Book Review: While They’re at War

Deployment means uncertainty. You don’t know squat to begin with. The Army doesn’t tell you much more. What they do tell you changes every 24 hours. Some information will be given “later” but nobody knows when “later” is. Rumors muddy the already murky waters. You scrabble for basic facts and flail through a morass of red tape at every step.  The Army deployment handbook for families only offers general advice in large print over a few short pages. You cobble a bit of information together from various websites, but half is outdated or incorrect (and you don’t know which half). Others ask again and again for the same information you don’t have and can’t get, reminding you of the problem and compounding the frustration.

A military spouse somewhere out in internet-land recommended While They’re at War by Kristin Henderson as preparatory reading for spouses of deploying personnel, and also as an informational read for their friends and relatives. Written by a Marine chaplain’s wife, the book follows several military families as they deal with deployments from start to finish. While many books focus on the war zone, this one looks at the home front: routine challenges, worst-case scenarios, typical days, supportive communities, joyful reunions, and the often-overlooked aftermath. This is not a handbook to help your family physically prepare for deployment. It doesn’t deal with the process or logistics and offers no help for the chaotic cycle of notification, gear collection, out-processing, training, and waiting. Instead, it thoroughly examines deployment’s stressful pressure and mental effects on spouses.

I recommend against reading this book if you’re already prone to anxiety or imagining worst-case scenarios. It covers realities from the war zone and the home front: spouses slipping into suicidal depression, the dreaded knock at the door, wounds, post traumatic stress disorder, and relationship problems.  However, it’s refreshing (if wrenching) to have the issues already on the back of everyone’s mind placed on the table one by one, examined, and dealt with. The book brushes aside the vague clouds of dread floating around each “what if” and moves straight into the “it happened, so now what?”solutions from actual families. In addition, it gives a good look at the mundane issues that affect almost every spouse left behind – anticipatory grief, finding ways to stay busy, and seeking support. 

While They’re at War can be a very negative read since it focuses primarily on the challenges of deployment. Comparatively few families ever have to deal with the worst case scenarios, and many spouses have more community support than those in the text. In addition, the book dates back to early in the Iraq war so some things have shifted. However, those points aside it’s still very relevant as Ms. Henderson examines common reactions and mental states and helps spouses identify and cope with them rather than slipping into a downward spiral. In the spirit of “forewarned is forearmed”  it’s a worthwhile read for spouses, family, and friends.

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One thought on “Book Review: While They’re at War

  1. Yeah, my sister hated that book, but I like to look at all the possible scenarios to be (somewhat) prepared…can you ever be prepared for the worst possible news? I also wanted my mom to read it so she would have some inkling of the stress of deployment. I don’t know that she ever did. And yes, things change every year in the military as they adapt to accomodate complaints or to streamline procedures. The book is nearly 5 years old now.

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