As author Alison Buckholtz tells us at the beginning of her remarkable autobiographical memoir, “Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War,” the pattern for American military wives supporting their husbands goes back to Martha Washington. She set the pattern of supportive conduct that has been scrupulously followed by the generations of officers’ wives who followed her.
A few of these women, listed by Buckholtz in a helpful bibliography, have written books about their experiences. Her contribution to this sparse body of literature may well be the only one written by a Jew.
Buckholtz’s parents are federal government civil servants in the Washington, D.C. area where she lived and worked as a freelance journalist, a communications consultant, and a public relations specialist. She studied English literature for her B.A. degree at the University of Massachusetts and her master’s degree at the University of Virginia. As an undergraduate, she spent a year at Trinity College, Dublin and, in 1997-98, she lived in Jerusalem on a postgraduate fellowship.
In late 2001, with no knowledge about the military, Buckholtz married Scott, a career naval aviator with 15 years of experience in military service. She refused to heed his warnings about the pitfalls of becoming a navy wife. During the early years of their marriage, Scott was stationed at the Pentagon and in Japan. They had two children, Ethan and Esther, now six and four. In the Maryland suburbs, where they lived when Scott was in Washington, D.C., they took the children to Jewish activities, replicating Buckholtz’s experience as a child; going to synagogue, a Jewish Community Center, and a Jewish camp.
In 2006, the family moved to Anacortes, Wash., when Scott became the commanding officer of a Prowler jet squadron at nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. There is no synagogue in Anacortes and practically no Jews. The chaplain’s office referred her to a group of Messianic Jews who maintain a Christian worldview; she succeeded in getting this group removed from the reference list. She and Scott agreed to serve as Jewish lay leaders and she offered Rosh Hashana dinner and Yom Kippur break-the-fast to “other exiles” but no one came. Moreover, Scott was assigned for training on an off-shore aircraft carrier on Yom Kippur. Eventually, they organized a tiny group of Jewish friends who celebrated the Jewish holidays together. She is determined to foster in her children a sense of their Jewish identification.
A good part of the book is devoted to what happened to the family when Scott was away for six months during the early part of the Iraq war. It was almost a rehearsal for the year of separation they now face while Scott is in Baghdad and Buckholtz is back in Potomac, Md. with their children, close to where her parents live.
The problems of being apart and of raising the children without their father are candidly and eloquently described. Also portrayed is the significant support given to each other by navy wives.
Buckholtz vividly and frankly writes about the poignant feelings of loneliness and love experienced by a military wife as she struggles to cope with her children and her own sense of the void in her life. She hopes that her account will help military wives to feel less isolated. Mingling her presentation with good humor, she chronicles the special responsibility she has as the C.O.W. – the commanding officer’s wife.
Her effective rendition of what it means to be a military wife offers special lessons for the general population who have not known compulsory military service for more than 35 years. Although we are involved in two wars, we rely on volunteers to fill the ranks of the armed forces so that most people know very little about the pains and the plight of our soldiers, sailors, aviators, and their families. This book competently and capably fills that void. It deserves to be widely read.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)