How to destroy a soldier's life

I came across an article on Salon entitled “How to leave a soldier” that has apparently been making ripples across the blogosphere. It absolutely infuriated me, and I knew I had to write about it.

Before I get into the article, though, let me explain some things in the interest of full disclosure. My significant other is a Marine. We live together in North Carolina while he’s stationed at Camp Lejeune. He’s an 0311 (infantry rifleman) who has been to Iraq twice and is deploying to Afghanistan this year. The first year of our relationship was long distance, with him in North Carolina and me in Florida. We’re together now, but the Corps brings us apart occasionally for training and such, and of course, for deployments. Never, ever would I do something so cowardly as to send him a Dear John letter while he was deployed.

But that’s exactly what this woman did. Meet Courtney Cook, an extraordinarily shallow and callous woman.

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.

So they fell in love, got pregnant, and then got married. Her then-husband was activated due to Operation Desert Shield. Long story short, she ended up not having a clue what she was getting into and wanted to leave her husband because she couldn’t handle the separation.

Now, I know firsthand how difficult a relationship in the military is. I don’t begrudge someone who acknowledges that they can’t handle it. It takes a special kind of person to be able to endure this lifestyle. Camp Lejeune is full of women who make it through with grace, dignity, and class — and women who just couldn’t do it. There’s no shame in admitting that you just can’t handle it. A lot of people, especially 18-year-olds who don’t come from a military background, just don’t fully realize what they’re getting into when they marry someone who is active-duty military. I don’t personally believe it means they should take the easy way out and leave, but I don’t think it makes them a bad person, either.

Now, on to Ms. Cook’s essay. We’re going to take this bit by bit, because the entire article is long and doesn’t need to be excerpted. So with that, away we go…

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.

Here we start to get a hint of just how shallow this woman truly is. Perhaps its just me, but when you’re comparing soldiers and military life to actors and movies, something is wrong. Sure, Jake Gyllenhaal and Channing Tatum have played soldiers on the big screen. It doesn’t make them anything remotely similar to actual soldiers. Nor is military life anything like “Atonement”, “Jarhead”, or “Brothers”. Most people, even civilians, would understand that (wouldn’t you think?). It seemed to me to be the first hint of just how shallow this woman is — and that she was going to doom her marriage with romantic, unrealistic expectations.

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.

Here we get out first hint of another recurring theme throughout the essay. Everything is all about me, me, me.

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.

I guess apparently he should have just ignored the worst attack ever on American soil, that killed almost 3,000 innocent people. It makes you wonder: she says that valour and courage are important to her, but the very moment when her husband showed those traits she was angered by it.

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.

Could her feelings of anger and abandonment possibly be exacerbated by the fact that she spent his deployment hanging around “young, funny, book-reading guys”. What is her implication here, that her husband is old, boring, and dumb? And while I can’t speak for her ex-husband, I can say without a doubt that the vast majority of Marines I know would be furious if they came home to find out their wife had been spending their deployment with other men, regardless of whether or not she was actually cheating. It looks bad and causes jealousy and suspicion. The soldier or Marine starts worrying that their wife was being kept warm by Jody while they were gone.

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.

Just that simple. She was tired of waiting, and so she just left. And how did she leave? She sent him a Dear John letter, and then made him send a letter to their children explaining, that she then gave to them, rather than at least having the guts to tell her children herself that she was leaving Daddy.

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.

Tells you just about all you need to know, doesn’t it? She went from a man who proudly defended his country and answered the call of freedom, to a Marxist who protested war.

But these passages above were just the tip of the iceberg. I now present to you the two worst parts of this entire essay.

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.

Yes, Heaven forbid she support her son because he had the audacity to join the military. It really tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it? She leaves her husband and the father of her children via a Dear John letter and then refused to support her son, both because of the military. Yet she gets off on the image of our soldiers. She gets off on Jake Gyllenhaal in “Jarhead”. She wants the uniform, but isn’t interested in the honor and the courage it takes to earn the right to wear it.

Finally, here is the worst passage. Interestingly, they’re also the opening paragraphs.

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.

It isn’t enough for her to be this callous, shallow, superficial, and selfish. She’s recommending other women do the same thing, too. One of the worst parts about this is that she feels like it was a good thing to tell him while he’s away at war that she’s leaving him. She presumably doesn’t care about the effect this has on soldiers while they’re deployed. They’re over there fighting for their lives, and she thinks it’s a smart move to saddle them with this while they’re in the middle of that? You’ve got to be a pretty damn low person to not care about the extra stress you’re putting on someone that’s fighting a war and risking their life, all because you don’t want to deal with telling them face-to-face that your marriage is over. Soldiers fighting a war don’t need the added stress of knowing that the person who they think is waiting for them has abandoned them. She abandoned him for a Marxist, and then abandoned her son when he didn’t conform to the life she wanted. Her husband sounded consistent in his morals and values throughout the duration of their marriage. She, on the other hand, seemed to grow to hate the military to the point where she couldn’t even support her own son because he decided to join.

It’s sad, because there are many people out there who hold the same contempt for the military in their hearts. These men and women put their lives on the line, and yet they unfortunately are treated so low by so many. And only on a liberal website like Salon would this be featured.

This article is despicable because it’s really a how-to manual of how to ruin a soldier’s life, not just how to leave him. But for someone so self-absorbed, what does it really matter if she leaves a soldier’s heart shattered in her selfish, cowardly wake?

Cross-posted from Cassy’s blog. Stop by for more original commentary, or follow her on Twitter!