How to leave a soldier

The war on terror may be impossible to resolve. Ending my marriage was easy

Published February 1, 2010 2:01AM (EST)

You'd be surprised how easy it is to leave a soldier on deployment. You can do it with a letter. (He can't argue with you. He doesn't have a phone.) If you lay the groundwork early, saying to the soldier before he leaves, "This will be the end of us, we might as well admit it," it's that much easier. The letter won't even come as a shock.

And if you have children with that soldier? You can handle all that with a letter, too. He'll write it -- because he cares about the kids, because he wants to work with you to do what's best for them even though you're leaving him -- and you'll give it to them. Here again, you will avoid a nasty confrontation. Who will they cry to? You? You're just the teary-eyed bearer of the letter. Him? The one who's sweating it out in the desert?

There will be no moving truck, no boxes, no house torn asunder. The soldier is peeing in a bucket as you pack. He doesn't care who gets the couch.


I can chart the entire history of my first marriage along the lines of U.S. military engagements. I fell in love with my ex-husband in no small part because he was a soldier. He was a Dartmouth senior on a ROTC scholarship, and his heroes were George Patton and Ulysses S. Grant. He could use words like "valor" and "courage" without irony. I liked the way he carried himself -- taller it seemed, and with honor.

He was from Oklahoma, I was from Wyoming, and Dartmouth was a culture shock for both of us. We were public high school kids who'd grown up driving pickup trucks and going to church on Sunday. We came from families who ate hot breakfasts together and said prayers over dinner. I was a wide-eyed freshman, experiencing Virginia Woolf and Henry David Thoreau for the first time. John was slightly more worldly. He was in a coed fraternity and owned a motorcycle -- things that raised eyebrows at the weekly Campus Crusade for Christ meetings we both attended. I didn't pay attention to their warnings.

Seven months later I was pregnant, married (in that order) and living in a motel room outside of Fort Knox, Ky. John, a newly minted second lieutenant, Armor Branch, had been activated the day after his graduation as part of Operation Desert Shield. I was traumatized, having moved overnight from the campus and freedom I had only just started to enjoy, but even then full of the resolve that would take me back to Dartmouth full-time, baby in tow. It helped that the other lieutenants in the Armor Officer Basic Course spent a lot of time with us in our married officer's quarters. They were great, smart, handsome guys -- the Channing Tatums and Jake Gyllenhaals of their day -- as committed to winning their squadron intramural football league as they were to the complexities of tank gunnery and platoon leadership. Since they'd left their sweethearts at home, my unborn baby and I were the local version of what they were fighting for. Soon I too was caught up in the romance that comes with men who go off to war, seduced by the heady mix of youth, strength, risk and passion that makes loving a soldier so beautifully intense. It's the same brew that fuels the drumbeat sexuality in contemporary war movies like "Jarhead" and "Atonement," last December's "Brothers," and, one would presume, the upcoming "Dear John." It's a glory we can't get enough of -- until it's gone.


Desert Storm ended just 11 days after the birth of our son, but within weeks John and I were facing a wrenching tragedy. My husband's brother, a U.S. Navy pilot, was killed in a training accident leaving behind my new sister-in-law, and their daughter and baby son. My husband had to drop out of training to be at his own brother's funeral. I spent most of the memorial service watching my dead brother-in-law's children play in the nursery. I was still learning how to breast-feed.

Just two years later, at Christmas, John deployed to Somalia. I was commuting between Fort Drum, N.Y., and Dartmouth, finishing up my senior year, writing an honors thesis -- most of which I wrote with my 2-year-old son on my lap. One hundred and fifty inches of snow fell at Drum that winter. I wore my husband's sweat shirts and shoveled pathways and researched medieval literature. My husband went on armed reconnaissance missions. There were no phones in the desert. Letters took weeks and weeks to arrive.

He made it home in time to be at my graduation, but a year and a half later he deployed again, this time to the U.S. peacekeeping mission in Haiti. I was pregnant again, and morning sick, living full time at Fort Drum, gagging while I struggled to make simple meals for our 3-year old. I was grateful to the other wives in my husband's unit who took time to introduce themselves and lend a hand, but upstate New York was a cold place for a 23-year-old bookish mother of two to be alone.

John's next assignment was Korea, an unaccompanied tour, which meant that we could not go with him. It began when our new baby daughter was 6 weeks old. While he was there we could only afford to talk by phone once or twice a month; there were no digital wonders like e-mail and video chat then. When my husband came back it felt odd to see him holding our daughter. It was as though she was in the arms of a handsome stranger. It felt odd to have him sleeping in what had become my bed.

