‘I’m an Army wife,’’ Kristy Kaufmann introduced herself to me. Kaufmann is the executive director of the Code of Support Foundation which helps bridge the gap between civilian and military America.
“I’ve seen the show,’’ I jokingly responded, referencing Lifetime’s wildly popular cable-TV drama, “Army Wives.’’
“But you haven’t seen these episodes.’’
The Lifetime program is about lengthy deployments overseas, spousal abuse, alcohol, adultery, and drug addiction. It’s about an existence that’s both breathless and sedentary: What military families encounter now is more akin to a quiet and long period of unnerving stress.
Kaufmann offers an analogy: Imagine you are on a highway and there is a police car with its sirens on that is beginning to come up behind you. Is it for you? “Imagine that moment when you wonder, and imagine living that for 10 years straight,’’ Kaufmann told me.
Kaufmann has three friends, army wives, who took their own lives. I had indeed missed that episode.
War comes home, even for Thanksgiving. But this Thanksgiving is different, and that worries advocates like Kaufmann. The Iraq war is coming to an unceremonious end. The US Postal Service just announced that it will no longer handle mail sent to military posts in Iraq; any remaining soldiers will just have to get mail delivered to street addresses. Closing the box on a war that began almost nine years ago may be welcome news, but there’s a real danger in tying the ribbons too tight. No soldier goes unchanged, and the families they return to change as well.
Kaufmann and other advocates for military families are desperately worried that society will move on and wipe its hands of this decade of war, a fear that was brought home last weekend at a NASCAR race in Florida. At Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were booed while standing among service members and their families. Defenders of the booing, such as Rush Limbaugh, state what seems to them obvious: “NASCAR people. . . know that in their hearts, the Obamas don’t like them.’’
NASCAR watchers, actually, are split evenly among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Despite the stereotype of NASCAR as the pastime of blue-collar white men, minorities constitute 20 percent of the most avid watchers; 40 percent of all ticket purchasers are women.
But the really unfortunate part is that Obama and Biden were in Florida to promote a charity called Joining Forces, which supports the hiring and training of veterans. The visit came a day before President Obama signed bipartisan legislation giving tax rebates to corporations that hire long-term unemployed or disabled veterans.
Certainly, first ladies are not immune to the “boo’’ treatment. As Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor highlights, Hillary Clinton got seriously silenced by a Seattle crowd in 1994 while promoting her health care strategy. Just months after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he sent his wife Lady Bird to face angry Southerners by herself because the Secret Service was too worried about his safety to let him go along.
But Michelle Obama and Jill Biden weren’t on an ordinary campaign swing, or pushing some controversial policy. They were there to call attention to the struggles of military families, a cause Michelle Obama has embraced for years. If the First Lady had been pinning a medal on a war hero, the crowd probably would have remained respectful. But somehow the deprivations of unemployed veterans don’t command the same deference.
The protests on Sunday had the same crassness as the jeering at recent Republican debates of a gay soldier and a questioner who asked whether uninsured medical patients should be left to die. Those people - the gays, the poor, and now the unheroic, struggling veterans - are easy enough subjects for ridicule. In a society that has less than 1 percent of its population in military service, the woes of military families can be dismissed with impunity. Heckling a political opponent flows easily from there.
I fear I missed that episode of “Army Wives’’ as well.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem