(Originally submitted to The Troth for Heathen Military Materials - written March 2009)
Recently my husband gave a talk to an open circle group in Baghdad about Asatru. Before he launched into his talk though, he followed the ancient tradition of introducing himself and stating why he thought he was qualified to speak on the subject.
I am new to the Troth and therefore as an unknown, it is perhaps only right that I too should follow this tradition.
My name is Catherine Heath and I am an ESL teacher from Britain living and working in Germany. I am also the wife on an American soldier who is currently down in what has become known more recently as the ‘Sandbox’.
Now usually when folks realize I’m a ‘Brit’, they often ask how it is that I came to be married to an American soldier. Usually if a Brit marries an American serviceman, that serviceman is in the Air Force. Marrying someone in the Army seems to be quite an oddity.
To put it simply, one day, on the other side of the world in a land of colour and ancient tradition, I was lucky to meet the wonderful man that I ended up marrying. I will always treasure the memory of that day in my heart and I can honestly say that meeting my husband is one of the best things ever to happen to me.
It also doesn’t hurt that he is a Heathen too.
Unfortunately, where there is sweet there is also sour. There is always a trade-off, a price to pay, for as the wife of a soldier, I am not the only one to whom my husband made oaths. No, for now I must share my husband with ‘Uncle Sam’.
Of course it isn’t all bad being married to a soldier – not at all. In most ways, we are no different to a normal married couple, however in other ways there are differences which range from the small (military uniform in the washing basket) to the vast (husband being deployed and therefore gone for a year).
And so I come to the point of my essay. Deployment, what it means to the Heathen wife and how my beliefs have supported me and helped me through it.
The first thing I suppose is the shock that yes, the person you love is being sent to war. No matter how much you prepare yourself mentally for the prospect, there is a difference between this preparation and actually living it. It is such an alien thing to most of us in modern culture too, not many women grow up with the expectation that they would have to see their husbands off to war and few can understand this. When I first found out, obviously I cried. I was so afraid for him and there was no one around me that I could talk to that would understand at that point.
Perhaps I should put a UPG warning here but that was when I finally understood Frigga and began to develop a relationship with her. The first thing I did really was just talk to her when I was upset, hoping that she’d listen and that there was something I could do to regain my balance and deal with what was coming so that I, in turn could support my husband. I know that our Gods aren’t the kind of Gods to mollycoddle us but I don’t know – I just needed some kind of help or comfort from one who understood.
You see, Frigga understands what it’s like to be the one that sees loved ones off to dangerous tasks, she understands what it’s like to be left behind worrying and not just keeping everything going but improving things too.
Soon I was making a symbol of Frigga for my altar – an embroidered key but then it wasn’t just for my altar, I started to carry it around with me too and eventually I got my head around everything and didn’t lean as much as I had been doing.
Like most wives whose husbands are deploying, I made a deployment plan – of things to keep me busy, for you see, industriousness (another Friggan quality) is one of the key tools to surviving deployment. I have to admit that I did make some pretty stupid plans back then – things that I wouldn’t have the patience to continue long term, however I also had a job to keep me busy and so this wasn’t the disaster it could have been had I no work and no good plans.
Eventually though, it was time to say goodbye to my husband and hello to a life in which wondering if your husband is ok is an everyday occurrence.
I don’t think I will ever forget that night or how it felt to see him go and even though I have just said goodbye to him again after R&R leave, that first time was definitely the worst.
That was about seven months ago now.
Many folks in the army community have some form of strong faith or belief and it is my opinion that this is necessary to get through the unusual challenges of army life. Usually this faith is rooted in one of the Christian traditions however as a Heathen, I am no different and I can honestly say that Asatru has provided the same support and comfort that the Christian wives and children derive from their faith – albeit in different ways.
In spite of my ‘blip’ of pestering Frigga (and being very kindly dealt with), usually I don’t look for some benevolent deity to take pity on me. Usually I work to increase our luck by helping folks and trying to work to the benefit of my community. I make offerings, give gifts in the hope that I in turn will be gifted with the safe return of my husband. ‘A gift for a gift.’ I also work to set up our home that my husband is yet to see and I work for economic survival.
