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Sunday, April 12, 2009

A conversation with Alison Buckholtz

The wife of a U.S. Navy flyer has written a memoir about raising two young children in a Jewish home in a remote corner of Washington state while her husband is off fighting a war


Alison Buckholtz never imagined growing up that she might marry into the military; in fact, raised as the daughter of two middle-class Jewish professionals in suburban Washington, D.C., in the decades after Vietnam, she didn't even know anyone who'd been in the service. But shortly before 9/11 she met Scott, an active-duty U.S. Navy pilot. The couple married at the end of 2001, and were determined to lead a Jewish life together despite the obstacles they expected to face in the military, a commitment that only became stronger when they had children. By late 2006, Scott had been posted to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, in the northwest corner of Washington state, and they moved with Ethan and Esther, who are today 6 and 4, to nearby Anacortes, a town of 16,000.

Buckholtz, 39, suffered something of a culture shock, not just from being in a tiny town 75 miles from the nearest synagogue, but also from being left alone with her children when Scott, who flies an EA-6B Prowler electronic-warfare aircraft, deployed to an aircraft carrier based in the Persian Gulf for seven months. This experience led her to discover the mutual support network that military spouses create to get through what are often very difficult periods.

As a freelance journalist and someone who'd been writing since childhood, it seemed natural to her to write about her experiences. After an essay she wrote about the Flat Daddy program, in which children of deployed servicemen are given a meter-high cutout photo of dad in uniform to help them through his absence, appeared in The New York Times, several literary agents suggested she write a book about her experiences as a military spouse. The result is "Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War" (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 289 pages, $23.95).

In researching her memoir, Buckholtz read a number of books written over the centuries by or about U.S. military wives, going back to Martha Washington. These included a very practical primer from 1942 called "The Navy Wife" and an 1885 memoir by Elizabeth Bacon Custer, written nine years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Alison Buckholtz spoke with Haaretz by phone from Anacortes, Washington.

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? At what point did you decide to write a book about your experiences?

? I grew up in a non-military family. I really had no concept of what the military was like, or of military family life. It was like a new culture with its own lingo, traditions, and accepted social mores. I felt like an outsider. But year by year, as I became more assimilated into this new world, I found that my civilian friends started asking me what it was like. Over and over again, they said, "How do you do it?" I knew they were also asking, "Why do you do it," because the sacrifices that military families make can seem incomprehensible to others.

I came to understand that somewhere along the way, I had become an insider. I started writing essays about life as a military family to introduce this world to others. I saw my role as a translator between two Americas. When the Flat Daddy essay ran in the Modern Love section of The New York Times, everything changed for me as a writer. Imagine that the day after you've published something, agents are leaving messages on your voice mail, urging you to write a book. For a writer, it was a dream come true. Over the next couple of months I chose an agent, wrote a proposal and sold the book.

? You write that Scott is a very private person. Did he have difficulty agreeing to the book idea?

? We talked about it all along, and he was encouraging and supportive from the beginning. We both realize that we are an unusual military family, though we suspect that our perspectives on the difficulties we encountered during deployment are shared by many, many others. Countless other parents and kids have experienced the same stress of separation after 9/11. Since then, especially among Army, Marine and National Guard families, deployment requirements increased significantly when compared to historical norms of the past few decades. So we know we are not the only ones to question the effect of this lifestyle on family relationships. I certainly know that I am not the only wife who mourns her husband's long absences. I hope that military wives reading this account of our experience feel a little less alone.

Even more than that, though, he and I both hope that we can help bridge a gap in understanding between civilians and military personnel in America. Since the abolition of the draft in the U.S., in 1973, the gulf between two groups - civilians and military - has deepened dramatically. It's hard for one side to reach out to the other. I'm now the "ultimate insider," and it made me want to speak directly to all of those people who don't know anyone in the military. I used to be one of those people, so I understand some faulty assumptions that are often made.

? And what about being a Jew in the military?

