I can hear you cryingFrank Julius
I can sense your fear
And not much longer now baby doll
I am getting near.
I met her when I served in the Navy during the Vietnam war. In those days they used to call it “The Conflict.” Maybe because having a conflict meant that this was a minor problem; that a quick resolution was expected. This way Congress did not have to declare a war; this way we would not be subjected to gas rationing and new taxes. This way the president, all three that were involved in this debacle, could exercise extraordinary powers that they had no legal means of acquiring.
I was a general medical officer in a naval air station. Our job was to keep the crews of multiple aircraft carriers, their dependents, and retired military personnel healthy. I did not get to see many active duty personnel. My forte was watching out for the health and welfare of those left behind, waiting for the return of their loved one.
I did not serve by choice. I was drafted. You could say that I was dragged kicking and screaming into this historic, very controversial theater. I was what could be described as a long-haired left-wing hippie. I wore black armbands, attended war protests, and spent hours discussing the evils of the military with my friends. Overnight I was expected (OK; ordered) to shed my locks, wear a uniform, and salute everything that moved.
What sounds like a recipe for disaster turned out to be a learning opportunity that made a man out of a cocky, self-possessed child. It took me three days on the job to realize that I was dealing with regular people, much like anyone else that I had dealt with in my brief career as a physician, and that I was expected to be a doctor, just like I had always wanted to be.
Except for the fighter pilots. They were not regular folk. Words cannot describe the makeup of these extraordinary human beings. Without exception they were smart, fit, driven, ridiculously brave individuals. Tom Wolfe does a good job of describing their makeup in The Right Stuff, but you have to get to know a dozen of these guys to get an idea of what they are really like. Suffice it to say that it is not easy to land a $30 million dollar ($80 million for an F-35 today) superpowered piece of machinery on a tiny speck of a boat, on a carrier that is bobbing in the middle of the ocean, when it is pitch dark outside. And then there is the small matter of the numerous dangerous explosives that you carry on board, and the thousands of angry people below (some above) who are launching missile after missile trying to kill you.
In those days, the life of a Navy pilot was dangerous. Of course, all of them were aware of what they were up against. Yet they were eager to face these challenges every day. They were doing what they wanted to do. Many of them had nurtured this dream for more than a decade. Training is rigorous. About three out of a thousand applicants for this job make it through. Fighter pilot wives (in those days all fighter pilots were male) also know what they are getting into. Long absences; constant worry; risk-taking behavior that seems to go hand in hand with the profession.
She was tall; elegant; classy. She was articulate and poised. She projected an image of confidence, and yes, some resignation to the life that she had chosen. Her husband had been shot down over North Vietnam. He was one of our POW’s. Everyone on base knew the names of the pilots who had been captured, and who their wives and children were. There was a network of fighter squadron wives and officers who looked after them. Everyone was familiar with this woman, except for the outsider hippie who had been on base for only a month.
What can I do for you?
She explained who she was, and her husband’s status. She wanted a refill on her tranquilizer. She looked to the floor as she spoke, as if she felt guilty about having to take a pill to help herself through.
I looked at her chart. Her last visit had been nine months earlier. She was definitely not a pill taker.
I can get you that refill.
I wrote the prescription. I asked if there was anything else that I could do.
No. She was fine. There was a brief pause. She looked at me. As if trying to convince herself that I could be trusted. For an instant I felt some resentment at this wariness. Then I realized how close-knit this community was. I was a newcomer. She did not know me. I held her gaze and waited.
“It’s just that there are some days…”
You do not understand, I said to myself. Her husband is umpteen thousand miles away, in danger, probably being tortured every day. A hostage: a pawn in the relentlessly cruel game of chess that the men in power had chosen to play with millions of helpless human pieces. And I said that I understand? Of course: I do not understand. I had to learn more about her.
Do you have any feelings about this war? Does it ever feel like a bottomless pit? Do you resent that your husband is being used as a trading piece?
“We signed up to serve.” Emphasis on the “we.” They followed orders and did their jobs. Theirs was not to question why.
Again, I understand. One cannot have each and every officer give his or her opinion on what really should have been done. But to have your loved one’s life be toyed around with?
She answered that she knew what the odds were. She loved her man. She will stand by him. It was that simple. She saw no reason to complicate her thought process further.
I begin to come around to her point of view. Life is hard. We have to stand by each other. There is so much that we have no control of! Today you take care of yourself and your kids; tomorrow you do the same. If you begin to ruminate about how you are being used, or abused, madness will ensue. It is all about the family, the relationship. About staying together even when apart. Once in a while we need that little pill to make some of the awful reality fade a bit.
I thanked her for her courage. I told her that I would do anything possible to help. Maybe if the kids got sick, she could call the dispensary and I would make sure that there would be no wait. I will be here.
She looked surprised. She smiled.
As she left, I thought about the many women, from the birth of humanity, who have been through similar episodes. For thousands of years men have gone away to fight, or have ranged far afield to look for food or loot. They leave behind these brave souls. The women are expected to take care of the children, and bring the crops in, and nurse the animals back to health. If a stranger wanders by and beats them, or robs them, or rapes them, they’re supposed to get up off the ground and go back to their chores, because it’s all about the family; the relationship; the kids. Many men never came back. There was no Skype and no e mail. The women had no way of knowing what happened to them. They could have gotten killed, or taken as slaves, or maybe they found a different woman that they liked. Wives took care of the kids, and made sure that there was food and shelter, and they waited.
And now, in “modern” times, they have to deal with international intrigue. The men in power feel political pressure to bring our boys back. They are pulled in the other direction by people who want to “win” the war, or people who feel that since we’ve wasted thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in these useless endeavors maybe we should fight a little longer, to prove that all of these brave troops did not die in vain. When they prolong the war a few more people die, and we have to avenge them… More men will go away. And the women wait.
As she turned away, I realized that she knew all of this. That she knew that her husband was a pawn, and that his wife was an accessory hostage. She would be courted by politicians of all stripes to voice her support for this or that way to end, or not end, the war. None of them gave a hoot what would happen to her or her husband. There was an election coming up. They wanted to win.
She would not let them manipulate her. She wanted her man back. And she would wait.