“You recruit the soldier, but retain the family.” — Old military axiom

Editor-In-Chief, Chester "Trip" Buckenmaier III, MD,  COL (ret.), MC, USA

Chester “Trip” Buckenmaier III, MD,
COL (ret.), MC, USA

Recently my youngest daughter turned 18, and — for the first time in 22 years — my wife Pam and I were suddenly not responsible for any children. It was likely that this event would have passed without much attention, since we are still financing educations and housing our young adults between semesters. What highlighted this event, however, was a recent vacation we took with no kids (a brief measure or two of the “Hallelujah Chorus” is appropriate here)! What a completely novel idea, the two of us going somewhere we wanted, with nobody to watch out for, like a real couple.

We had decided to take a week off and ride the train up to Philadelphia (Liberty Bell, Constitution Hall, Reading Market) and New York City (NYC-Trevor Noah, “Book of Mormon,” Brooklyn Diner). Although the family had traveled to New York with me many times in the past while I was on a business trip, this was the first time just the two of us were in New York without business meetings to attend. 

During our NYC visit, we went for the first time to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. If you have not visited the National 9/11 Memorial, it is a “bucket list” item, extremely well designed and executed. The family had visited the World Trade Center site a few years after the attack to view the cleanup, which had been very sobering for all.

Like so many Americans whose lives were forever placed on another trajectory by the 9/11 event, this national tragedy had special significance for our family, because it marked the start of our involvement in the recent wars. I was completing my training at Duke in acute pain medicine on the dreadful day of the attack. Our kids were young and not fully able to comprehend the event. I came home to Pam and muttered, “We are at war.” Since I was active duty and Pam had been an Army nurse, neither of us had any illusions about the gravity of that statement for our family. Fact is, since becoming an Army staff physician; I have never known the practice of medicine without war in the federal system.

I was desperate to do something on that day in response to the attacks, repeatedly calling my command back at Walter Reed to see if I could help with casualties but was told that I was not needed. The news mentioned people giving blood in response to the crisis — which was at least something — so I left Pam with the kids to give blood myself. The lines in Durham to give blood that day were so long, it took me eight hours of waiting.

I reminded Pam of that eight hours during our 9/11 memorial visit, and she reminded me of her eight hours alone with the kids watching the disaster unfold on television. Her recollection caused me pause: After all these years, I had never considered her ordeal with the kids on that awful day; I had focused on the implications for me as an Army medical officer. Pam, to her credit, knew how stressful this situation was for me and granted me the eight hours in the Red Cross blood line that I had desperately needed to assimilate the day’s events. She had taken on the family responsibilities so I could do what was needed as a soldier. This situation would be repeated, often for long stretches of time, as my Army career progressed, and Iraq and Afghanistan raged.

Honestly, for me, personally, deployment was not hard. I was doing what I had trained my whole life to do, and I only had to care for myself. There were dangers, certainly, but I often feel more threatened by my commute to work on the DC Beltway then I ever did while deployed. In short, my deployments were like extended Boy Scout camp, tremendously professionally and personally fulfilling, and I look back on that time in my life fondly. For Pam, I have come to understand, memories of that time are not so cheerful. She had to shoulder all of the family responsibilities while caring for our three young children. She carried the burden of a military spouse with a deployed husband in a country that bore no consequences of the wars at home. She often did not know where I was or what I was doing. She had to deal with the frightened children’s tears late at night, concerned for their dad after seeing television images of the war. For Pam, my deployments and even my time “home,” as I worked with casualties at Walter Reed, were no picnic. 

Fact is, I was only able to do my job as an Army medical officer because Pam was doing her job as a military spouse. My kids were doing their jobs as military kids. Only now, in retirement, am I beginning to appreciate who often had the more demanding and difficult responsibilities. 

Many of these ideas were swirling in my head as we walked around the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. The idea for this editorial gelled when we bought tickets for the museum. As a retired veteran, my identification card awarded me free access to the museum, although Pam had to pay full price. I very much appreciate the recognition of a career of military service to this country this gesture represents. However, my wife also carries a permanent military identification card but did not receive the same acknowledgment. This situation seemed deeply flawed, in my opinion. Military servicemembers defend us in our nation’s wars, but it is the military family who prepares them, maintains their home while away and receives them back (sometimes very broken). As a nation, how can we possibly be less indebted to these patriots that make up our military families?

We do, indeed, recruit soldiers, but it is the families we retain that provide our fighting force their motivation to defend all of us. Military families are the support system that allows the servicemember to focus on the mission. As federal medicine providers, we should recognize that caring for military dependents is no less important than caring for servicemembers, if we are to achieve our goal of preserving the fighting strength. The sacrifice of our military servicemembers is often painfully obvious and deserves the gratitude of the nation, but that should not detract from the service provided by our military families, and they should be as vigorously honored.