We Were Soldiers’ Wives Once… and Young: A Soldier’s Wife Reflects on the Trials and Tribulations of “Old Army” Life
by Elaine Jones
My life as an Army wife…
When growing up in the 1950s in rural North Carolina, I never had any association with the military, having never spent time around military bases or having much contact with military people or their families. In early 1963 however, I had my first real exposure to the military life, when I went with my sister to the train station in Fayetteville, North Carolina to pick up a cousin. There, on the train platform were two sergeants from the 82nd Airborne. They were sharply dressed in their uniforms, keeping a watchful eye out while they performed what was known in those days as “Courtesy Patrol.” The two approached us and we struck up a conversation. One in particular caught my eye, he was originally from Germany and between his accent and the uniform, I was smitten. Over the course of a couple of months we began dating. One thing led to another, and within a year, we were married. I had no idea what marrying a soldier would be like, what an adventure I was about to experience…
Spring Lake, North Carolina
Lean on me was the only “Family Support…”
After a brief marriage ceremony at the court house, we settled into a trailer in Spring Lake, just outside Fort Bragg. Most all of the occupants in the trailer park were military couples and it appeared as if almost every woman in the trailer park was expecting. With one exception, a young single soldier lived in one of the trailers. One day, one of the women in the trailer park suddenly went into labor. Unable to contact her husband, with no family present, the only individual at the time with a car was the young single soldier. He was asked if he would take the woman to the hospital and he agreed, but only if another woman accompanied them. Another of the woman’s friends jumped in and away they drove. On the way to the hospital, the baby arrived in the back seat. Mother and baby both were fine. Later, the word got around to the other women that the young soldier who had offered to drive was a little disturbed at having to clean out the back seat of his car. The next month, his trailer was conspicuously empty. We assumed with all the pregnant women walking around that trailer park, he wasn’t setting himself up for another delivery repeat.
Bless this Lord, our daily bread…
Military Pay wasn’t much to live on. My husband was a sergeant, and in those days he brought home very little money, only about $250 a month. Many young NCOs worked second or third jobs after duty just to make ends meet. Unless you budgeted very carefully, near the end of the month, you were often in financial trouble. That’s when the trips to the pawn shop began…things got so bad one month, my steam iron was hocked so that we would have enough money for a little food. There was no Army Emergency Relief fund that soldiers’ families could depend on in those days. The well-known expression heard was that “Uncle Sam didn’t issue you a wife” meaning you were on your own with family financial problems. When food ran low, my friend, a young German girl, and I would scrape together whatever we had in order to make ourselves lunch.
“Home is where the Army sends you.”
It was also during this time, that I learned how to spit shine jump boots. Paratroopers were always expected to look sharp, but my husband absolutely hated to shine boots. I made a deal with him, if he would do the dishes, I would shine his boots. He showed me how to melt the polish in the tin lid, apply the polish and use a cotton ball and bring it to a high gloss shine. It was the perfect arrangement, I had some peace and quiet outside on the door step shining boots, while my husband scrubbed the pots and pans. Apparently, I mastered the skill, after one inspection, my husband came home and told me that the First Sergeant wanted to know who was shining his boots because they looked so good! Life as an Army wife is often about burden sharing.
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Home is where the Army sends you…
While stationed at Fort Bragg, my husband got into a little trouble. One afternoon he was pulled over by the Military Police for speeding on post. Normally this type of infraction would not be such a serious issue, but recently one of the General’s children had been hit by a speeder on post and now there were serious consequences for speeding. My husband told me he was given a choice, face disciplinary action or volunteer for a new outfit being formed at Fort Benning, Georgia, called the 11th Air Assault Division. So, as fate would have it, we returned to Fort Benning.
The 11th Air Assault Division later reflagged as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
As the Viet Nam conflict was escalating, there was an enormous troop buildup at Fort Benning and with it an influx of families all looking for affordable housing in nearby Columbus, Georgia. We were transferred from Fort Bragg in the summer of 1964 and finding housing became a real nightmare. Property owners in Columbus were renting anything that had a roof and four walls on it. Most of the dwellings were in deplorable condition. When we finally found an apartment in an old, run down two story house in the middle of downtown Columbus, we were ecstatic, at least it was a solid building and not some shack. The house had been divided into six tiny apartments. The manager and his family lived in the right side of the first floor. Across the hall from them were two apartments occupied by soldiers with wives from Korea. We rented an upstairs apartment consisting of only three rooms, a bedroom, kitchen and a living room. Across the hall lived another soldier and his French wife.
Behind the large house was a makeshift wooden structure that served as another apartment which was occupied by a soldier and his wife from South Carolina. None of these so called “apartments” had air conditioning. At the end of the hallway on the second floor was a bathroom which consisted of a bathtub, a toilet and a single sink. It was a communal bathroom, used by all four families. I hated it and it was always filthy. I posted a sign on the wall imploring those using the toilet to please flush after using it, my request often went unheeded. I hated using it so much that I had a large pickle jar for my night time use. This was our first home when my first child was born. Many years later, I learned that the old two story house was a historical Civil War era home “The Rankin House” owned by a prominent Columbus planter and businessman James Rankin. In 1968, it had been donated to the Columbus Historical Society for restoration. Many years later I returned to Columbus and was in awe at how the house had been transformed back to its earlier splendor. I often wondered if visitors who toured the house museum had any idea what life was like for those of us living there during those times.
Rankin House (now a historic home in Columbus Georgia)
War changes everything, and everyone…
After a short stay in the Rankin house, we moved into a converted garage that was made into a single family apartment. After that, we moved again and this time into a small duplex. Two months after my second child was born, my husband was shipped to Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry Division. With two infants, and a pet dog, my brother drove down to Georgia to help me move closer back home while my husband was away in Vietnam. We packed the children, the dog, all of our worldly possessions into his car and drove back up to Fort Bragg.
When you say goodbye to a loved one that leaves for war, you expect them to return as you remember them. That wasn’t my experience. You find that the war has changed that person forever. The emotional adjustments are not easy as you try to continue a so-called “normal” life. While separated from family, making close friends, especially during war time, is rare.
After a year, my husband redeployed from Vietnam. In those days, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) was less well-known and recognized. My husband returned from Vietnam a deeply changed man. He was more distant, less engaged and suffered from angry outbursts. We had a small pet dog who stayed in the back yard of our house. In the corner of the yard, a small portion of the fence was missing and the dog often crawled out through the opening. Shortly after he returned, my husband had difficulty sleeping. Many nights he would sit by the window alone, staring into the yard, waiting for the dog…just waiting for it to try and slip out of the fence. When the dog would start toward the fence and try and get under it, he would burst into the back yard, grab the poor dog and beat it. This went on for several weeks until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I plugged the fence as best I could and begged my husband to get professional help. I honestly believe he wanted to get help, but he said that if he sought professional help, the Army would look unfavorably on it and it would jeopardize his career.
We struggled through that period. My husband did his best to suppress and control the effects of his PTSD. People struggle, you struggle, and everyone changes.
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