Nevertheless, in spite of my usual way of doing things, I have felt the hand of our Gods, especially the Asynjur in a lot that I have done since my husband went away. For me this was also a shock because before this, I had always found the Gods easier to understand than the Goddesses. As a nomadic type that had done traditionally ‘masculine’ jobs, I had always simply had more common ground with the Gods. Before meeting my husband I’d never been in love and because of circumstances, had never really had chance to be very feminine. In the past, as a lone female traveler in the world, my survival and safety had often depended on my abilities to get by in a ‘man’s world’. However in my current set of roles, I am very firmly in the territory of the Asynjur and have learned much from them.
Frigga has taught me patience and the art of surviving hard times mentally and emotionally through industriousness – especially of the stitched or knitted variety. I don’t think I’ve ever stitched or knitted so much in my life! And yet there is a peace in those traditional crafts and a power. Each stitch can be made with intent and when coupled with meaningful patterns you have a very powerful, traditional form of magic. Protective charms can be stitched, gloves made with love. There is so much scope and it is the hidden power of the mundane that Frigga shows us. This is the stuff that is often over-looked because it is ‘too-traditional’ or simply considered ‘not glamorous’.
Freyja has taught me that it’s good to play by my own rules. Here in Germany, I live between worlds. As the wife of an American soldier, I am not truly considered an ex-pat, as a non- American, I’m not truly one of those on post. I am accepted there but they all have the further bond of nationality and national pride which helps to keep them going. I only have my love for my husband, my respect for the oaths he has made and the hope that I will see him again. She has taught me that I can not only inhabit but thrive in this niche, that I don’t need to compromise or change and that people will still want to talk to me and befriend me because I *am* different and play by my own rules. She has also taught me that when dealing with bureaucrats, there are more techniques than just shouting at the person when they say no. Obviously I am not talking about the kind of persuasion that allegedly earned her Brisingamen – but little things like flattery, asking questions about whatever process it is that is supposedly holding you up and most importantly keeping one’s cool under the most extreme of provocations. That’s not to say I don’t lose it sometimes. Of course I do, I’m not the Dalai Llama!
Working hard has helped me to find joy even when feeling at my lowest. Working so hard that I fall into bed from exhaustion but managing to find joy in that has been my lesson from Gefion. I have been so glad for my job during this deployment and the ridiculous hours that I work that one of the best pieces of advice that I could ever give another military wife who’s about to go through deployment is to get a crazy job and work like hell! If you have no children and just end up sitting at home, you start to think and you start to think about the things that military wives should really avoid thinking about or they would drive us crazy. It’s really best to get out there, distract yourself with work and watch the time fly by.
Fulla has made me consider the role of secrets in the army, how they can protect and how they can harm. Army marriages have a terrible track record and I know a few soldiers that are on wife number two or three. Which is scary. A lot of this I would put down to the ‘culture of silence’ that seems to exist among soldiers and army wives. This ‘culture of silence’ is in every one of those deployment survival books written for military wives. ‘Don’t let your husband know that you’re upset or had a bad day’.
‘Don’t let him know anything negative’.
For the men, they tend to be of the opinion that they shouldn’t tell their wives anything about the dangers they face only to leave very confused spouses when they blow up a couple of days later after being involved in something life-threatening. Before my husband deployed, my husband and I resolved to try something new by army standards, apply the very Heathen value of honesty and tell each other everything – or at least try to. As much as it upsets and scares me when I hear that my husband had a near miss, I want to know about it, I want to share his burdens. I don’t want us to become like some Army couples that I have seen who are just distant from each other.
As Tacitus said about the woman’s role in marriage among the German tribes in ‘Germania’:
‘Lest the woman should think herself to stand apart from aspirations after noble deeds and from the perils of war, she is reminded by the ceremony which inaugurates marriage that she is her husband's partner in toil and danger, destined to suffer and to dare with him alike both in peace and in war.’
Last but not least, the military wife cannot forget the influence of Var because she is also bound by the oaths that her husband made. Her behaviour is answerable by him, her choices are limited by the military and as much as that sounds grating, an oath is an oath and I knew about those oaths when I married him. It’s one of the biggest things that I love and respect my husband for – the fact that he values and keeps oaths. Integrity is hard to find nowadays. It’s total UPG but I like to think that through the honouring of these oaths, my community work and my husband’s time in the ‘sandbox’ we are storing up luck for the future and that things will be so much better one day.
And that I think is the key to surviving deployment and life as a Heathen military wife, keeping that hope alive no matter how bad things look or how difficult they get. You have to work in the now, grow roses from the shit you are given and see your efforts as part of a bigger effort that will eventually work to the benefit of your family.