We decided enough was enough. John would go on reserve status. We would put each other through grad school and get jobs in the private sector. For a while it worked. We were a couple again. We cooked and ate dinner together, took our kids trick-or-treating at Halloween. At night we sat close and watched movies. When our son decided to whistle "Oh My Darlin'" for the school talent show, John was there.

Then came 9/11. My husband, like so many others, saw the attacks as a call to action. He went back on active duty and volunteered for a tour in Egypt. Our children were old enough to miss their father now. I put a calendar up in the kitchen so we could check off the days, took them both for cupcakes to cheer them up as we walked home from kindergarten. A part of me was proud of how brave we were all being. The other part was weary with being brave. I took a job at an independent bookstore and started spending time with the young, funny, book-reading guys I met there. When John came back things were awkward. I couldn't stop myself from being angry, couldn't help feeling abandoned.

Orders to Iraq were inevitable, and it was a real war this time, not just another peacekeeping mission. I knew from experience what my life would again look like: the inadequate, sporadic phone calls, the grinding frustration of single parenting, the loneliness of being both partnered and partnerless. What I was unprepared for was photos of suicide bombings in the Times, television ticker headlines that nagged at me wherever I went, and worse beyond all imagining, the way the war dragged on and on and on.

My life and my kids' lives became still more challenging. I'd just started a career-track teaching position. Our son was starting junior high and playing football. I wasn't the parent he wanted around for advice. Our daughter was riding the school bus for the first time by herself. She started getting stomachaches and having nightmares. It was too early in the war to expect phone calls or many letters, and around that absence the children kept an awkward silence that I could not break no matter how I tried. I felt helpless, haunted by the image of two uniformed soldiers ringing my doorbell to tell me the same thing they'd told my sister-in-law -- that my husband was dead. Killed in action. It was a phrase that rattled around in my head. I felt angry that I had to be afraid. Guilty for being angry.

Meanwhile I was just 30 years old, working with teenage students, surfing all of their exuberant, sexy, rowdy energy. I was teaching the great literary love stories in class, and coaching Ultimate Frisbee in the exhilarating spring air. On weekends my book-reading friends from the bookstore stopped by. We made dinners together, spent evenings talking and laughing. I liked it that we had so many things to talk about. I liked it that they were near.

My husband was a world away from me. After 12 years of distance it felt as though he always would be. I was worn out with waiting. So I left him.


I don't think, actually, that the romance of the war hero is a lie, that the courage and strength that blaze out of our soldiers' eyes is fool's gold, nor that we are wrong to fall in love with them for the beauty of it. I believe, with President Obama, that force is sometimes necessary and that to believe so is not cynical, but rational. Since I believe this, I believe in the good and noble soldier. But the truth about what loving and partnering with this soldier is like over a long period of time is tougher. Loyalty and sympathy to my husband I had plenty of. Affection has abode to this day. Erotic love was different for me. More fragile.

The wounds did heal pretty clean. John is a lieutenant colonel now, and while we were once good, we are now better. He lives in Stuttgart, Germany, with his new wife and twin baby daughters, and we e-mail and call each other often. He tells me about taking our kids and the babies to Paris and Frankfurt. I send him photos of our daughter's field hockey games. When our son graduated high school last June we stood side by side.

I am married to a lithe, blue-eyed Marxist whose dissertation was on U.S. imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a man who participated in war protests in Santa Cruz, Calif., during the winter I lived at Fort Knox. He has two children of his own -- bright, intense redheads, close in age to mine. I live with him in a tiny apartment in Manhattan, and when we can, we commute together to work. On weekends if we are not at a museum or movie together, we are at home right up next to each other.

Yet I didn't escape what it feels like to love a soldier.

Last July my son, the baby that was born to television coverage of Operation Desert Storm, said goodbye to his high school friends, shaved his head and enrolled in the United States Naval Academy. I am deeply proud of him, but it was my ex-husband who stood with my son on Induction Day. I could not bear to be there, could not watch the child of my body step away from the safe, civilian world I'd tried to so desperately to create for myself and him.

At the end of the day, my children's father called me to tell me that our son was already standing straighter and taller in his new uniform, that he'd handled the equipment issue, medical tests, immunizations and drills without any trouble.

"He will be OK," his Dad said. "It will be the making of him."

I believe my former soldier, but I'm afraid of what it's going to feel like to love my new one. 

Courtney Cook writes about modern family life. Her memoir-in-progress is called "Just Mixed Up Enough." She blogs at


By Courtney Cook

Courtney Cook writes about modern family life. Her memoir-in-progress is called "Just Mixed Up Enough," and she blogs at

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