They also serve…

“They also serve who only stand and wait” is the famous tag line of John Milton’s poem “On His Blindness.” Asserting his usefulness in the face of a disability not charitably understood in seventeenth century England, Milton’s words became a more broadly applied affirmation of patience and faith when confronting life’s difficult circumstances,

That famous line has come to mind recently as my daughter Leora’s husband Yoni, a Lieutenant in the US Navy Chaplain Corps, prepares to embark on a six-to-eight month deployment at sea. Their first posting, which I’ve written about in this space, was six years ago in Okinawa, Japan. Then came three years at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis- a lot closer to home, and a charming city as well. What follows now is a ship- the USS Oak Hill- based in Norfolk, Virginia, but going out to sea for an extended period. Whither goes the ship, goes my son-in-law. Undoubtedly, in his role as a Jewish Chaplain, he will be servicing other ships in the deployment as well.

Leora has found herself in an awkward transitional time. Leaving Annapolis was not a matter of choice, and moving to Norfolk as Yoni prepared to deploy for an extended period made no sense. So….rather than move into an apartment in Norfolk now, with her husband away and no community of friends yet established, my wife and I invited Leora, our three-year-old granddaughter Calanit, four-month-old granddaughter Meirav, and eight-year-old granddog Penny to live with us for the duration of Yoni’s deployment. Though her in-laws live close by to Norfolk and are loving and supportive, my synagogue has a Nursery School that Calanit can attend, and Forest Hills is the community that Leora grew up in, and that she knows well. It just made sense for her to move in, and we are happy to be able to support her, and Yoni, during this separation. As of a few weeks ago, she and her children are officially living in Forest Hills.

As we all adjust to this new reality, there are many schedule modifications to be made. Some are simple; others demand greater patience. After a brief period of empty nesting, my wife and I have been returned to the routines of having young children (and a dog!) around. No meal is just a matter of whatever happens to be in the refrigerator, and both wake-up and bedtimes are adventures. At least once every day I am confronted with a powerful feeling of deja vu, and the revival of memories from the days when our four children, now all adults, lived at home.

But whatever adjustments my wife and I have had to make, they pale in comparison to what our daughter and grandchildren are going through. Leora has been transformed into a single parent with two very young children and an active dog, moving from the place where she and her children were comfortable and at home, and missing the loving presence of her husband. Our three-year-old granddaughter Calanit is in a new home, a new bed, a new school, a new set of rules of what may and may not be touched, and the glaring absence of her Abba, whom she loves. I dare say that, for our four-month-old granddaughter Meirav, the transition is far less traumatic (although her sleep patterns seem to have been affected). But the dog has lost her primary escort on walks, and as the temperature these past few weeks descended into the netherworld, we have all felt the sting of Yoni’s absence, literally and figuratively.

Ever since 9/11 and America’s sudden and unwelcome reckoning with the real dangers of our world, we here in America have rediscovered a long- absent respect for our men and women in military service. Vietnam and the social upheaval of the sixties and seventies far too often made them subject to scorn and derision. Thankfully, the pendulum has swung back to where it belongs. I have said before, and I repeat here, that the disrespecting of our military personnel was a great sin of my generation, confusing the people who served with those who ordered them into service. The words “thank you for your service” are ubiquitous these days whenever a man or woman in uniform is encountered. And so it most definitely should be.

But Leora’s transition to the realities of Yoni’s deployment have brought me face to face with yet another truth: the life of the military spouse– “those who stand and wait,” if you will. Theirs is also a life of service. Though their physical safety is not on the line as is that of their spouses, everything else about their world is turned upside down every three years. Deployments will often take their loved ones far away, in harm’s way, for extended periods of time.

My family and friends who have raised children in Israel will surely read this and say “boker tov (good morning), welcome to our world.” To be sure, parents in Israel whose children serve in active combat duty for at least three years will attest to the sleepless nights and intense worry. When your child turns in his/her military property and weapons at the end of his/her service, there is a palpable sense of relief.

It is rare that people will routinely say to a military wife “thank you for your service,” but they should. Truly, they also serve…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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