Those Who Stand and Wait
by Jake Block
“When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
— Sonnet 19 (John Milton)
They say that the toughest job in the military is being a military spouse. The reason for this is that the service member might be the one in the line of fire, anywhere around the world, and that is “just part of the job” of being one of the troops of the United States, or any other nation whose troops are engaged in hostile action, but the spouse of that troop is always left at home to wait and wonder if their spouse is alright, or if they have been injured or killed in the line of duty. This, of course, also extends to those who we rely upon for our safety and security in the civilian sector as well; our policemen, firemen, and National Guardsmen tasked with our daily safety and security.
Those of you who know me are aware that I served in the military for 20 years, with two tours in Vietnam. During that time I was married, and my parents and siblings were aware when I was in harm’s way, more or less, in Vietnam and elsewhere around the world. In those times, you don’t really think about it. You are concerned more with getting the job done safely and getting yourself and your troops back home, alive and well. Years later, after I retired, my mother told me that during the times I was in some area of conflict, she would never watch the news on TV, and she lived in dread of seeing a military sedan pull into the driveway, delivering the message that I was dead.
Most military men don’t see that much fear from their husbands and wives when they are in a combat zone or deployed to an area of conflict. The isolate nature of deployments limits it, as does the natural tendency of people to play down any fear or anxiety they might feel, so as not to further stress their loved ones in harm’s way. My parents, who had been around during WWII and the Korean Conflict never sent me bad news from the family while I was in Vietnam, cautiously guarding whatever peace of mind I might have, in an attempt to spare me any more stress in an already stressful situation. There were plenty of stressful moments when I received mail from my wife and friends, but I knew that there was little I could do from 8,500 miles away.
Those who are in harm’s way on the home front are acutely aware that their families and friends know of their plight and the angst that is generated by knowing the danger their loved one is in, and not being able to help them in any way. Police, involved in violent confrontations with criminals, or in the handling and suppression of riots or other mob actions face dangers as deadly as any soldier on any battlefield in the world. Those who stand and wait for them to return home know the fear of that sedan pulling into their driveway, or the call summoning them to the bedside of their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, or sisters of brothers. Their job is dangerous. It can be expected that things like this can happen to them as part of the job.
But there are also “civil servants” connected with the enforcement of codes and laws that are out there in the field. We don’t expect them to be in harm’s way from violent or lawless people. Mostly we fear injury to them from accidents or natural causes… acts of god, they are often called… no malevolence… just bad luck. This makes it even more fearful and stressful when they are involved in incidents of violence to which they were never intended to experience, when their lives are put in harm’s way and the consequences can indeed be deadly. I can tell you from personal experience as one who would stand and wait, the fear one feels as the danger unfolds is real and palpable.
Britt and I were chatting via Messenger, recently when she abruptly announced. “I’m being called in for a man with a gun. I’ll check in when I can.” I told her, “Please BE SAFE, and I love you,” but she was already on the move. Britt is a “public servant,” and an Animal Control Officer. It’s not uncommon for her to be involved in the routine removal of animals from minor crime scenes, or in response to a civil complaint. We are sometimes interrupted on line or when we are together. The call could come at any time and she would be out the door responding to whatever emergency she needed to take care of and then, once handled, she would return and life would go on. Sometimes a little drama, sometimes some humor, sometimes a little anger, and yes there were times of danger where she might have to get physical with a vicious animal or problematic human… but the notice, “Man with a gun” immediately launches things into a whole new level.
So, communications gone flat, I sat there for what seemed to be hours, waiting to see the screen react with its little dots, showing an inbound message being composed. Nothing happening… quiet on the web… but I knew that she would be safe. There were armed cops and a SWAT team on the scene. What could possibly go wrong. She’s a non-combatant… surely she would be held back until the area had been cleared by the cops. They should know what they were doing… should is a tricky word, you know. When a .357 Magnum round whizzed past her and slammed into something behind her, she made herself as flat to the ground as she could, and I’m sure she wondered, “Why would rounds be coming from a building that had been cleared?” Another round… she noticed the cops around her adjusting their elevation. They were firing on the attic… and then there was, for a brief moment, a man with a gun on the roof. Two shooters! Then there was one, and soon, the firing stopped. Her body now moved on automatic, snatching up “Captain Ahab,” the catch pole she was known for carrying… also known as the “Mississippi Kneecapper” by those unfortunate enough to attempt to stop her or keep her from completing her assignment. Flanked by armed and alert cops, she made her way into the building to secure any animals that might need to be removed and transported to the shelters.
Now chaos began to give way to order as the crime scene became an investigation site. People began to move more efficiently and less strategically to do their jobs. As she loaded her animals into cages in her van, and stowed her gear, she radioed in that she was ok and safely on the way back to the kennels. Once there, she processed them quickly and efficiently into “the system,” looked them over for injuries and spoke softly to them, helping them decompress from the trauma they were feeling. Paperwork completed, she made sure they were comfortable in their crates and had fresh, cool water to drink and treats to eat. Then she was off to the mandatory action debriefing at police headquarters.
Only now, hours later, did the dots appear on my screen. Time was still running slow and it seemed like long moments before the message posted, “I’m back. I’m ok.” I could finally breathe again. I knew she was safe and unharmed, but it would still be a few hours, after she returned home, took a long, hot shower, a nap and ate something before I would hear her voice on the phone. She seemed a lot calmer than I would have imagined, and she wanted to know if I was OK. The lady has guts.
Even in the military, you spend a minority of time actually under fire, and in most cases, it sometimes feels like just another job. “90% boredom and 10% sheer terror,” I’ve heard it called, but from day one, you have that target on your back, just waiting for someone to sight in on it. You learn to accept that, and you learn to cope with it as just a part of the job. Stressful, sure, and you learn to think along the lines that as long as everyone goes home alive at the end of the day, it’s all good.
Like I told Britt, “Someone shooting at me, no problem. Someone shooting at you, BIG PROBLEM.” In a few hours I finally learned to have an even greater respect for the military spouse who sits at home and waits for that phone call or letter that tells them their loved one in harm’s way is safe. It was nerve wracking. I found that it became the center of my existence for as long as the crisis lasted, and even while talking with her hours later, my heart was in my throat. One can rationalize it and say that it’s a matter of perspective, based on the amount of information that one has on the scene, vs the information one has while waiting at home, but the stressors that one has at home, I think, are more acute. In the field, you know pretty quickly when the danger has subsided, but those who stand and wait might have to wait a long time to know that their loved one is safe, and that life as they know it has not been permanently altered, and not for the best. Thanks to those who answer the call and serve their community and nation… but thanks as well to those who love them and spend those hours, days, weeks, months and even years in fear and waiting.
They also serve.