What Military Families Can Teach Us About Living Through COVID-19

They are used to having their entire lives upended.

The coronavirus pandemic has left millions of Americans hunkered down in isolation but bound together in fear. While everyone is experiencing the screeching halt of daily life differently, the entire country shares a profound feeling of anxiety about what’s coming next. Fortunately, there’s a group among us with a great deal of experience having their personal lives disrupted from time to time: military families. They can be a valuable source of guidance to the anxious and distressed.

These families are beacons of resilience willing to have their personal freedom restricted to ensure freedom for the whole. “When? Where? For how long?” These are frequent questions at the dinner table. Parents are often unsure in what city or town they’ll be living when a child starts preschool or high school. Because they frequently live far from where they grew up, these spouses get through a lot of big life stuff—weddings and funerals, buying and selling homes and cars, sending kids off to college—without the support of extended family. So for this sliver of the population, a government mandated stay-at-home order and cancelled school aren’t the end of the world but only the most recent inconvenient challenges to overcome.

The ebb and flow of military life is unique and calls upon the spouses of those serving to be agile and adaptable. After 21 years of marriage—and Navy life—Shannon Crown, of Arnold, Maryland, is accustomed to the government having a say in where she lives and when she moves, so it’s frustrating for her to see people refusing to follow simple directions at a time of crisis.

“The last time I went to the grocery store, I wore a mask.” she said. But many people “were not adhering to the six-feet-apart-guidelines.” She has told her children that the groceries they have in the fridge must last. She’s not going back to the store until she has no choice.

Shannon’s first hint of a possible pandemic began back in January. Her husband called from Seoul, South Korea, where he has been working as the Chief of National Security Law at the Combined Forces Command since May 2019. Brad mentioned chatter on the base about a virus.

“At first I was more worried about him,” Shannon said of her husband, “because he was in the thick of it. Now he’s worried about me.” Although Shannon was not only concerned about him. Her 18-year-old son Lucien had planned an upcoming spring break trip to visit his dad. Shannon has wondered recently if she should have sent not only her oldest, but all three of her children to Seoul; at this point, she thinks they might be safer there. Entrance to the base is contingent upon a temperature check and completion of a health questionnaire. In other words, it’s a much more controlled atmosphere than what she sees here at home.

Shannon doesn’t balk at having her life upended due to a global event beyond her control. For her, it’s not the first time. In March 2011, when Brad was stationed in Yokosuka, Shannon was loading her three young children into a car when she started to feel faint. Lucien, who was nine at the time, asked, “Why is everything moving?” Shannon and Lucien were feeling the beginnings of the Great Sendai Earthquake—the most powerful earthquake on record in Japan. The days that followed were a roller coaster of worry about a possible evacuation, as well as radiation exposure from the damaged nuclear reactors at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Shannon remembers the swirling rumors. “You’re safe, but make sure you have iodine tablets. You’re safe, but there’s a cruise ship waiting off the coast to take us all to Korea.”

During the current global pandemic, Shannon is drawing on that experience. “In Japan, people wear masks all the time,” she said. “If you have a cold, you wear a mask. People have them at home like we have Tylenol.”

Shannon’s willingness to follow instructions and make personal sacrifices for the greater good are hallmarks of military family life. So, too, is a readiness to be flexible.

Jennie Blankert’s husband was just finishing a two-year tour onboard a ship in the 7thFleet in Yokosuka when the first cases of COVID-19 were being reported. She had been preparing for months for her family’s upcoming move to Bahrain.

Jennie has moved back and forth across the oceans seven times already. She is practically a one-woman professional relocation service. “I have Excel spreadsheets on everything because I don’t want to have to recreate the list every eighteen months,” she told me.

On February 18, movers packed up her three-bedroom apartment on base for shipment to Bahrain. On March 2, she sold her car, and the next morning invited a friend to come and take all the food that would otherwise be thrown out. Only a couple of hours later, she received word that Bahrain had closed entry to anyone coming from Japan. Now she’s in a bare apartment with her two young children and no car. Her husband is still reporting to work on the ship, which at any moment could depart or be locked down. Jennie is in complete limbo; nevertheless, her spirits are high.

“We’re all healthy,” she said. “We’re still together. The base has enough food. Japan has enough food. There’s really nothing to complain about. And everybody here is helping each other out.”

Jennie is a year-round homeschooler, so one of her biggest challenges is that most of her school supplies were packed up with the rest of her household goods and shipped to Bahrain. She could order more from Amazon, but it would take fifteen days for the packages to arrive. “What if we aren’t here when the Amazon shipment arrives?” she said.

Meanwhile, three thousand miles away in Singapore, Melissa Deguire is riding out a similar “go-with-the-flow” situation. Her family’s move to Fort Dix, New Jersey is scheduled for July, so her house isn’t packed up yet. But Melissa, an Army wife, has no idea if she’ll actually be going. The uncertainty notwithstanding, this mother of five, who is currently juggling home schooling with a full-time job, is calm and positive. “I consider myself so blessed,” she said. “I have the best friends—people you can cry to when you need to cry. I have so much pride in being a military wife.”

Still, military spouses are forced to make contingency plans. Brian Wade’s wife Jentry is currently serving as the night shift charge nurse in the ICU aboard USNS MERCY. He said that figuring out what he would do if he gets sick is a top priority. Jentry has been deployed many times, but Brian said, this one is weird: “I’m used to worrying about her safety. This is the first time she’s worried about me.”

Brian says Jentry was inspired to become a nurse when their then 4-year-old son Seamus was diagnosed with cancer. Brian, a high school science teacher, supported her decision to serve her country doing the work that was so important to her when her own child was sick.

The Wade family moved from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Diego last summer, when Jentry went to work at Balboa Naval Medical Center where she had planned to be for three years. But on March 18, the Wade family learned that Jentry would report to the MERCY for deployment to Los Angeles to help alleviate hospital overcrowding caused by the spike of COVID 19 cases.

Brian had one week to help his wife get ready and to prepare their 16-year-old daughter, Tatum, for her mother’s departure for an undetermined length of time. Seamus, now 20, is in his dorm on the other side of the country at the University of Florida.

Brian hasn’t even lived in San Diego for a full year. If he gets sick, he will count on the kindness of acquaintances to help him take care of Tatum. In the past, his emergency plan would rely on grandparents driving in to help. Not this time.

Shannon, Jennie, Melissa and Brian are experts in a way of life that has just recently become commonplace—a constant uncertainty about what comes next.  This life requires patience, a willingness to follow the guidance of experts and officials, and a refusal to let adverse circumstances crush your spirit. These families are experts in emergency preparedness—especially managing the emotions and expectations of young children.

Our country is counting on the expertise of epidemiologists to prevent the spread of the virus and hospital doctors and nurses to care for those who are sick. We would be wise to look to military families to show us how to make it through this new reality.

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Sarah P. Weeldreyer

Sarah P. Weeldreyer is the Business Manager of the Washington Monthly.