s Eve, we had been dating for six months, and he and I were house-sitting in San Antonio for his older brother. I was sick with the flu and he was all aglow, breathlessly explaining that in another nine months, he’d be heading to Pensacola, Florida, for three months of what amounted to officers’ boot camp.

“Congratulations!” I said, the word feeling like a tight, uncertain cord between us, possibly the beginning of letting him go. I got up to puke, which bought me some time to huddle quietly in the bathroom and not pelt him with questions like “But what about your life? What about your dad? What about us?” As he’d explained it, OCS led directly into two years of flight school, which meant relocating between several different states every eight months or so, and somewhere in there would be a point where the pilots were divvied up into their respective communities—helicopters, large reconnaissance planes, and fighters—which led to more training and eventually an assignment to a squadron in the fleet, leading to a three-year period of on-and-off deployments called the first sea tour. It all blurred together for me into an indefinite series of years in which I had no idea if I played a part. No time for “deepen your relationship and decide if you might eventually like to get married.” How could we continue dating if he was always moving around? And would he honestly have any time or attention left over for me if flight school was as all-consuming as he’d made it seem? On the couch he’d seemed so lit up, so clearly excited and focused.

One thing was clear to me as I heaved and gasped in the bathroom: I wasn’t ready to let him go, but he was most definitely leaving. Whatever came next wouldn’t be easy. I splashed some water on my face and braced myself to be broken up with. When I came back out, he asked, “Will you come with me?”

My relief was so intense that it almost eclipsed the sudden dread and uncertainty that came with it. Nevertheless, the response came out as a question. “Yes?” I can’t remember if we talked about it then, the mechanics of exactly how I was going to tag along—doing what?—living where? I do know that it was at least a week before I finally panicked, weeping into the phone one night that no, I wasn’t crazy about my job, and yes, I could imagine relocating, but what if it didn’t work out?

“We’ll figure it out,” he said, and then, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, “We’d be married.”

Oh. The actual proposal didn’t take place for another five months, on the first day of May 2004, when we were sitting in the botanical garden in Fort Worth making fun of a high school senior leaning against a rock getting his picture taken in his letter jacket, his mom nearby stage-managing with a handful of outfit changes. There had been a huge thunderstorm the night before, and rose petals, millions of them, were stuck to everything, making a carefully tended garden look like it had just rolled out of bed with a hangover. The air was cold, crisp, and bright. It was beautiful. He handed me a ring and asked me to marry him.

Becoming a Navy wife wasn’t something I had spent much time thinking about. Up until I met Ross, I had been fairly certain that marriage was not in my future, or if so, it was part of a distant future, like maybe after a long and tumultuous life of adventure during which I’d thoroughly established my identity and career, a formidable woman of means in my own right and not just So-and-so’s wife who tags along. I’d seen enough of what work-related separations had done to my parents and I had no intention of repeating the pattern.

On top of that, we were now also talking about war, politics, oaths, service, real danger, and sacrifice. Supporting Ross in joining the Navy at a time when our country was at war in the Middle East, a place I’d briefly lived and still felt conflicted about, was a tall order. To say that I believed we were fighting for something more than oil, and that I was willing to underwrite that belief with the life of someone I loved, was something I couldn’t quite do. The best I could offer was that I honored his dream to fly and that service to one’s country, as a principle and as a profession, is noble. “I can live with that,” he’d said. But I wasn’t sure I could. Whatever the course of the war abroad, he and I would have to find some way to maintain peace at home, both in our marriage and in our chosen community. Would either place tolerate someone with as many reservations as I already had?

At its heart, the question of Ross joining the Navy brought up a feeling in me that had become distressingly familiar long before the depression, the drugs, and the expulsion from boarding school made it official: “I don’t belong here.” I felt it as a white, teenage American girl in Saudi Arabia, I felt it as the daughter of an oil rig worker and a public school teacher living among the rich elite in boarding school, and I felt it as the subject of unspoken scandal when I returned, medicated and disoriented, to my hometown public school. And those are just the most tangible examples—looking back, I can see the beginnings of my sense of not belonging taking root years before my family started moving around. Ross was fully committed to going somewhere I was not sure I could follow.

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