? When Scott worked at the Pentagon and we lived in suburban Maryland, having a Jewish life wasn't an issue; we were within walking distance of three shuls and took our children to Jewish activities frequently. Giving them a Jewish education was easy. Here, though, there are no synagogue preschools, no "Tot Shabbat" services. When I was a kid, my entire social and religious life centered around Jewish institutions: I went to Friday night services with my dad, I learned about the Holocaust in the JCC courtyard during Jewish book month, I attended Jewish camp. My kids have the opposite experience. They depend on me, and me alone, to teach them. That was terrifying initially.

After the panic subsided, I remembered that I did have the grounding I needed, both from growing up Jewish and from my time in Israel. [Buckholtz was a Dorot fellow in Jerusalem in 1997-'98, and spent part of that year studying at the Pardes Institute.] In addition, the leadership skills I gained on the Dorot fellowship gave me confidence to take on the role as base lay leader, with my husband. After all, when we first got to this base and I asked someone in the chaplain's office where the nearest synagogue was, they referred me to a center run by Messianic Jews. I knew I could do better than that for the other Jews stationed here.

? What does being a lay leader in a military community entail?

? It depends on what you want, and what the community wants. In our case, we have a core group of about 10-12 families, both military and retired military, as well as civilians who live in the community. We have no reason to be exclusive! This community didn't want services or a havurah model, which is what I had in mind early on. They wanted more of a social outlet, to get together for Jewish events and holidays, and to teach their children about Jewish traditions. So that's what we do. And it's worked really well.

Being a lay leader has facilitated some unexpected alliances. I work with a Mormon chaplain and with a Protestant chaplain on the base. They've been wonderful, and have opened up the chapel to us on numerous occasions. The other unexpected alliance has been with Chabad. They have continually reached out to us, which of course is their job. Our first Purim here, the Chabad rabbi from Everett, which is one and a half hours away, came up with his family to lead a megillah reading and bring hamantaschen. The Aleph Institute, a Lubavitch organization whose mission is to reach out to Jews in isolated communities, has also provided for our needs throughout our time here. They send holiday packages and a weekly dvar Torah to Jews in the military.

Though we have not become more religiously observant during our time here, and don't intend to change our level of practice, we have grown to think of Chabad as our extended community. After the Mumbai tragedy [the terror attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai, among other sites, in November], when as Jews we felt so devastated, we really wanted to be with people who understood. The Chabad rabbi in Bellingham knew the couple who'd been killed in Mumbai, and he and his wife put together a service and dinner to celebrate their lives. Bellingham is 60 miles away, the night was cold and rainy, and it went way past our kids' bedtimes, but we had to be there. At a moment we really needed a spiritual outlet, they provided that for us, no questions asked.

? You describe a culturally and intellectually rich upbringing, and a strongly identifying Jewish family. With all the respect and friendship you feel for your peers in Anacortes, don't you get lonely there?

? Everything you say is true. Being a military spouse is about rootlessness, and I value rootedness: geographical, cultural, social. I've been very lonely at times. But I say to myself: Our situation with Scott's job - the deployments, the relocations, and the other challenges - is temporary in the grand scheme of things. But he and I and our family are forever. Looking at it that way helps, when I find myself wishing for something different. Beyond that, though, learning about the military community and the way that military wives work together to overcome difficulties has taught me a lot about America. I say in the book that our military experience has been an ongoing civics lesson for me, an intense education in what it means to be an American citizen. That's been important to my intellectual growth, too. The questioning and challenging has strengthened my loyalty to this country. I've had to examine beliefs and assumptions I took for granted in the past. I've done it out loud, which may be different from my colleagues, but it's my way of staying engaged.

? So what comes next? Do you know what Scott's next assignment will be?

? Scott returned last June from his seven-month deployment on the carrier. His tour here is over in late May, as is his assignment as his squadron's commanding officer. Unfortunately, he has been tapped for a year-long assignment in Baghdad. So we'll move back to Potomac, Maryland, together, so the kids and I can be close to family, but he will leave us after a few weeks. He'll be gone for a total of 14 months. He has several months of training at bases in the U.S. and the Middle East before assuming his job in the Green Zone.

David B. Green

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